Charlie Russell | Life among grizzlies

Now when I point out that the strategy they’re pursuing is making the bears more dangerous, and thus making themselves more likely to be sued, they don’t know what to do because they’re still afraid to change. But I think they may be starting to listen. I hope.

The MOON: As we keep encroaching upon bear habitat, and damming rivers so that resources like salmon have a harder time getting into bear country, aren’t bears and humans increasingly on a collision course? In the town where I live, Ojai, there has been no water in the river this summer. The river is over-committed. So of course that puts a tremendous stress on the wildlife.

Russell: Yes. At one time, California was filled with grizzly bears—ten thousand or more. Humans killed them all. The last grizzly was killed in 1908. What a beautiful place that was for grizzly bears with all the nuts, acorns, grasses, sedges and other vegetation. There’s a lot of protein in vegetation, and that’s mostly what bears eat. They love wildflowers and dandelions, which often grow near roads, which results in them getting hit by cars. They also strip the bark and eat the cambium layer of fir and spruce trees. In Washington state there was almost a bounty on bears because the Forest Service didn’t want them killing trees. So there’s lots for bears to eat, even when it’s not berry or salmon season; it’s just that we don’t always want them to eat it.

It’s true; we humans are on a collision course with most of nature, not just bears. We think we’re so special that we can disregard the laws of nature. We’re playing with fire this very moment. If we don’t pay attention to our limitations, to how much we can take from the world, we’re going to destroy ourselves. Nature will recover; but we won’t; or at least, a lot of us won’t.

We’ve created an economic system that requires continuous growth to survive. We created that system because we all want to be rich. It worked for a while, but it’s not working anymore. The reason is, nothing in nature grows forever. It gets to a certain point and it either creates sustainability, or it dies off. It exhausts its food supply; it destroys its host; it consumes all the oxygen; it pollutes its own ecosystem. We think we’re so clever, we can always invent something to overcome whatever problem or shortage we face. Ironically, we may be brought down by running out of money. Sure we can keep printing it, but no one will trust it; they won’t know what it’s worth—because it’s not worth anything. Once people can’t buy anything, the whole house of cards collapses. Maybe then people will see that we have to base our lives—our economy—on things that have intrinsic value—like food, and shelter, and community. Maybe then we will remember our proper place in nature.

This is something I learned from the bears. When they went into their dens each year, I’d come back to Canada to raise money. It was at a time when there was lots of money around. One friend always asked me how much money I’d made that season. I’d usually say something like, “Oh, I paid myself a fair wage, but I ended up depleting most of it to keep funding one of my programs.” He’d laugh and say, “Well I made four million dollars this summer.” I’ll never forget that. And he’d delight in telling me how he did it—in the stock market.

The MOON: I hope he donated some of it to you.

Russell: No, he never did. But the 2008 recession caught him off-guard and he lost almost everything, including his multimillion-dollar house that he built. A lot of people lost everything—because what they’d built it on didn’t really exist. It was imaginary. A bubble. I’ve thought about that a lot.  

I also think back to this time in the summer of 2002. I was in Kamchatka, and I watched as the whole sky turned black. I wondered what the hell was going on. It was the densest, ugliest, blackest cloud—and it darkened the sky for weeks. I didn’t have much access to news out there, but it turned out to be a cloud of smog from China that crossed the Sea of Okhotsk and reached me in this most pristine wilderness, which was just about as close to pure nature as one could get. This cloud was so thick it blocked out the sun for weeks.

This is the type of thing that made me really stop and realize what a foolhardy path we’ve embarked upon. I really don’t believe it’s sustainable. I don’t think any scientist thinks so. But it’s taken the economy to really set us on our ass.

The MOON: I’m sure that many of our readers have heard of Timothy Treadwell—the “Grizzly Man” who lived with Alaskan grizzlies and was eventually killed by one. How has your experience differed from Treadwell’s? What, in your opinion, did Treadwell do wrong that eventually got him killed?

Russell: I probably did more to keep Timothy alive than anyone. I called him every year when I came back from Kamchatka and we’d talk for an hour or more, because I wanted to understand what he had learned from his experiences with grizzlies. He lived thirteen years among them! That’s a lot of knowledge.

