The Grizzlies of Mount McKinley
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On our initial day in the field in McKinley National Park in 1922, my brother and I were crossing from Jenny Creek over a rise to Savage River on our way to the head of the river. In those days there was no road, the park was all a blessed wilderness, and I have often thought since what a wonderful people we would have been if we had wanted to keep it that way.

I had never seen a grizzly, and we did not see one on our 20-mile hike, although it was superb bear country. One lone track in a patch of mud is all we saw. In innocent wonder I gazed at the imprint. It was a symbol, more poetic than seeing the bear himself—a delicate and profound approach to the spirit of the Alaska wilderness. Since that time, I have spent many joyful days in McKinley National Park, and many of them were devoted to observing grizzlies and grizzly sign (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Denali (Mt. McKinley) stands above the grizzly's domain in Mt. McKinley National Park.

The data recorded in this book were gathered over a long period in the park observing many species of birds, mammals, and plants. Sometimes ??? the data gathered were incidental to other projects, but in later years I was able to devote more time to observing bears.

Because we are dealing here primarily with grizzlies in a national park it may be well to ask, "What is a national park, what are its objectives, and what should we seek to preserve?" Through the years there have been varying viewpoints. For instance, for a number of years the superintendents in Yellowstone National Park were interested chiefly in preserving ungulates such as elk, bighorn sheep, and deer; carnivores such as cougars, wolves, and coyotes were destroyed to that end, they thought.

In a 1963 report on wildlife management in the national parks, a special committee appointed by the Secretary of the Interior set forth the objective of national parks as follows: "As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained or, where necessary, recreated, as nearly as possible in the conditions that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America." Offhand, this statement has the ring of idealism. But it says we should freeze Nature and stabilize the environment, through management, at the stage when first seen by white man. It advises that man take charge and halt the natural ecological processes.

Another committee, under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences, restated these objectives and returned them to what many of us feel is acceptable and the original objective in creating parks. For any habitat to have full significance we must try to maintain all the natural ecological factors and leave them as undisturbed as possible. In McKinley National Park man has an opportunity to be especially virtuous, and an obligation to come closer to the ideal than in more population centered parks.

Much has been written about bears throughout history, but until recently we have known little of the detail of the natural history of grizzlies. It is always difficult to separate fact and fiction concerning an animal as awesome as the grizzly bear, but even in some of the old fables about bears one can extract some grains of understanding. There is an old fable, which amused the Eskimos when my brother told it to them, concerning how the bear lost his tail. Upon seeing a fox trotting along with a fine fish in his jaws, the bear entreated him to tell how one could obtain such a meal. The fox showed the bear how to hang his tail through a hole in the ice and, after it was frozen solid, told him to pull hard and he would have a nice fish. When the bear pulled, his tail came off and he has been essentially tailless ever since.

Legend has it that loss of most of his tail affected the bear more deeply than generally is suspected. It made him fat. When bears had long, bushy tails, they wrapped them around themselves and kept warm and snug in their hibernating caves during the cold winter months. The loss of the tail created a survival problem that was solved by building up a thick layer of fat under the hide. To build up this layer of fat the bear had to eat great quantities of food all summer. He had to begin in the spring when the first edible food consisted of berries, that had been frozen all winter, and roots. He had to eat anything and everything and became omnivorous. He ate great quantities of grass and its bulk made his stomach hang low; when berries came, he ate them all day long and in the fall went back to roots again just before hibernation. He was a carnivore; he loved meat, but over much of the land he could never get as much as he wanted because his stomach was so full he could not run fast enough to catch big animals and little ones would not fill him up enough. However, he managed to dig out an occasional ground squirrel and had to fill up on vegetation. Of course, some land treated him better than others, and where salmon spawned he feasted on them. Although the loss of the tail made the bear fat, it first made him a big eater. He had to eat so fast to get enough that he also lost his manners, and gobbled berries steadily, leaves and all. When he became fat enough to keep warm all winter he became so heavy that his legs had to grow big and strong. The loss of his tail made his temper uncertain and he became very temperamental and sometimes dangerous. When he was angry, he had not enough tail to take up the excess energy in slow writhing, as do cats and the energy then went into his legs and he charged toward whatever annoyed him. And he had not tail enough to put between his legs and run away, like a dog.

So the fox changed the bear a great deal more than is at first evident.

Such legendary flights of fancy are not so very different from impressions that people often gain regarding grizzlies. It is easy to misinterpret many aspects of grizzly behavior, particularly when confronted by a bear at close quarters and any forward movement becomes a "charge" in one's mind. On occasion, I have seen and heard of grizzlies walking along, so oblivious to any presence that one might suspect they were blind or that they were advancing toward one with malicious intent. In an article about his many experiences with bears, Earl Fleming (1958) attempted to debunk some of the myths that have grown up about them. He believes that "most bears accused of charging were not actually charging at all"—and I think he is right. He concludes that men confronted by bears seldom underestimate their number and size, the size of their tracks, or the danger to themselves. Much of the mystique surrounding grizzlies may never be dispelled, and perhaps that is good, as long as we maintain a reverence for the continued existence of bears and preserve areas such as McKinley National Park in such a way that they may continue to live without harassment by man.

Earl Fleming concludes his article with these words: "It would be fitting, I think, if among the last man-made tracks on earth could be found the huge footprints of the great brown bear."

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Last Updated: 06-Dec-2007