A WSU researcher lived with grizzly bears in Alaska. She came away convinced humans and grizzlies can coexist

click to enlarge The meadows in Alaska's Hallo Bay are ideal grazing land for grizzly bears. - JOSH PALUH PHOTO
Josh Paluh photo
The meadows in Alaska's Hallo Bay are ideal grazing land for grizzly bears.

A small seaplane drops her off and flies back toward civilization, leaving Joy Erlenbach there among the bears and the wild.

Erlenbach looks for a place to set up camp as she hikes through Alaska's Hallo Bay. Swarms of bugs fill the salty air. On one side, miles of sandy beach stretch along the shore undisturbed. On the other, towering, snow-covered volcanoes poke into the sky as dozens of grizzly bears graze below in an open meadow.

This is grizzly country — with no signs of humans, no roads and no trails leading into it. Erlenbach knows that if anything goes wrong, she could be days from help.

Erlenbach, a bear biologist and Ph.D. candidate at Washington State University, is there to study the bears. Yet before that first research trip in June 2015, she had never lived with formidable, 1,000-pound predators in the wild before.

"All of the sudden," Erlenbach says, "my life revolved around getting along with bears."

Hallo Bay is part of Katmai National Park, on the southern coast of Alaska across from Kodiak Island. Katmai is slightly larger than the state of Connecticut, and it contains an estimated 2,200 grizzly bears, a number thought to exceed the entire grizzly population in all of the lower 48 states.

It's a place yet unconquered by humans, where bears roam like they once did hundreds of years ago in North America. And it's a place where food sources are abundant. The bears chomp on grass in the meadow. They pull salmon from nearby creeks flowing from the mountains. They dig up clams on the beach during a low tide.

Uncoincidentally, they're unbothered by the presence of people. Guided groups of tourists can get within feet of the bears with no problem. Documentary filmmakers come for unrivaled close-up shots of grizzlies.

Since spending 300 days living among grizzlies over the last four years, Erlenbach has gotten to know the massive creatures like few have before. She trusted them, and they trusted her. She didn't worry when she woke to the sound of a bear chewing wild celery 3 feet from her head. The bears, in turn, didn't worry about nursing their cubs with Erlenbach so close by.

For Erlenbach, it's a sort of utopia, a rare and special place where humans and bears can live together in peace.

"I would like to see people realize that you can peacefully coexist with these animals, that they're not out to get you all the time," Erlenbach tells the Inlander.

Yet that's a world that doesn't exist in the lower 48.

click to enlarge As part of her research, Joy Erlenbach takes a blood sample from a grizzly bear in Katmai National Park. - WSU PHOTO
WSU photo
As part of her research, Joy Erlenbach takes a blood sample from a grizzly bear in Katmai National Park.

After humans nearly wiped them out, grizzly bears have finally started to recover in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. As they spread, they're increasingly moving into human territory, eating livestock and sometimes mauling hunters like Bob Legasa, a Coeur d'Alene man who survived an attack in the fall. In turn people are killing problem bears at higher rates — last year, 65 grizzlies died in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, and most of those deaths were human-caused. Some locals call for killing even more grizzlies to manage the population, while animal-rights groups sue to protect the creatures.

After a tumultuous, bloody history between humans and grizzly bears, the basic question posed by Erlenbach remains: Can people and bears really get along?

SURVIVING THE WILD

Erlenbach isn't the first person to live among grizzly bears in Hallo Bay and spread a message of coexistence. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, spent 13 summers living with Katmai bears, often in Hallo Bay.

Treadwell felt the animals were misunderstood. He would film himself, with his floppy blond hair, playing with the wild bears. He had names for all of them. He became famous, appearing on the Discovery Channel and the Late Show with David Letterman. Yet many felt he was recklessly close to the bears. He didn't carry bear spray, didn't put an electric fence around his tent and he would camp at the intersection of bear trails. In October 2003, as the bears were trying to fatten up right before hibernation, Treadwell was attacked by an older male bear. The bear killed and ate both Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard.

