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Location: Bears

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) - The History



Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) - The History
Where does the grizzly bear come from? According to stories once told by natives of the Pacific Northwest, the grizzly bear was forged by the Great Spirit, who begot the animals of the world from his walking stick. With the heavy end of his staff, the Great Spirit sired a mighty beast to rule the others. It was so powerful and contentious that it chased its maker to the top of the world. This direful creature was the primordial grizzly bear.



The First Grizzlies

 
Where does the grizzly bear come from? According to stories once told by natives of the Pacific Northwest, the grizzly bear was forged by the Great Spirit, who begot the animals of the world from his walking stick. With the heavy end of his staff, the Great Spirit sired a mighty beast to rule the others. It was so powerful and contentious that it chased its maker to the top of the world. This direful creature was the primordial grizzly bear.
 
Scientists tell a different story, one that begins in the treetops of Asia some 34 million years ago. There appeared the earliest ancestor of the bears, Cephalogale. This dog-sized predator gave way to the "dawn bear," a small, arboreal hunter with teeth designed for grinding vegetation.
 
A more grizzly-like bear appeared in Europe some 5 million years ago. Called the Etruscan bear, it's the earliest known member of the genus Ursus, a group that includes the grizzly. Its teeth were large and flat, which indicates that it relied rather heavily on vegetation despite being a carnivore.
 
Around 1.3 million years ago, the brown bear, Ursus arctos, appeared in China. A successful opportunist, it spread quickly across the continent into Europe and northern Africa. It reached the Americas during one of the early ice ages, traveling across the Bering Land Bridge at least 200,000 years ago. Back then, the short-faced bear the largest bear that ever lived roamed the continent. It and many other bear species went extinct shortly after the brown bear arrived.
 
Over time, America's brown bear developed characteristics of its own, like long, white-tipped guard hairs, as seen in certain regions of North America. Whether grizzled, gold or mahogany, America's brown bears are collectively known as the grizzly bear, or Ursus arctos horribilis. The exception is the Kodiak bear, which has lived in isolation on Alaska's Kodiak Island for thousands of years.
 
 
Grandfather Grizzly
 

Long ago, grizzlies walked on two legs, lived in families, spoke their own language and used heavy clubs as weapons.
 

One day, when grizzlies still lived like men, the Great Spirit's daughter wandered into the forest and lost her way. She became frightened and called for help, only to be discovered by a family of grizzlies. Filled with pity, they invited the young girl to stay with them. She fell in love with their handsome son and the two were joined in marriage. Their children inherited traits from both parents and became the first Native Americans.

 
When the Great Spirit discovered what had happened, He flew into a rage. How dare the grizzlies create a race of men on their own? As punishment, He forbid them to speak, ordered them to walk on all fours and instructed them never to use their clubs again.
 
Stories like this were once told by tribes of the Pacific Northwest and beyond to explain where they came from. Most called the grizzly bear "grandfather," others "old man" or "elder brother." As they saw it, very little separated grizzlies from men. Our arms, legs, fingers, toes, ribs, backbone, stomach, heart and genitals are nearly the same, they would say. And grizzlies walk like men, placing their full foot on the ground with each stride. They can even stand like a man on their two hind legs. (In fact, grizzlies can do everything the Great Spirit disallowed, only they're secretive about it, according to the belief.)
 
In a widespread variation of the grizzly origin story, likely inspired by the commonality of two-cub litters, the ancestral woman and bear give birth to twins. Among tribes that ascribed to this belief, twins were often sequestered in a special lodge, referred to as "grizzly bear children" and raised differently from others. It was even believed that they had special powers.
 
 
The Bear Dance
 

In centuries past, grizzly bears shaped like men performed a ritual dance every spring to rouse their furry relatives from hibernation. In gratitude, the man-shaped grizzlies received friendship and protection from their fang-toothed kin.
 
As preparations for the dance commenced, spirit messengers traveled from bear den to bear den, gently coaxing the snoozing inhabitants from their slumber. With the ceremony underway, the loud chanting of the singers, the relentless pounding of the drummers and the violent stomping of the dancers fully awakened the groggy grizzlies.
 
On the second day of the ritual, the dancers encouraged the female bears to flirt with the males, and on the third they provided atmosphere for the fruits of their labor mating. On the fourth day, they sent the bears into the forest to find food.
 
The Bear Dance was practised by many tribes in western North America. It was based on the belief that Native Americans are grizzlies in human form who change back into bears upon death. As such, the dance had a second purpose, which was to send messages to deceased loved ones.
 
