Charismatic megafauna. That’s what they call the large mammals that hold sway over our imaginations. And none holds more than Ol’ Ephraim, Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly bear.
I have managed to take one grizzly in my life, though technically it was a coastal brown bear, which is a grizzly that has bulked up on salmon.
It was on Alaska’a Kodiak Island and I was lying behind a log as he came toward me along a river. My Alutiiq guide, improbably named Bill Ambrosia, asked me when the bear was 37 paces from us if, oh, you know, was I planning to take him?
Yes, I said. I’m waiting for him to get close.
Well, said Bill, rather emphatically, he’s close enough.
I was shooting a .300 Weatherby Magnum Mark V, with 180-grain Nosler partition bullets; and as I was about to squeeze off the shot, the bear dropped from sight into a small feeder creek.
Several days, it seemed, passed before the bear came back into sight from the creek, and turned to quarter to me. The first shot flipped him back into the creek, and he was up and running in front of me through the long spring grass. I hit him twice more, the bear doing a summersault and lying still at the base of a tree. At eight-and-a-half feet in size not the biggest of brown bears, but good enough.
I’ve hunted grizzly-grizzly since then in B.C. without success. And I’ve seen them out in the open when I didn’t have a tag, the most beautiful a luxuriantly furred, orange-tinged tundra bear in the Northwest Territories.
The most excited I ever got, I think, in sighting a bear, was the October evening I found a sow and cub two ridges over in my spotting scope, when I was hunting mule deer on the South Fork of the Shoshone. That image still held in my memory like some old Daguerreotype fixed on a plate of copper.
There has not been an open season for grizzlies in Wyoming since 1974, and the bear has been on the list of threatened species since 1975. Interestingly, the reason has little to do with past hunting, but with garbage.
After decades of allowing grizzlies to feed in the park’s open trash pits, Yellowstone officials decided to halt the practice abruptly in 1967, wreaking havoc on the bear population. In the next five years, 229 grizzlies died in the Yellowstone ecosystem, creating fears of extinction and precipitating the bear’s threatened status.
What has happened to the grizzly since then, though, is in the words of Daniel Thompson, Large Carnivore Section Supervisor for Wyoming Game and Fish, “one of the greatest success stories we have in wildlife management in the world.”
What that translates into is more grizzlies in Wyoming than in any other state except Alaska; the bears filling up their available habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem; and a population in the state of somewhere between 600 and 700 bears.
An interesting, perhaps arcane, possible indication of overall bear health is that an unexpected increase in adult-male survival is being seen. As among almost all species, from black widows to urban youth, male grizzlies tend to live fast and die young. So if more are surviving, if might mean that conditions for them are improving.
The state of Wyoming would like to regain full management of its grizzlies, young and old, male and female, and is putting together the case to petition for it. And one of the ultimate goals of that management would be the reopening of grizzly-bear hunting in the state.
Over course, there are more than a few obstacles between here and the next grizzly season. Before then, you can expect the sight of protesters, lawyers, ranchers, outfitters, biologists, judges, and reporters and more reporters gathered up in a scrum (not for nothing in the words of a friend of Thompson’s, can the entire grizzly situation be called “charismatic megadrama”).
In spite of that, some of us are going to get to hunt grizzly bear sooner rather than later, at least in the relative sense, maybe before the decade is out.
The state of Wyoming would like to see that happen (don’t underestimate what a grizzly tag would be worth in revenue for Game and Fish). Stockmen, whose tolerance for the bears is growing thin, would like to see it. Conservationists ought to like to see it, or at least celebrate it as an example of a remarkable recovery. And maybe most of all, hunters would like to see it.
Most of us will never get a chance to hunt a Wyoming grizzly bear. But it is inspiring to know that someday it will again be possible.
Tom McIntyre is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.