Erlenbach knew little of Treadwell or the Grizzly Man story before going to Katmai. Erlenbach, 32, has always loved animals, but she wasn't born with an innate desire to get close to grizzlies. Growing up in Burlington, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle, she was drawn to the mountains and to the wild. In high school, Erlenbach joined a local search-and-rescue program for the chance to be outside. When she went off to Washington State University in 2004, she studied wildlife ecology and discovered the bears at the WSU Bear Center, which keeps them for research purposes. A wide-eyed, 5-foot-4 college kid, researchers had her take blood from a sleeping, 600-pound male grizzly. It was her first time touching a bear.

Erlenbach went on to do field work with bears in California and Yellowstone. She earned her Master's degree in zoology working at the Bear Center, but she still felt like her calling was working in nature.

"When they told me there was a Ph.D. position in Alaska, I didn't really want to do the Ph.D. But I wanted to go to Alaska," she says.

While the grizzlies in Katmai are usually OK with humans, it's still dangerous if you're not careful. Erlenbach was reminded of that when she was scoping out places to camp in 2014. When she took a quick bathroom break, someone told her, "That's right where Timothy Treadwell died."

Erlenbach isn't naive about the dangers of bears. She always had a partner in her Hallo Bay camp — Carly McCoy, an early 20s college student who volunteered for the Park Service, and later another park employee. Erlenbach spent her time studying the grizzlies' diet and habitat. This past year, she studied their interactions with humans. But she was always prepared for the worst. She had an electric fence to deter bears from walking into her camp, where she stashed a 30-day supply of freeze-dried meals in a supposedly bear-proof metal barrel. Out in the field, she carried bear spray and a flare on her belt. She stuffed an airhorn in her pocket and threw a shotgun over her shoulder. She often carried a garbage bag, too, because you can flap it at a bear and they might get scared. But she never used the shotgun. Of the other deterrents, she only used bear spray once.

To be sure, she had a number of close encounters.

"Just to walk down the beach in the morning, I had to pass three to four bears," she says.

"I had a couple-foot encounter with three giant bears, and my legs were shaking, but in general I thought that it would end well because I knew her personality."

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Once, Erlenbach was observing bears on the beach when she and McCoy saw some cubs 300 yards away — usually more than a safe distance. The mom (sow) lost the cubs, and came charging with fire in her eyes at Erlenbach and McCoy. McCoy had the shotgun ready, and Erlenbach had her bear spray. At the last second, the bear spotted her cubs nearby and veered off.

Erlenbach says she knows how to read bears' body language. They are not much different than dogs in the way they express discomfort. She remembers once walking on a path through tall grass when she surprised a mama bear, whom Erlenbach called "Nina," and two large cubs. Nina was almost within arm's reach. Erlenbach took a step back, but that upset Nina. So instead, Erlenbach froze, and Nina decided to simply walk past Erlenbach.

"That bear, like, I knew her," Erlenbach says. "I had a couple-foot encounter with three giant bears, and my legs were shaking, but in general I thought that it would end well because I knew her personality."

While Erlenbach resists comparisons to Treadwell, she does share a similar message: Humans can get along with bears. In Katmai, for instance, Erlenbach can live with bears as long as she's careful.

She's not saying the same is possible in places like Yellowstone, or even nearby in the Selkirks of North Idaho and Eastern Washington. You have to stay further away from grizzlies in the lower 48. Not because the bears themselves are different. The difference is in their food resources and the space they have to roam.

"If you talk to most people around [the Inland Northwest] and you told them you walked through a field, and you were 50 yards from a bear, or 30 feet from a bear, they would think you're crazy," Erlenbach says. "But in these places it's possible."

Perhaps that's how it could have been in in the lower 48, where 70,000 grizzlies once roamed from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. Maybe, as humans took over the West, they could have had a friendlier relationship with the bears.

The reality, however, is a very different story.

KILLED AND CONQUERED

As European settlers increasingly moved west, it spelled doom for grizzly bears, the largest predators on land.

