Charlie Russell grew up in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, just outside of Waterton Lakes National Park. His father was famed guide and outfitter Andy Russell. Charlie and his brothers inherited their father’s fascination with wilderness and its inhabitants, including grizzlies. His brothers became biologists, studying bears and caribou. Charlie, however, was interested in studying bears from a sociological perspective, seeking to understand bear behavior—particularly grizzly behavior vis-à-vis humans. He studied bears informally for many years on his ranch in Canada and elsewhere; then formally for more than 10 years in Kamchatka, Russia. Now over 70 years old, Charlie continues to live among bears today.
He is the author of four books—Spirit Bear: Encounters with the White Bear of the Western Rainforest; Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka; Grizzly Seasons; and Learning to Be Wild: Raising Orphan Grizzlies. He is also the subject of the PBS documentary Walking with Giants: Grizzlies of Siberia and the 2006 BBC documentary Bear Man of Kamchatka. He is currently at work on a fifth book with co-author Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D., founder of the Kerulos Center, entitled The Buddha and the Bear: Living Well with Grizzlies.
The MOON: Please tell us how and why you’ve spent 50 years of your life living with bears. Also, what does it mean that you “lived with” bears? How close to bears have you lived?
Russell: It started in 1960 when my father decided to make a film about grizzly bears—grizzlies in the wild; not in captivity, the way Disney was doing it. My father wanted my brother and me to be cameramen. I was only 20 at the time. I didn’t know much about filmmaking, although I did know a fair amount about being in the wild because my father had been an outfitter and hunting guide and I’d assisted him. We’d take people out into the wilderness on horseback for three to four weeks at a time. He also took people hunting in the fall in the wilderness area near our home. My grandfather had actually started the business back in 1905, and my father took it over.
However, that wilderness area had become despoiled through mineral and natural gas extraction, which put roads and mines and rigs all through it. Their activities eventually forced my father out of his profession. He’d already made a number of films: he’d film his expeditions and then take them on the lecture circuit, as he was a good public speaker. I do a bit of that myself. He also had a lot of wealthy clients who had utilized his outfitting business. He approached one of them, who was on the board of the New York Zoological Society, and talked them into financing the film.
It was a big adventure for me. We traveled all over the Yukon, Alaska, and the coast of British Columbia; wherever we could find grizzlies living in the wild. Everyone thought of the bears as being ferocious and aggressive, willing to kill at any moment. But I came to see them as peace-loving animals who just wanted to get along.
This, of course, wasn’t the normal response to the bears. Then, and now, we live in a hunting culture that pretty much requires vilifying grizzlies. We don’t kill them for food, so we have to justify killing them indiscriminately. We create an image of them as fearsome beasts, and we glorify people who kill them as some kind of hero. I came to see the whole situation as tragic.
So when the filming was over, my two brothers went into biology, one studying bears and the other caribou, and I became the rancher of the family. Our family’s land is located in a region that has lots of grizzly bears, and I wanted to see whether cattle and grizzlies could co-exist. The mythology said that they couldn’t. Ranchers had eliminated all of the grizzlies across millions of acres throughout North America for that reason—that you couldn’t trust them around cattle. I questioned that approach. I thought that if I made the grizzlies comfortable around my cattle, they would respect me and the cattle and leave us alone.
The MOON: How did you go about “making the grizzlies comfortable” around your cattle? I’d have thought you’d have to make the cattle comfortable around the grizzlies!
Russell: One thing I did was leave cow carcasses as an additional food source for the grizzlies to eat when they came out of their dens in the spring. When you have a lot of cattle—which I did—you lose some to natural causes, particularly during calving. So I’d leave the dead animals near the border of the national park.
The other ranchers were appalled at this. They believed that if you gave the bears dead animals, they’d soon be eating your live animals. The Fish and Wildlife people were the same way. I didn’t argue with them; I just said, “Well I’m going to try it. We’ll see.”
Another thing I did was allow the bears on my property. Most of the other ranchers would call Fish and Wildlife and get the bear removed as a danger to their animals and their families. It’s true that bears will sometimes kill and eat cattle, but it’s rare. In the eighteen years I had cattle, I never lost a single one to bears. Some of my neighbors did, but I didn’t. I observed my cattle with the bears and some bears the cattle didn’t trust; but most of them they did. So it seemed to be an issue of trust—with the cattle, the humans, and the bears.
That really piqued my interest. Was it possible to build trust with these bears? Our management of bears has always been based on distrust. With ranchers, with park rangers, with fish and wildlife people; it’s all been based on distrust.
I got so interested in testing this hypothesis that I decided to rent the grazing of my ranch to a friend and take a job as an eco-guide with the first company to offer grizzly bear-viewing in Canada. We worked out of a sanctuary on the west coast of British Columbia that I helped get started. It’s still the only sanctuary for grizzlies in Canada.
Everything about that experience told me that grizzlies could be trusted if you built a relationship with them based on trust and respect. But the Park Service didn’t know how to create policies for people who planned to get close to bears. Most of them were hunters, and they were the same people who made rules about hunting. They tried to establish rules about bear-viewing based on the rules for bear-hunting, by which I mean, the bear was still the villain, and if I was crazy enough to be out there without a gun, then the best they could offer was to require a large distance between ourselves and the bears. So I was always in conflict with them.