This is an article in support of a fund-raiser for the Great Divide Trail:
Charlie Russell finally getting officialdom’s attention on grizzly bears
For the last 55 years or so Charlie Russell has been fighting to protect and nurture grizzly bears.
During most of that time his “crazy” ideas about grizzlies have been disputed and dismissed by scientists, government officials and those with a pecuniary interest in the bear hunt. Russell’s philosophy boils down to: “They (grizzly bears) will trust you, if you trust them.”
Now, at the age of 75, he thinks he’s “getting somewhere”. Russell says Parks Canada has previously always treated him “as a weirdo” but he now thinks there may be a change in the air. He has been invited over the last few years to make two presentations to Parks Canada Conflict Managers and has had a one-on-one with a senior Parks’ official.
He objects to the widely-held belief among Park managers that “a fed bear is a dead bear”. He says they generally consider a bear habituated to finding food at camp sites and along the road as representing a significant danger to visitors. It’s an approach that angers Russell. “Killing bears because they get up on a picnic table and eat some ketchup is just wrong.” He says he hopes new, younger parks managers “young people without a hunting culture background” will change that.
What makes Charlie Russell’s bear theories very special is that he not only talks about his ideas he has put them into practice. Against the advice of almost everyone he famously lived with grizzlies in a lengthy experiment in the rugged bear country of Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia’s Pacific coast. For close to a decade he lived among a 400-strong bear colony. The only “weapon” he carried was bear spray and he only used that to keep the mature male bears away from some orphan cubs he had rescued from a zoo.
He stayed with the Russian bears for six months a year and spent the other six months raising money worldwide to keep the experiment going. He even built and flew his own airplane to assist in low-cost aerial surveys and to provide remote access. “I’ve put my neck on the line for years and years and all they (the naysayers) could do was criticize me. If bears really were unpredictable I would have been dead in a week.”
Charlie Russell says his experiment proves grizzly bears are not dangerous if unthreatened and understood by humans. “I’ve worked harder than anyone else in the world to work this out” he says sitting in the hilltop cabin near Waterton National Park in southern Alberta. He inherited the home from his father, the outfitter, rancher, moviemaker and nature writer Andy Russell. Russell’s father was a sometime hunter so paradoxically this environmentalist’s lair has plenty of trophy heads of mountain goats and stuffed birds. “I just keep them because they were my father’s,” he says.
Russell, who has appeared in both PBS and BBC documentaries, is still producing books. Right now he has got two collaborations underway. He continues to do interviews, and regularly goes on the road to give talks. All this work is aimed at promoting his still controversial message about grizzlies even though he says with a smile “I’m tired and grumpy”.
Russell acknowledges he was once attacked by a black bear near his ranch. He says he was saved by his son, but insists “I’ve always blamed the attack on myself”. He says he did not show the bear sufficient respect and tried to shoo it away when it blocked his path. Instead of running, the bear, presumably feeling threatened, attacked.
Charlie Russell is an engaging speaker with an international reputation and a unique track record to back up his ideas.
Hear Charlie Russell in person at Calgary’s downtown public library on Tuesday, March 21st. Tickets are $20 regular and $15 for students and are available on Eventbrite at https://greatdividetrail-charlierussell.eventbrite.ca. With the generous support of DIRTT Environmental Solutions, all money raised from ticket sales will go towards the completion and long term protection of the Great Divide Trail.