I can’t really call him a friend, however, because he wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t carry bear spray, nor would he use electric fencing around his tent, even though he camped right on bear trails and was around bears he didn’t know. I lived with bears I had built relationships with—and still I lived in a hard-sided cabin with electric fence around it, just because I didn’t want to become a Timothy Treadwell statistic. I talked with him about this all the time: the fact that if he was hurt or killed by a bear it would destroy all the work he’d done. Everyone would forget his work and remember only that he was killed.



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13 Responses to Charlie Russell | Life among grizzlies

  1. Debbie Peacock September 11, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    I think this man had stunning intuition and I think a lot can br learnt from hid intelligent mindset. I believe his theory would work on most wild animals.

  2. LINDA LANDERS September 12, 2013 at 3:56 am #


  3. Vivienne Rundle September 12, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    What a splendid article……..
    I am in the UK and came to you from a link on the North American Bear Center page.
    Even though we don’t have bears in the UK I have been following the daily updates from NABC for two or three years now and even did some den cam watching research for them, grieved over the loss of ‘Hope’ and read your article with quite some emotion.
    The BBC showed a documentary on Timothy Treadwell and I think he came across as an egotistic, idiot who was heading for trouble but, as you say, the real tragedy was that his death has set back public opinion by years. It didn’t make sense, but even I wondered if there was any difference between the Grizzly behaviour and that of the Black Bear.
    I won’t go on, but thank you for the article, I wish you all the very best and hope passionately that your and Lynn Roger’s views will soon gain recognition for the benefit of all of us.
    Sincerely, Vivienne Rundle

    • christine September 13, 2013 at 7:27 am #

      I am leaving this as a reply to Vivienne’s mail as hers could so easily have been mine! I too live in the UK and came to the article via the NABC website which I have been following since the BBC programme my bear family and me – agree with everything you say Vivienne and add my thanks to you Charlie for such an enlightening article.
      I too hope and pray that people become more aware of the work you and Lynn Rogers and his team are doing and that these beautiful creatures can be left in peace without risking being shot at every turn.

  4. nora September 12, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    I am so grateful for this article and to Charlie Russell for his courageous and passionate life. I have been waiting for this information. Thank you.

  5. judy September 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    I am so impressed. I only wish that humans were not so closed minded. I so respect what you have done, the insight in your evaluation of bears, and knowledge that there are mean humans and not just mean bears. I hope and pray that we can learn from your experiences and live peacefully with nature. Thank you.

  6. Ken King October 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    This article does a great job of showing the kind nature and dedication to our positive future with bears that is Charlie Russell. I have had the very great pleasure of working with black bears on a golf course quite near to where Charlie lives. Over my ten year tenure at the course, I noticed that when I started the expected procedure was to use loud noises and fast golf carts to chase the bears off of the course with the result we worked with bears who were not comfortable and so bluff charged quite often. As we decreased the confrontational ways to deal with the bears to the point where many of out golfers simply played through the bears, leaving them in place and giving them good room as they moved around the course, we achieved the result one would expect if one understands Charlies message from the above interview. We had far fewer negative interactions with the bears. I truly hope that as time goes by, the course will continue to deal with our furry friends in a respectful manner and part of Mr. Russell’s message will provide a living example for Parks Canada in their own back yard.

  7. Marc Severson December 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    This world does not belong to us and if we do not find a way to coexist with other species here it will be our loss. Charlie Russell appears to understand this.

  8. Mark March 22, 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    This guy is GREAT! Spread the word, Charlie is GREAT!

  9. Brenda Gentile April 27, 2016 at 6:24 am #

    Dear Charliie, I bought and enjoyed your book, “Grizzly Heart.” I support wildlife. I agree with this book.
    I feel like I lived in Kamchatka with you and Maureen. Thank you for your research and for the kind and caring hearts of both you and Maureen. My squirrels, birds, and pet cats mean the world to me – I talk to them and am ever surprised at the fact they – even birds – have varying personalities. You captured the personalities of the bears in a beautiful way — and the beauty to be found in Russia, despite a cold and often unforgiving climate. I am 73 and live in KY.

  10. Robyn October 22, 2017 at 11:01 am #

    I’m so moved by this article, and Charlie’s incredible odyssey with the bears. I watched the BBC documentary about this work in Russia; it was beautifully made. He’s so right, too, about Tim Treadwell. The bears are also paying the ultimate price for human ego. Goodness knows what the future holds.


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