Being competitors for human food, including livestock and crops, grizzlies increasingly came in confrontation with humans. For hunters, grizzlies — more than black bears — were seen as the biggest prize. There were more than 3,100 grizzly bear hides shipped from the North Cascades area alone between 1827 and 1859, research has shown.

Humans primarily saw grizzlies as a threat to their domination of the land, something in the way of European civilization, says David Mattson, a wildlife researcher and grizzly expert who has studied bear-human interactions. In 1874, less than two years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Custer's Last Stand, Gen. George Custer reached what he would call the "hunter's highest round of fame." He wrote in a letter to his wife: "I have killed my grizzly."

One hundred years after Custer's first grizzly, the bears had lost 98 percent of their range in the lower 48 states. They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Fewer than 1,000 grizzlies remained. In places where grizzly bears once thrived, like the North Cascades and the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho and western Montana, the population dipped so low as to not be recoverable.

Since then, however, populations in some places — especially in Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide, encompassing Glacier National Park — have started to rebound. Where Yellowstone's population had dropped to around 130, it's now back up somewhere between 650 and 1,000. The Northern Continental Divide is likewise close to 1,000 grizzlies. (Those numbers still don't compare to Alaska, where more than 30,000 grizzlies roam.)

It's all pointing in one direction: more encounters with bears' greatest threat, humans. Grizzlies roam to find food anywhere they can, leading them to ranches, garbages and other places where they might encounter people. Hunters sometimes shoot them, claiming they mistook it for a black bear. Drivers hit them with cars.

To this day, humans still kill bears at a far higher rate than they kill us. Roughly 90 percent of all grizzly deaths are human-caused, Mattson says. By contrast, the Yellowstone Park Service says the chances of being killed by a bear in the park are only slightly higher than being killed by a falling tree.

Still, this decade has seen enough bear attacks to frighten people in the West. Despite the relatively small population of grizzlies in the lower 48, eight people died of grizzly attacks in all of Wyoming or Montana since 2010. That's double the entire state of Alaska.

Mattson, who for years led investigations into bear attacks in Yellowstone, says aggressive bears are that way in large part because of their environment.

"There are some bears that I would call 'psychopaths,' or 'sociopaths.' They had a bad upbringing. These are sentient beings shaped by their cubhood experiences," he says.

Bears who have preyed upon humans just once are liable to do it again. It's why bears are euthanized when they associate humans with food.

"Once they learn about a new food source, they don't forget," Mattson says. "And the problem with us is that we're incredibly feeble and vulnerable."

In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, giving management authority to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Both Idaho and Wyoming were set to allow hunters to kill up to two dozen grizzlies last fall, but in the final hour U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen restored protections for the grizzlies. Christensen ruled that federal officials did not adequately consider threats to the bears' long-term recovery, including climate change factors.

Erlenbach argues that if Yellowstone bears, which are typically smaller than Alaskan and Canadian bears, were fat and happy, then it might be easier to interact with them. But humans would also have to change their ways.

"I personally think [grizzly populations] should keep growing and expanding and that the people need to change," Erlenbach says.

Try telling that to people like Bob Legasa, a regular elk hunter whose favorite spot is just north of Yellowstone, in Montana.

click to enlarge Bob Legasa (right), of Coeur d'Alene, survived a grizzly attack in the fall. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB LEGASA
Photo courtesy of Bob Legasa
Bob Legasa (right), of Coeur d'Alene, survived a grizzly attack in the fall.

In October, less than a month after Christensen's decision, Legasa (who also does freelance writing for the Inlander) was bowhunting for elk there like he does every year. At dawn, Legasa and his hunting partner were tracking elk in the snow. Legasa carried bear spray and a pistol, just in case. They knew grizzlies were around, so they tried to avoid spots with low visibility so as not to surprise a bear. Nevertheless, they took a couple steps into some tall sage, and right there stood a sow and her cub, about 12 yards away.

There was no time to read the body language of the bear like Erlenbach had done in Katmai. Almost immediately, Legasa says, the sow charged. Legasa stood his ground, thinking it was a bluff charge. Then he realized it was real. He protected his face as the grizzly lept at him, knocked him down and chomped through bone in his arm. She let go when Legasa's hunting partner deployed bear spray, then she retreated when he used it again. Legasa took out his own bear spray, but in the chaos he sprayed himself.

