Ursus arctos horribilis
March 8, 2022
Ursus arctos horribilis, also known as the Grizzly Bear, is one of the most feared animals in the world. When the first explorers and fur trappers began to explore what would become the great American West, tales of a huge, ferocious bear soon made their way back east.
It was that intrepid pair, Lewis and Clark, who gave the bear its name. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first described it as grisley, which could be interpreted as either ‘grizzly’ (i.e., ‘grizzled’—that is, with grey-tipped or silver-tipped hair) or ‘grisly’ (‘fear-inspiring’, now usually ‘gruesome’). The modern spelling supposes the former meaning; even so, naturalist George Ord formally classified it in 1815 as U. horribilis for its character.”
There was, of course, good reason to think of the animal as fear-inspiring. An adult male weighs between 400 and 790 pounds! Females are smaller with a weight range of 250 to 400 pounds. At an average of 6 ½ feet in length and 3 ½ feet tall, it would sort of be like having a pro basketball player combined with a sumo wrestler; a truly intimidating beast. Oh, and did I mention that its front claws are between 2 and 4 inches in length?
With the expansion of human civilization there has been a marked decrease in the grizzly population over the last 500 years. In 1850, grizzly bears were found in all of the western half of the US from the Canadian border to Mexico. Population in what would become the lower 48 states is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 animals.
Their numbers have, however, decreased significantly. The Infallible Wikipedia shares:
“There are about 55,000 wild grizzly bears located throughout North America, 30,000 of which are found in Alaska. Only around 1,500 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 United States. Of these, around 1,000 are found in the Northern Continental Divide in northwestern Montana. About 600 more live in Wyoming, in the Yellowstone-Teton area. There are an estimated 70–100 grizzly bears living in northern and eastern Idaho. Its original range included much of the Great Plains and the southwestern states, but it has been extirpated in most of those areas. Combining Canada and the United States, grizzly bears inhabit approximately half the area of their historical range.”
In last week’s Tuesday Newsday, I shared information about the creation of Yellowstone National Park. In the 1950’s and 60’s, especially, Grizzly Bears and Yellowstone became synonymous. It was during this era, particularly, when the explosion of visitors, combined with an abundance of grizzly bears combing the park dumps and trash cans for a meal, collided.
What happened was an increase in bear and people encounters, similar to those often seen in movie footage of the time:
In the early 1970’s, policy changed with an all out effort to return bears to their natural ways.
Of course, I did not know all this when the hubby and I arrived at Yellowstone on September 1, 1980. As far as I knew bears roamed everywhere in the park and were around every turn. This is my mindset when, just after sunset – about 8:30 p.m. – the hubby has gone on foot to pay for our campsite.
There I sit, all by myself, the camp sites around us empty… when I hear it. The hum of an engine and the crackle of a loudspeaker, the words – at first – unintelligible.
I watch as a station wagon, bearing the National Park logo, rolls slowly into view, emerging from the dark forest. There are speakers mounted on the roof and someone from inside the safety of the car is, apparently, determined to scare any and all visitors half to death. The loud speaker cracks with sound and a solemnly intoned message blares into the quiet night to those foolish enough to camp there:
“This is bear country!” (static sounds follow) “Store all food securely in your vehicle” (more static)… “Fear… fear… fear…” (static). Okay, I made that last part up, but by now you have the picture. The message repeats as the car slowly disappears into the night. By now I am certain that grizzlies are going to emerge from the woods and make a meal of me, a certainty since all that would be between us and the 500 pound beast is a flimsy tent wall.
By the time the hubby arrives back in camp, I’m good and freaked out. Even so, we get a fire started, dinner fixed and eaten. And then I get really weird. I’m on my hands and knees, with flashlight, searching for that one kernel of corn I’m certain I dropped during the meal which, if smelled by a bear, will encourage them to rip into our tent and have us for a midnight snack.
My travel log entry reads as follows:
“I became almost fanatical in seeing that everything was securely locked away and bear proof. No bears tried to eat me during the night.”
My entry says ‘almost’ – there was no ‘almost’ about it. I was fanatical.
During two subsequent trips to Yellowstone, in 1982 and 1989, we became obsessed with trying to find a bear. It was during the latter trip that we did, finally, see one. It was about a half a mile away, across a valley, and it took a pair of binoculars to confirm. That was it. The only grizzly we ever saw in the wild.
Even so, bells tied to shoe laces do offer that extra bit of noise which is a good idea since you never, ever want to surprise a bear. Although we’ve seen grizzly in captivity a couple of times over the years, I think I’d rather not encounter one in the wild. A very horribilis idea.
As always, a link or two for those who want to know more:
A pretty good documentary if you have 45 minutes:
Nat Geo Bears of Yellowstone: