I knew that I didn’t need a gun—and that a gun would work against the trust I was trying to establish, which meant that the grizzlies would be more dangerous; not less. Bear spray had been developed by then, and I knew the man who had developed it, and I knew that it worked. Bear spray is basically a very powerful pepper spray, and it will deter even an angry bear.
I’ve always been a pain in the neck to authorities, because I have these opinions. Eventually I prevailed in being allowed to not carry a gun. At the time, I was the only guide in North America with this permission, but now there are a handful of others who do not carry guns either. They still carry guns in Alaska, unfortunately.
The rangers also tried to put barriers in the way by requiring us to maintain a minimum distance of 150 yards from the bears. But younger bears in particular wanted to be close to people because people afforded them protection against older male bears. The big males were the most afraid of people and kept their distance from us, and the younger bears had figured this out. So the question became, “How close do you need to be to the bears?” My answer was, “Let the bears decide.”
The MOON: Did you ever encounter a situation where the older bears ignored your presence and came after the younger bears anyway?
Russell: Yes, a few times. The younger bears realized, “Oh, that didn’t work,” and ran off. So then the issue became, “Can we trust these big males?” Most of the big males were quite trustworthy. Some of them weren’t, so we kept our distance from them.
I was lucky in that the owner of the business allowed me to experiment this way and backed me in my battles with the Park Service, but I realized that I couldn’t allow his clients to be guinea pigs because I was curious. So I began to look for a place where I could be alone in the vicinity of many bears. I wanted to do a proper study, but I didn’t have any money to do a study; I didn’t have a suitable place; and I didn’t have scientific credentials.
I drew up a proposal to explain that I wanted to explore whether bears and humans could be friends. I needed an area where the only humans would be myself and the other study participants, because I didn’t want the bears to get mixed messages. I wanted exclusive access to the bears for as long as I could possibly have. It wouldn’t be fair to develop trust with animals in the summer, and then have hunting season open. It would be tragic for them to develop trust with humans within a small radius, but then wander into an area where trust would get them killed.
It turned out to be a difficult place to find. I needed a lot of bears. Even here on the ranch we have grizzly bears, but if you see one a week, or even one a month, that’s quite a bit. I wanted a place where I could have encounters with them continuously.
I ended up in Kamchatka, Russia, by accident, after I’d almost given up. All the jurisdictions in North America had management policies based upon keeping distance between the humans and the bears. The way they maintained distance was by keeping bears and humans fearful of each other. But to keep bears fearful, you have to treat them quite harshly: shoot them with rubber bullets, herd them away with dogs, and so forth. They believe that a bear who is not fearful of people is a dangerous bear. This is a huge problem for the bears. We’re so afraid of them that we can’t be social with them. So no one in North America would allow me to conduct my study in their jurisdiction.
There were two main questions that I believed were really troublesome for the bears, which I wanted to test. They were:
1. Can we develop a relationship with bears based on trust, rather than fear?
2. Are bears inherently unpredictable? It is true that they will turn on you and kill you for no reason?
I believed the answer to the first question was yes and the answer to the second question was no. I believed that then, and I believe that now. In fact, I’ve proved those answers to be correct. I’ve lived with hundreds of bears for more than ten years and no bear ever once turned on me, threatened me, or harmed me in any way. I was often within a few feet of them, with my back to them, and they’d had ample opportunity to hurt me, but they hadn’t. Far from being unpredictable, they’d been trustworthy.
Just when I was about to give up hope of finding a location to study bears, I was hired by the Great Bear Foundation, of Montana, to investigate the extent of brown bear poaching in Kamchatka—a beautiful peninsula in the far east of Russia. While I was there I met a Russian bear biologist. I told him about the study I hoped to conduct, and about my difficulty finding a suitable place, and he said, “Why don’t you do it here?” I said, “Where, here?” because I needed a very remote place.
As it turned out, he knew of such a place in Kamchatka. In fact, he was going to take me to it, but the weather turned bad and we couldn’t go. Anyway, I was very excited because, from what he told me, this place was even more remote and even more amazing, and there were definitely a lot of bears there.
My next big problem was where to find the money to conduct the study, because it was going to be expensive in Russia. I had no degree; I was an ex-rancher. How was an ex-rancher going to talk people out of their money? But I had a really interesting idea, and people were intrigued by it. Plus, I had enough experience with bears by then that I had credibility. People believed I could carry it off.
I lived near Calgary, an oil-company town, and I was able to meet with oil company executives and talk them out of $50,000 at a time. I did this for ten years. I raised over a million dollars—not just for my own study, but for other projects that were necessary in Russia. We trained Russians to be eco-guides, for example. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Russians started to realize that they could make money off of their bears by leading hunting expeditions. I wanted to educate them about making more money by being eco-guides. I became friends with a lot of the newly hatched outfitters and talked quite a few of them into leading bear-viewing, rather than bear-hunting, expeditions. I’d find money to get them trained and started. I created a range of programs that were funded through donations—other people’s money—because I had no money. But I had photos of the place, which were pretty spectacular, and people wanted to see that kind of place survive.