Blinded temporarily, the two were eventually able to make it back to safety. It was at least the seventh bear attack on a human of the year, news reports said at the time. Legasa felt lucky to be alive. Just a month earlier, an elk hunter named Mark Uptain had been killed by a grizzly in Wyoming.

Legasa didn't blame the bear — he knows she was just trying to protect her cub. But Legasa, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, was already an advocate for permitted bear hunts to manage the grizzly population, though he says he wouldn't partake himself. The encounter solidified his belief that the grizzly bear population in and around Yellowstone is getting out of hand.

"There just needs to be management on the grizzly bears," he says, "because their numbers are escalating."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOY ERLENBACH
Photo by Joy Erlenbach

THE NEXT FRONTIER

The road to Joe Hawley's ranch in Nordman, Idaho, just west of Priest Lake in the Selkirk Mountains, is covered in snow this time of year. You first must pass a gate with a sign that says "Wildlife Preserve." Inside his house, Hawley, 89, looks out of a sliding glass door from his kitchen toward a blank white patch of land surrounded by trees. In the summer, it's a wet meadow, with tall green grass and wildflowers.

The piece of land is part of the Bismark Meadows, a lush 1,100-acre wetland that's perfect for grizzlies waking up from hibernation in spring. A nonprofit land trust called Vital Ground purchased 1,000 acres of the meadows as part of its mission to preserve grizzly bear habitat. Conservationists hope it can serve as a haven for the roughly 50-80 Selkirk grizzly bears, perhaps a smaller version of the meadows in Hallo Bay.

"These meadows are great for summer [grizzly] grazing," Hawley says. "But, oh, it's hell to keep cattle and sheep here."

The future for grizzly bears in the Pacific Northwest is unclear, and depends on a variety of political decisions. But groups like the Selkirk Conservation Alliance (SCA) see a future for grizzlies and humans to get along. It involves education and, maybe most importantly, giving grizzlies the space they need.

"Protecting their land is a huge part of the equation," says Jim Bellatty, a board member for the SCA.

For 56 years, Hawley has lived on this ranch. He's never had much of an issue with the grizzlies he encountered here, even when they ate his livestock. To him, living with wild animals is just part of living in the wild. Hawley hasn't given his land to Vital Ground yet, but he likes the program and plans to meet with them soon.

Yet not all ranchers share Hawley's live-and-let-live attitude. And bear interactions with ranchers illustrate a hurdle for conservationists hoping to expand the grizzly population. Between wolves, bears and cougars, ranchers are increasingly having a tough time protecting livestock. In places like western Montana where bears are spreading out, grizzly kills of livestock can outnumber that of wolf kills. (Those bears are then tracked down and killed by government officials.)

Giving up land that could be used for private citizens is politically unpopular in places like North Idaho. When Hawley previously allowed the Natural Resources Conservation Service to return his part of the meadow to its natural state, some locals wrongly assumed Hawley had sold his land to the government.

"They're anti-government up here. If you gave land to the government, you're a bad person for that," says Bellatty, with the SCA.

The grizzly population in the Selkirks is recovering, but slowly, at a rate that equates to less than one bear per year. The mortality rate has improved since 2006. Eventually, the SCA hopes Selkirk bears could find themselves wandering into other grizzly ecosystems, like the Cascades, or central Idaho. The SCA has tracked Selkirk bears who have roamed all the way to the Columbia River, or down towards the Bitterroot Mountains.

If conservationists had their way, grizzly populations like those in the Selkirks wouldn't be so isolated. The hope would be connectivity all around — from Yellowstone, north to the Northern Continental Divide, west into central Idaho, up through the Selkirks, then into the Cascades.

"The two big opportunities for grizzly bears are the Cascades and central Idaho," Mattson says.

