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From the earliest days of history bears have captured the imagination of man. Few animals have been so widely represented in literature, dating back at least as far as their mention in the Old Testament—"And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them" (II Kings 2:24). Other tales of bears have come to us through the writings of Aristotle, Virgil and Ovid, on down to the fable of Goldilocks and the exploits of Davy Crockett. Only a few generations ago several of the western and northern tribes of American Indians—among them the Navajo, Hopi and the Kwakiutl—believed that bears, like white men, were another kind of people. They reasoned that bears can stand erect and walk on their hind feet and that a skinned one looks much like a man. Some tribes even believed that grizzlies were their remote ancestors, and the hunters apologized to the bear before they attacked him.
Some curious beliefs are still common among civilized people—such as the idea that bears catch fish by tossing them out on the bank with their paws. There have been lots of drawings and descriptions of this performance, but it is a safe bet that no observer has ever seen it done, no matter what he may have thought he saw. The miles of movie film which have been made of bears fishing show that the paws are invariably used to pin the fish to the bottom. The bear then takes the fish in his mouth and carries it ashore.
There is another durable old yarn that bears kill men by hugging them to death. It has been proved over and over again that they do nothing of the kind. In the rare instances when unwounded bears attack men they usually charge in on all fours and bite, in much the same way that a dog attacks, except that the man is bowled over in the process. They sometimes do stand up in coming to grips with a man, particularly when they are surprised at close quarters. When this happens the bear may throw a paw around his victim and pull him in to be bitten, but that is as close as they ever come to hugging.
Contrarily, a few writers have maintained that big bears are so fearful of man they try to run into the next county at the first sign of human presence, and that they never attack unless they are forced to defend themselves or their young. In many cases this is undoubtedly true. However, there are plenty of exceptions, and no one man's opinions will ever settle the arguments. The bear is too unpredictable and too much a part of American folklore ever to succumb to cut-and-dried analyses.
One thing, however, is sure. The sportsmen of the North American continent can claim the finest bears on earth, and these include the world's largest four-footed carnivores. But I wish that somebody knew exactly how many kinds we have. Scientists certainly don't. According to some authorities, there are no less than 86 North American species and subspecies of the genus Ursus alone, which takes in only our grizzlies and Alaska brown bears. On the other hand, one eminent modern authority contends that all bears in this genus belong to a single, highly variable species.
Against this background of scientific contradictions it seems to me text that for the average sportsman the best means of classification was arrived at in the last two editions of the hunters' official record book-Records of North American Big Game, compiled by the Boone and Crockett Club. In these volumes the bears are divided into four kinds—black, brown, grizzly and polar. The black bears and the polars naturally have their own lists in the trophy ratings, and for practical reasons the big Alaska brown bears and the grizzlies are listed in separate classes. Each of these inhabits a wide stretch of territory and has many separate and distinct characteristics. And with each type the size of the trophies varies considerably in different parts of their ranges.
The black (Euarctos americanus) is, by a wide margin, our most hunted bear. He is found throughout an enormous range which practically covers the forested parts of the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the limit of trees in the arctic down to the Tropic of Cancer in the higher mountains of Mexico. As his range might indicate, he is remarkably adaptable. And while his numbers have been greatly reduced since the days when Davy Crockett killed 105 in a single year, he has adjusted to modern conditions so well that he is still roaming the woods in fair numbers within a hundred miles of New York and Philadelphia. Including an estimated 75,000 in Alaska, there are now roughly 250,000 black bears in the United States, and loads of others in Canada, where estimates in the remote areas are unavailable.
As might be expected, in most of their range their fur is a glossy black. However, since at least 14 subspecies have been described by scientists, it is not surprising that the black shows a variety of color modifications in separated parts of his vast homeland. Some have more or less brown on their muzzles, and many have white spots on their chests. In the Rocky Mountain states, and on up through western Canada into southern Alaska, there are areas where completely brown specimens (the so-called cinnamon bears) of the true genus Euarctos americanus are at least as common as the black ones. In those regions, many a brown has a black mother, or vice versa; frequently we find both colors in the same litter, in which the number of cubs may vary from one to four.
Taxidermists in the Northwest have told me that hunters occasionally get large browns of the black species confused with grizzlies. There is no good reason why this should happen. For while some grizzlies of similar color are no larger than really big cinnamons, they can be distinguished at a glance. Grizzlies have a different profile, both in head and body. Seen from the side, the front part of a grizzly's head looks to be somewhat dished in (see illustrations on pages 76 and 77); the black's head shows a much straighter line. Also, the grizzly has a conspicuous hump over his withers, and his higher and less sloping hindquarters give him a lankier look than any black of the same size. When you can examine the claws, the difference is unmistakable. The blacks are the only North American bears that can climb trees, and their strongly curved front claws, short and sharp, are well suited to the job. The front claws of grizzlies are long and nearly flat. Finally, you will find few blacks in real grizzly country, for the grizzlies often kill and eat them, and the blacks stay out of their way.