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BEAR FACTS AND FANTASIES
Grancel Fitz
October 05, 1959
There are plenty of both, and they often are confused. Here a sportsman who has hunted bears all over America separates truth from legend
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October 05, 1959

Bear Facts And Fantasies

There are plenty of both, and they often are confused. Here a sportsman who has hunted bears all over America separates truth from legend

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Grizzlies were once thought to be the largest bears on the continent. And, indeed, back in the 19th century the California grizzlies grew to fearsome size. Long hibernation was unnecessary, since the climate insured an almost year-round supply of food; and with streams full of salmon to supplement their other feed, they had little to do in the course of a year but eat and grow. Unfortunately, nobody will ever know just how big the California grizzlies grew to be. They were almost gone when this century began, and that was before any accurate big-game records were kept. Today they are completely extinct; and there remains not one skull of a California specimen big enough to equal some of those from grizzlies east of the Rockies, which, of course, are a good deal smaller than the massive Alaska browns.

Traditionally, the grizzly has been regarded as the most ferocious of American animals. When the Lewis and Clark expedition went west a century and a half ago, grizzlies chased members of the expedition into the ' Missouri River, prompting Captain Meriwether Lewis to write that his men would rather meet two hostile Indians than a single bear of this kind. Only a dozen years ago in the Yukon, there was no closed season on grizzlies. I was in the Yukon at that time and asked the game commissioner in Whitehorse why the bears were given no protection. He answered that no protective measures could then get popular support, because Yukon grizzlies were killing or mauling people every year. One of them had just killed an Indian boy who was picking blueberries with his sister, and this attack, like a few others he mentioned, was certainly unprovoked.

Most people think of grizzlies in terms of the famous silvertips, whose coats show a grizzled effect caused by silvery or yellowish tips on darker hairs. Actually, hides of this type are in the minority. Over their range as a whole, these bears are found in a bewildering assortment of colors that run from nearly white to jet black, and include gray, or almost yellow specimens, along with brown ones that may be any shade from pale to very dark. There are also all sorts of mixtures, such as dark bears with pale heads. Among the 14 bears that I once saw in a single small area in British Columbia the colors varied from a perfect silvertip to a most astonishing mahogany brown sow with an almost orange stripe around her middle. This fat old mamma had a pair of plain brown yearlings with her.

As the illustration on page 77 shows, there is, in shape at least, a more or less typical grizzly. This animal inhabits the interior of Alaska, as well as many Canadian areas—British Columbia, western Alberta, the Yukon territory and the Barren Grounds of the Northwest Territories. In the United States, where they once ranged from the Dakotas and the western tip of Texas to the Pacific, they are almost gone, except in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana and in the protected areas of some of our national parks. A few very small grizzlies still survive in Mexico, nearly all of them in the mountains of Chihuahua.

But I must add that sportsmen who now hunt in Alaska are faced with a surprising question: Just what is a grizzly bear? This problem has been bothering the Records Committee for years, for there are areas in Alaska where it is virtually impossible to separate the true grizzlies from the smaller races of brown bears. Even the reliable index of skull shapes breaks down when you try to compare them. For only the size of the best Peninsula bear skulls distinguishes them from the smaller skulls of grizzlies found in other parts of the continent; and no scientist alive can consistently tell the skulls of some small female individuals of the Peninsula race from the big male grizzly skulls from other regions. To make matters worse, what might be called true Alaska grizzlies often wander down into brown bear country; and as they often interbreed with their bigger cousins, nobody can classify the hybrids or their variously mixed descendants.

Because the positive identifications of these intergrades is impossible, the Boone and Crockett Club 20 years ago threw up its hands and classed all the browns and grizzlies together in a record list called Bears of the Genus Ursus. From the scientific point of view this was logical enough. But there were outraged howls from the sportsmen when, inevitably, the giant brown bears practically took over the records. The biggest grizzly shot outside the brownie range in Alaska ended up in 89th place.

In a way, the protest of the sportsmen made sense, for no bears south of Alaska's Baranof Island had ever been scientifically classed as browns, and no bears from the Rocky Mountain states or from Canada could ever be mistaken for Kodiak or Peninsula brownies if the top specimens from each group were seen side by side. For these reasons, plus the fact that grizzlies have a great emotional appeal for many hunters because of their association with American history and the winning of the West, it was felt that the genuine grizzlies deserved a record list of their own.

The present way of separating the grizzly and brownie records was arrived at in 1949, after the Boone and Crockett Club appointed a special committee of trophy-minded sportsmen on which I served. I suggested that grizzly records would be meaningless unless the specimens taken in brown bear country were barred, on the principle that these animals had some brown bear ancestry which might make them bigger than any normal grizzlies. To make such a distinction would require as exact a definition as possible of the areas in which brown bears or their descendants might be found. I then suggested that our top museum experts and the best field men in the Alaska game department might be able to supply the necessary map. These suggestions were adopted and the map was drawn up.

As it stands today, this map defines the range of the browns as extending roughly 75 miles inland from the coastline between Baranof Island and Unimak Island. In general, everything on the inland side of that line is a grizzly. But it must be emphasized that the 75-mile limit is not absolute. While the Records Committee knows of places where the browns don't seem to roam that far in, there are a few other regions where a big brownie may wander up a salmon stream until he is considerably farther from the coast. Appropriate action is taken in listing these specimens, even though the sportsman who gets a huge trophy far inland naturally wants to regard the 75-mile line as rigid.

Up to now, the existing rule has worked out fairly well. Although six of the top 10 grizzly trophies are from Alaska, the world record specimen—scoring 26 10/16—was taken in 1954 by F. Nygaard, a commercial salmon fisherman, at Rivers Inlet, B.C. But the problem of keeping the record list of honest grizzlies from being invaded by brownies or their intergrades is still so complex that the brownie map some day may have to be drastically revised.

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