Also, part of the hope was that, in return for the wakeup call, the grizzlies would use their supernatural powers to help the tribe. It was believed that in addition to great wisdom, grizzlies possessed healing abilities, immortal invulnerability and similar magical powers, and that they knew the secrets of medicinal herbs. Knowing that grizzlies eat a broad mix of plants, and that they are incredibly difficult to kill with spears and handaxes, it's easy to see where this belief originated.
 
 
A Test of Bravery
 

No virtue was more valued among Native Americans than bravery, and no act required greater bravery than confronting a grizzly bear.
 
Many Native American tribes avoided the towering beast altogether, especially those who worshipped the grizzly as a direct ancestor. Others, like the Sioux and the Fox, considered slaying one a deed of tremendous courage.
 
A hunting party would spend over a week in solemn preparation for the encounter. Ceremonial rites were performed with the same gravity as those undertaken before warfare. On the final day, the party of eight or more men adorned their bodies with war paint and entered the wilderness with bows, arrows, spears and handaxes in search of their quarry.
 

With a grizzly bear in sight, the hunters quickly fanned out in anticipation of the inevitable attack. As the grizzly charged, the men encircled the beast and pelted it with arrows. Meanwhile, the bravest among them approached closely with spears and axes.

 
Only a wound to the head or heart was enough to slaughter the giant animal. Even after receiving a seemingly fatal blow, the bear would often continue to fight. Frequently, one or more men would fall victim to the grizzly before the battle was over.
 
Once slain, the bear was traditionally treated to a lit pipe of tobacco. A person would blow into the pipe to fill the grizzly's lungs with smoke, thus summoning its spirit, which was asked not to resent the hunt or its aftermath, and to render further chases successful.
 
The entire grizzly was brought back to camp and eaten, while its claws were fashioned into a necklace the most highly respected personal decoration a Native American could wear.
 
 
Meet the Europeans

 
You may have heard that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first white men to encounter grizzly bears in North America. The truth is that they weren't even among the first.
 
The first European to encounter the grizzly bear was likely Cabeza de Vaca, who landed in Florida in 1528 and entered the American West in 1532. Grizzlies were then abundant along de Vaca's route through present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico's northern provinces. Unfortunately, de Vaca did not mention them in his journal.
 
In 1540, Francesco Vasquez de Coronado embarked on a two-year expedition into the American interior. His search for gold took him as far north as present-day Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska prime grizzly bear country. His journal mentions "bears," but does not go into detail about them.
 
Claude Jean Allouez, a French missionary to the Pacific Northwest, penned the first known description of the grizzly bear in 1666. In his journal he described a nation of Native Americans who "eat human beings, and live on raw fish" but who in turn are "eaten by bears of frightful size, all red, and with prodigiously long claws."
 
Grizzlies were next mentioned by English explorer Henry Kelsey, who journeyed across the Canadian West between 1690 and 1691. On August 20, 1691, Kelsey wrote of "a great sort of Bear wch is Bigger than any white Bear & is Neither White nor Black But silver hair'd like our English Rabbit..." In September he again mentions the "outgrown Bear wch. is good meat" and which "makes food of man."
 
Grizzlies were mentioned more frequently in journals throughout the 18th century. In 1703 for instance, Baron Lahontan wrote: "The Reddish Bears are mischievous Creatures, for they fall fiercely upon the Huntsmen, whereas the black ones fly from 'em." Two decades later, Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix wrote the first report on Native American grizzly-hunting activities.
 
The first explorer to describe the bear as "grizzled" was Englishman Samuel Hearne, who journeyed across northwestern Canada to the Arctic Ocean from 1769 to 1772. In his journal, Hearne mentioned seeing the "skin of an enormous grizzled Bear" and camping at a spot "not far from Grizzled Bear Hill, which takes its name from the number of those animals that are frequently known to resort thither..."
 
 
The Great White Bear

 
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered grizzly bears during their voyage west in 1805, they probably knew that they were not the first white men to encounter these animals. They were surely aware of some of the earlier explorers of the American West, and realized that trappers and fur traders had most likely been through these uncharted regions several times.
 
But unlike previous explorers, Lewis and Clark were charged with scientifically describing the flora and fauna that they encountered during their expedition. Thus, they became the first to use direct field observations to describe the grizzly bear scientifically, and the first to acquire a full specimen for study.
 
