I have truly been blessed throughout my life in the great outdoors - I have observed wildlife in many parts of North America. I have seen bottle-nosed dolphins swimming playfully in the Atlantic, bighorn sheep grazing on a Montana mountainside, fur seals hunting in the Pacific and herds of pronghorn antelope running across the Great Plains.
But no other animal, from my perspective, can compare to the absolute awesomeness of grizzly bears. Compelling, powerful, beautiful, frightening are apt descriptors of Ursus arctos horribilis, and I consider myself doubly blessed for having had close encounters of the best kind with this alluring animal.
It was almost midnight as my fishing partner and I donned our waders and began a slow walk along Good News Lake in the great Alaskan wilderness. The rocky shoreline, not much wider than a city sidewalk, separated thick woody shrub-growth to our right, from the calm, glasslike surface of the lake to our left.
My friend disappeared around a point of land while I remained behind, some 100 or so yards, to fish a likely looking area for salmon. Surrounding me were green, rugged looking mountains with snow-filled gulches that shone brightly in the Land of the Midnight Sun. It was magnificent scenery.
After several fruitless casts, I stepped backwards onto dry land so as to make my way around the point to join my friend. Maybe he was having better luck. After only a few strides, I was stunned to see him running around the point in my direction and yelling. At first I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I quickly absorbed and realized what he was screaming and the reason why. Bear!
The two of us were immediately running back to camp to warn the others that a bear was coming down the mountain slope and heading straight for our two tents, food, rafts, and gear. And by the time we reached the encampment, the four other men were standing outside their tents in their underwear looking up the mountain slope at a giant bear - a brown bear - plodding down the rough terrain.
We all began yelling, throwing our arms into the air, banging on cooking utensils - anything - just so the animal would notice us and, hopefully, choose another direction to travel. The bear was an enormous, beautiful creature. His great head swung from side to side with each of his steps as I stood motionless - speechless - while I peered awestruck through my binoculars at him: powerful legs, large shoulder-hump, huge front paws, and a blond coat that rippled like stems of wind-whipped wheat.
When the bear realized where he was heading, between 80 and 100 yards from us, he abruptly stopped, seemingly to evaluate the situation, and then casually turned his big body around and began walking back to where he came from. I watched him navigate the steep terrain effortlessly.
And once he reached the summit of the hill, he turned and looked over his shoulders at the six of us one last time before disappearing over the top for good. It was my first grizzly bear encounter. My heart pounded with excitement.
Before our 10-day wilderness adventure was completed we observed a half-dozen more grizzly bears. One bear walked right into camp, while others were viewed in the distance grazing peacefully on sedges and grasses. But in every instance, no matter how much space separated man from bear, it was thrilling, nerve-wracking and wonderful all rolled into one.
Even the signs the animals left behind, like foot prints so huge they made me feel uneasy just to look at them, gave us all plenty of reason to talk out loud to ourselves (to the bears!) as we walked along the riverbanks from one fishing spot to the next. "Hey, bear! Just me, bear! Coming through, bear!"
Grizzly bears are abundant throughout much of Alaska -about 30,000. But in the lower 48 their numbers and range are greatly reduced. Grizzly bear range is primarily contained within the Greater Yellowstone Area, which encompasses parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and other areas.
Their existence, as well as their 30-plus-year recovery from 200 animals in the 1970s to around 1,000-1,200 bears today, was made possible by their receiving full protection under the Endangered Species Act.
In order to ensure the continued recovery of grizzlies in the lower 48, "Defenders of Wildlife" created the "Defenders of Wildlife Grizzly Compensation Trust" in 1997 to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by grizzly bears.
From their website:
"In 1999, Defenders of Wildlife went a step further by starting a fund to promote proactive initiatives to prevent conflicts between bears and humans, like installing bear-resistant garbage dumpsters and electric fences. By focusing on conservation efforts that keep bears alive and encourage habitat sustainability, Defenders is working to achieve a healthy, resilient grizzly population throughout the West."
And while it cannot be argued that grizzly bears have increased in abundance in the Greater Yellowstone Area, the bears' future will be inextricably tied to human tolerance and ever shrinking habitat that's suitable enough and large enough for grizzlies.
Indeed, these awe-inspiring animals, some reaching weights of 800 pounds or more, such as the giant grizzly I saw on a mountainside along Alaska's Good News Lake many years ago, need and deserve continued protection.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org