There's no real scientific consensus on when the grizzly population will be healthy enough to delist them from the Endangered Species Act. Some say the population is there already, but scientists like Mattson say you might need 5,000-10,000 bears before delisting.

click to enlarge Flying is the only way in to Katmai National Park. - JOY ERLENBACH PHOTO
Joy Erlenbach photo
Flying is the only way in to Katmai National Park.

But the more grizzlies go after livestock, the tougher that connectivity will be. What makes the problem potentially worse, Mattson says, is that "baiting," or using livestock parts or other food to lure black bears for hunting, is legal in both Idaho and Wyoming. Grizzlies are attracted to the food, too, and hunters often kill the grizzlies lured to the bait, thinking (or claiming to think) it was a black bear. Environmental groups filed a notice last month that they intend to sue the U.S. government for allowing the practice.

"People have pointed out that it's illogical to be insistent about securing garbage [to avoid luring bears], and then on the other hand allow guys to go out and make profuse amounts of human foods available to bears," Mattson says.

Still, it is possible for ranchers to reduce grizzly bear conflicts, Mattson argues. He points to the success of the Blackfoot Challenge, a conservation group in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana. There, a mix of carcass removal, composting, electric fences and other measures have reduced grizzly bear conflicts with ranchers by 90 percent. Do the same thing on a larger scale, Mattson argues, and coexistence is possible.

The larger issue, however, may be factors related to climate change. Grizzlies in the Selkirks and Yellowstone have already lost one major food source: seeds from whitebark pine trees. Climate change could threaten other food sources, too, Mattson argues.

"I think it's wrongheaded to think of it as us versus bears," he says. "Because our fates are intertwined."

A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING

The grizzly bears in the WSU Bear Center in Pullman are groggy. It's early January, and they're hibernating. But they pick themselves up because they want to check out the people walking around outside their cages. As Joy Erlenbach approaches, the bears moan tiredly, like irritated teenagers rolling out of bed.

"Hi guys!" she whispers, putting the back of her hand out against the fence. The grizzlies slowly wander over to lick her hand. A bear kiss. They do it when they're comfortable, she says, and these bears are comfortable with Erlenbach. She helped raise some of them as cubs.

Erlenbach studies bears because of the mystery. We're afraid of what we don't understand, and there's so much we still don't understand about grizzlies, she says. If only people could get to know them a little bit more, maybe things could be different. She wishes everyone could go to Katmai like she did.

"I want people to have these experiences. I think ultimately what you need is tolerance of having bears around ... just allowing them to be in the same place as you," she says.

"I love how misunderstood they are. I love how resilient they are. And how they're kind of scary."

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The WSU Bear Center is the only facility in the world that keeps adult grizzlies for research purposes. Some of the grizzlies came from the wild, like Cooke (pronounced "Cookie"), a sow named after the place where she came from, Cooke City, Montana. She was a "problem" bear. She bit the hand of somebody who was camping more than 10 years ago. Instead of being euthanized, government officials sent her to the Bear Center.

Cooke is the wildest of the bears here, prone to charging the fence if you look at her the wrong way, Erlenbach says. That's the thing with grizzlies. Erlenbach says the bears will be licking her hand one second, then viciously attacking a fellow bear the next. Even for a bear biologist whose life has revolved around living with grizzlies, the animals can be unpredictable. That doesn't scare Erlenbach. It makes her want to learn more.

"I love how misunderstood they are," she says. "I love how resilient they are. And how they're kind of scary."

She approaches Cooke with a bottle of honey. Cooke nearly downs the whole bottle, but she doesn't know it's just a distraction. A man shoots Cooke in the shoulder with a tranquilizer. In a few minutes, Cooke will be asleep, and a bunch of researchers will lift the 350-pound bear onto a gurney and take blood samples.

Erlenbach gazes at Cooke, the caged bear who was too wild. She dreams of a world when we really understand bears, when grizzlies like Cooke can be set free.

"I would love to just let them be bears," she says.

But she knows that day is not today.♦


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wilson Criscione is an staff writer at the Inlander, covering education, social services and other issues. He grew up in Spokane and graduated from Eastern Washington University. He can be reached at wilsonc@inlander.com or 325-0634 ext. 282.