On April 29, 1805, Lewis and Clark were heading west along the Missourri River when they encountered two of the largest carnivores they had ever seen: grizzly bears. They fired. One a 300-pound juvenile charged, chasing the men about 70 yards downriver. Two shots later and the bear was finally down. In his journal for that day, Lewis compared the grizzly to the well-known black bear, noting that "it is a much more furious and formidable anamal, and will frequently pursue the hunter when wounded." He added, "it is asstonishing to see the wounds they will bear before they can be put to death."
 

Nearly a week later, on May 5, Clark and a hunter shot "a most tremendious looking" grizzly, firing "five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts" before it finally died. This "verry large and turrible looking animal" was measured (it was almost 9 feet from snout to hind claw) and examined in detail. It would later become the type specimen used to scientifically describe and classify the grizzly.

 
Following another encounter with a grizzly on May 11, Lewis wrote, "these bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear."
 
After witnessing a particularly harrowing escape from an enraged grizzly on May 14, Lewis remarked that "the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal." They henceforth refrained from shooting grizzlies for sport, but would continue to be plagued by the bears for a good part of their journey.
 
 
Naming the Grizzly
 

Science knew about grizzlies long before Lewis and Clark ever set foot in the American West. Some naturalists had even gone so far as to recognize the bear as a new, unique species. For example, naturalist Thomas Pennant had done so in his Arctic Zoology, which was published in London in 1784.
 
However, Pennant and other naturalists relied exclusively on secondhand sources, like explorer's journals, for their scientific descriptions. Meriwether Lewis was the first naturalist to encounter a grizzly bear in the flesh, and his account became the new standard.
 
Lewis and Clark even brought a (deceased) specimen back for scientific study in 1806. (The following year, explorer Lieutenant Zebulon Pike delivered two live grizzly bear cubs to President Thomas Jefferson, and these became the first grizzlies ever put on public display in the world.)
 
In 1814, DeWitt Clinton published a thesis on the grizzly bear based almost entirely on Lewis's benchmark field observations and the specimen he had brought back from his trip, further paving the way for the animal's official classification. Not long after, naturalist George Ord gave the grizzly the species name Ursus horribilis Ord, which means "Ord's horrible bear" a nod to himself and to Lewis's terrifying, first-person account of the grizzly.
 

In 1815, naturalist Adelbert von Chamisso proposed that the grizzly was simply another type of brown bear and not a distinct species, but it wasn't until 1851 that biologist Alexander Theodor von Middendorff recognized all brown bears as the species Ursus arctos. That same year, Middendorff gave the grizzly the subspecies name Ursus arctos horribilis, which means "horrible northern bear."

 
For over a century, scientists recognized several North American brown bear subspecies. That changed in 1953 when biologist R.L. Rausch designated all brown bears not living on Alaska's Kodiak, Afognak and Shuyak islands as grizzlies. Kodiak bears remained Ursus arctos middendorffi, which means "Middendorff's northern bear."
 
 
Tyrant of the Frontier
 

In the first half of the 19th century, some 50,000 to 100,000 grizzly bears roamed the American West, ranging from the Pacific coast to the Great Plains, where they hunted buffalo calves and weaker members of the herds.
 
Not long after the Lewis and Clark's "Voyage of Discovery," adventuresome young men were heading west in large numbers in search of furs, trade and adventure. To many, the ultimate adventure was confronting a grizzly bear and living to tell about it.
 
In those days, shooting a grizzly was a life-threatening enterprise. The latest rifles were single-shot, muzzle-loading contraptions that fired small-caliber bullets, and even experienced riflemen took at least 20 seconds to reload. Grizzlies were incredibly resistant to these early rifles only a shot through the head or heart could reliably take one down.
 
When the rifle failed, and safety was out of reach, the hunting knife was typically used as a last resort against angry grizzlies. Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that "in a very exceptional instance, men of extraordinary prowess with a knife have succeeded in beating off a [grizzly] bear, and even in mortally wounding it." He went on to remark that "in most cases a single-handed struggle, at close quarters with a grisly bent on mischief, means death."
 
According to most accounts, grizzlies were more hostile in the early 1800s; in other words, before they were widely persecuted. Many reliable, firsthand narratives tell of grizzlies preying on men, invading their camps and attacking people at first sight. Nevertheless, experienced frontiersmen were generally able to avoid them, and grizzly pelts not being particularly marketable, nor their flesh especially appetizing, most did.
 
 
A Test of Skill
 

In the days before California became part of the Union, grizzlies roamed the land in great numbers, so many in fact that the predominantly Spanish inhabitants had difficulty raising cattle. Most lived in fear of the great bears, but a few sought them out not to kill, but to capture alive.
The men that did so, called "vaqueros," were masters at handling ropes and horses, and a team working together could capture a grizzly bear without wounding it.
 
The trick was to get the bear out in the open, which was a difficult task. A bear coaxed from its refuge in the rocks or shelter in the bushes is usually well past the threshold of rage. While skillfully controlling his horse, a vaquero would launch an ox-hide lasso at the grizzly and rope it around the neck or paws. Immediately the rope was jerked toward the ground to lay the grizzly flat while the other vaqueros roped its paws and legs.
 
With that accomplished, the four horses would strain at the ropes to stretch the grizzly out. Very carefully, the men somehow hogtied the grizzly while a noose was tightened around its neck, cutting off the bear's air supply. Once all four legs were tied together, a rope was wrapped around the grizzly's muzzle to prevent it from biting and the noose was finally removed.
 

At least, that was the plan. Not one to go quietly, the grizzly frequently fled with ropes in tow or attacked the men and their horses. A single slip in concentration could mean the vaquero's death.

Why capture a grizzly? It was done for money, to protect livestock and occasionally for the thrill of it, but usually the bear was destined for the arena. There, on fiesta day, the animal was tied by a steel chain to a post in the middle of the enclosure. As the crowd cheered wildly, a Spanish bull with sawed-off horns would lope into the arena and the battle would begin.
 
Bear-and-bull fights were extremely popular before the middle of the 19th century. Grizzlies usually got the upper hand in one-on-one matches, but were often forced to battle several bulls in a row or at one time. Sometimes they were allowed to roam freely within the enclosure, but even then, death was nearly always the final outcome of the event.
 
 
Grizzly Companions
 

Most people living in the United States prior to 1860 thought all grizzly bears were vile, dangerous killers but that year a book and an exhibit may have helped cast the grizzly in a different light, at least for some.
 
The story began several years earlier when James Capen Adams, an entrepreneurial hunter, began capturing wild animals in the mountains of California. One day he came across a grizzly bear mother and her two cubs. He shot the mother and brought the two cubs back home to add to his growing collection of wildlife, which he kept in cages beside a log cabin.
 
Adams took a special liking to the female cub and decided to train her. He named her Lady Washington and she became his constant companion, accompanying him on hunting trips, carrying a pack on her back, sharing his food and even defending him against bears and other predators. In winter, Lady Washington slept in Adams' cabin while the other animals grizzlies, wolves, panthers, etc. endured the cold weather in wooden cages.
 
In 1854, Adams shot another mother with cubs and adopted one of them as a second companion. Named Ben Franklin, the young bear eventually joined Lady Washington as one of Adams' loyal companions. They stuck by him as he killed and collected dozens of grizzly bears in the mountains and foothills of California.
 
Finally satisfied with his collection, Adams left the wilderness to display his cumulation of animals throughout California. He eventually settled down in San Francisco in 1856. There he set up a wildlife exhibit in his basement that he called "The Mountaineer Museum." It was here that Adams met Theodore Hittell, who recorded his life's story, and Charles Nahl, who drew illustrations of the man and his grizzlies.
 
In 1860, Adams took his animal collection to New York City. The exhibition, which he dubbed the "California Menagerie," was the toast of Broadway for several weeks. P.T. Barnum took notice and invited Adams to join his circus for the summer.
 
Adams passed away later that year, possibly from head trauma caused by a rough and tumble life working with grizzlies and other wild animals. That same year, Hittell published The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California.
 
 
Make Room for Man
 

Manifest Destiny ultimately led to the destruction of the grizzly bear in the American West, and the heaviest blow was dealt by the cattle industry.
 
Grizzlies were preying on cattle as early as the 16th century when Conquistadors traveling north from Mexico brought them into the region as food. Over time, cattle escaped into the wilderness and feral populations emerged. Ample and easy to catch, cattle became a prime food source for grizzlies in the Southwest, and little distinction was made between wild types and domestic stock.
 

As the United States expanded westward, cattle inevitably followed, soon becoming a big business. As early as the late 1830s, large tracts of prime grizzly country were being converted to pasture. Inevitably, some of the bears began preying on livestock, and cattlemen were quick to retaliate.

With the emergence of large calibre rifles and eventually repeating rifles, grizzly-hunting became far less dangerous than it was in the past. Some ranchers took it upon themselves to shoot the bears, while many others offered bounties for their deaths.
 
Trained hunting dogs were frequently used to find grizzlies and keep them at bay while hunters moved in for the kill. Other times an animal carcass was used as bait when a hungry grizzly appeared, it was shot.
 
Steel traps also came into frequent use, but grizzlies soon became wary of them, and those that were trapped would often chew their toes off to get away. Nevertheless, many were caught and killed this way.
 

Outside of guns and steel, the most popular method to kill grizzlies was to poison them. Strychnine applied to an animal carcass almost certainly delivered a fatal blow to a scavenging grizzly.

The campaign to exterminate the grizzly was joined by local and state governments, which offered bounties for their pelts. Eventually the federal government got involved, sending predatory control men into the wilderness to hunt the bears down. In fact, no grizzly was safe in the American West.
 
Grizzly bears got the hint pretty quickly. Once the killing started in earnest, they quit the open meadows and prairies where they once roamed and retreated into the mountains. Even there they were hunted down and killed, despite the fact that most of them learned to avoid men and very few actually preyed on cattle.
 
 
Teddy's Bears
 

By the end of the 19th century, grizzly bears had been pushed into the hinterlands of the West. Tucked away in remote forests and high mountains, their dwindling numbers had become less of a threat to livestock. Still, the hunting continued.
 
As the Old West began to fade into the past, trophy hunters arrived from the East to join ranchers, bounty hunters and predatory control men in pursuit of grizzlies. This new type of hunter saw the value in conserving these giant carnivores, which were seen mainly as pests by the others.
 

They fought for game laws and other conservation measures, including the establishment of game reserves to prevent grizzlies from disappearing. Despite the efforts of trophy hunters of the late 19th and early 20th century and in some ways because of them grizzly numbers continued to decline.

 
Theodore Roosevelt, who would become President of the United States in 1901, was perhaps the most outspoken of these early trophy hunters. From the time he shot his first grizzly in his early 20s, Roosevelt was driven to understand their character and varied dispositions, becoming an amateur naturalist in the process.
 
He was among the first to note that grizzlies of the late 19th century were "much better aware of the death-dealing power of men." The passage, taken from Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), continues, "as a consequence, [they] are much less fierce than was the case with their forefathers, who so unhesitatingly attacked the early Western travelers and explorers."
 
At one point, Roosevelt tried to get the spelling of "grizzly" changed to "grisly," suggesting that "the name of this bear has reference to its character, and not its color." He conceded, however, that perhaps the spelling "grizzly" was "too well established to be now changed."
 
Many believe that the teddy bear was inspired by President Roosevelt's refusal to shoot a tied and exhausted black bear during a hunting trip in 1902. In some small way, the stuffed toys may have helped a new generation of Americans see grizzlies in a more positive light than their predecessors, who generally regarded them as agricultural pests and menaces to mankind.
 
 
 
Hung Out to Dry
Picture(s): Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS |
 

Hung Out to Dry
The skins of 12 grizzly bears hang from the side of a lodge. Even though grizzlies had become scarce in the United States by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, laws protecting them from hunting were few and far between
 
 
 
The Final Assault
 

Come the turn of the 20th century, grizzly bears were so rare in the United States that, according to zoologist William F. Hornaday in his book Camp-fires in the Canadian Rockies (1906), it was "impossible for a sportsman to go out and kill one, no matter where he hunts, and no matter how much money he spends."
 

Just 75 years earlier, explorers reported seeing up to 200 grizzlies in a single day. By the early 1900s, even active searching in areas where grizzlies were once abundant produced nothing.

California, for instance, had more grizzlies than any other state in 1850. Twenty-five years later, there were scarcely any left. The last one in the state, which had adopted the grizzly as its official symbol in 1846, was killed in August 1922.
 

Grizzlies were exterminated in the Great Plains before any record of their numbers was compiled. Texas and North Dakota lost their grizzlies before the end of teh 19th century 1890 and 1897 respectively.

States like Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon saw their last grizzlies killed in the 1920s and early 1930s.
 
By the 1950s, the grizzly bear population in the United States had plummeted to between 800 and 900 animals occupying only two percent of their former range. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington were now the only states left with grizzly bears, and of those only Idaho had passed a law protecting grizzly bears from hunting.
 

No longer a serious threat to people, the grizzly bear was no longer seen as a "monster" to most. Books like Harold McCracken's The Beast That Walks Like Man: The Story of the Grizzly Bear (1955), on which much of this chronology is based, were helping people see grizzly bears symbols of the fading American wilderness.




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