Casper — Ever since that day in 1961 that the Craighead brothers, Frank and John, placed a radio collar around the neck of Marian, a female grizzly bear, bear biologists have formally designated bears with numbers.
Marian was No. 40 – her life and times and tragic death documented in “Track of the Grizzly,” by Frank Craighead, Jr.
Marian died in 1969, rushing to defend her yearling cub, who had been immobilized by a sedative-laden dart. The dart was fired by a Yellowstone Park ranger who failed to anticipate that the mother bear might charge, as he approached the downed yearling. Although Marian swerved away from the ranger, toward her cub, he shot her between the eyes with a .44 magnum. Four more rounds were fired to ensure she was dead.
In the last sentence of his book, Craighead referred to Marian as “a grizzly that had adjusted to man, perhaps as well as a wild grizzly ever will.”
Some bears live out their lives without ever getting into trouble with people. Others become accustomed as cubs to associate people with food, and are therefore doomed to an untimely death.
Other bears operate between these two extremes, alternating between the back and high country when there are good crops of white bark pine nuts, to cruising valley floors, farmyards, backyards and dumpsters in years when the crops are poor.
“When there’s a good food year,” said Mark Bruscino, head of the grizzly recovery program for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, “we don’t have many problem bears.”
The Craighead research team marked and numbered many dozens of Yellowstone National Park bears, some of which acquired names that reflected notable physical traits. Cutlip, Scar Chest, the Rip-nosed Sow and One Eye fell into this category. Other names appear to have denoted personality and behavioral traits – Marian, Beep, Lucky, Loverboy and Fidel.
A bear parable
Bruscino and his Wyoming Game & Fish bear biologists have worked with hundreds of bears, some more notable than others, but all designated by their own series of numbers. The department is up to No. 599 – all the Wyoming bears that have been radio-collared, tracked and studied since grizzly bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.
Take bear No. 104, for example, a female first captured as a two-year-old in 1984. She got in trouble at an early age, learning that people have food, and biologists were not optimistic that she could change habits that could eventually get her killed. After all, a fed bear is a dead bear.
Fortunately, No. 104 reverted to wild foods, though she continued to hang out with her cubs along the North Fork Highway, between Cody and the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
“She must have crossed that highway thousands of times,” Bruscino mused.
As such, “No. 104 became one of the most photographed bears in the region,” said Bruscino. She and her cubs became successful models of bears living with traffic and people, and not getting in trouble, he said.
She was a good, indeed prolific mother, raising eight cubs that researchers know about. She’d been radio-collared for years, serving as a rich source of information for wildlife biologists.
Bear 104 had even been featured prominently in a National Audubon documentary, “Grizzly & Man: Uneasy Truce,” narrated by Robert Redford in 1988.
In 2001, the odds caught up with No. 104. She was on a bridge over the North Fork River when she was struck and killed by a truck. Her cub survived and took off into the woods, but took up human food in the Pahaska Teepee Resort area, and getting shot two years later.
“Bear 104 was atypical,” said Bruscino, in that she was extremely tolerant of people, but never got too close.
Today, visitors to the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center can see Bear 104 in a grizzly bear diorama. Chuck Preston, the curator and director of the Draper Museum, said it was “very bittersweet” when the museum was looking for a new grizzly bear specimen, and they’d learned that No. 104 was dead and therefore available.
“She continues to be in the public eye,” said Preston. “To this day, we continue to get phone calls and emails about Bear 104, from people who took her picture 10 years ago.”
Bear 104 had lived for 19 years at that uneasy edge between nature and people, Preston said. “She’s something of a bear parable, representing that uneasy balance,” he said.
Bear 212 was first captured in 1993, said Bruscino, as a sub-adult male weighing 150 pounds.
“We first ran into him in the Meeteetsee area,” he said.
The young male had developed a bad habit – eating sheep. He was captured and moved away from grazing allotments in 1997, but found his way back and graduated from mutton to beef on the hoof, killing at least 20 cattle, said Bruscino, before he was killed by game wardens in 2000. The community dubbed the bear “Little Wahb,” after the orphan bear in the novel “Biography of a Grizzly,” by Earnest Thompson Seton. (You can read about Little Wahb’s fictional adventures, for free, at manybooks.net, part of the Project Gutenberg archives.)
By then, No. 212 was not little, weighing between 600 and 700 pounds.
The bear had learned to be extremely secretive and was rarely seen by anyone, much less the bear biologists. At the earliest sign of trouble, Bear 212 would flee, said Bruscino, and the bear’s radio collar wasn’t much of a help to the bear team.
“This bear was extremely trap-wise,” Bruscino said.
Bear 226 was a big male, first caught and collared at the age of 12.
“He’d had no conflicts,” said Bruscino, “until he walked through an unlocked cabin door and discovered an extremely big food reward.”
Fifty-pounds of grain and cans of Spam is something like a Las Vegas jackpot for a bear, and Bear 226 became something of a break-in artist.
“He avoided occupied cabins and scouted for empty cabins,” Bruscino said. Between powerful blows and sharp claws, Bear 226 busted down several cabin doors, breaking into at least six cabins. The resourceful bear packed gallon-sized jars of food into nearby trees, unscrewing lids to get to the goodies within.
Ultimately, Bear 226 fell victim to a pile of M&M candies in a trap, and was put down in 1994.
Since the grizzly bear was listed uder the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975, Bruscino and his counterparts in Yellowstone/Grand Tetons, Idaho and Montana have been responsible for the bears and any human/bear conflicts that arise.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by the increased public awareness of bears and how to safely live and recreate in bear country,” said Bruscino. “It has increased dramatically over the past 15 years.”
Wyoming has most of the grizzly bears and habitat in which the bears can expand, and thanks to long-term education efforts, Wyoming has a fully developed education program that has reached children and adults alike – the “Bear Wise” program, which has saturated communities east and south of Yellowstone with literature and programs about how to be “bear wise” at home, work and play.
Bruscino and his bear team members usually try to give a bear at least one chance when it gets in trouble – unless it is a subadult and has become food conditioned. At such a young and impressionable age, moving such a bear into the back country doesn’t do any good, said Bruscino. He or she just comes back.
Bruscino said he tries to look at the cause and severity of bear/human conflict, as well as the animal’s age, sex, history, relative value to the population and health. Females are considered more valuable than males, for example. A raided bird feeder might mean just putting the feeder away, while a bear that breaks into a building is more serious problem.
Bear biologists are investigating adverse conditioning techniques to discourage bears from getting close to humans, gardens, orchards, livestock and backyard attractions like dog food, bird feeders, garbage cans and even greasy outdoor grills. Rubber bullets, pepper spray, noisy alarms, electric fences and harassment from Karelian bear dogs all help, but nothing is more effective than prevention – making one’s property unattractive to bears.
Once bears get in trouble, and if they keep coming back from being transplanted into wilderness areas, there just isn’t much more that can be done. Zoos don’t want or need more bears, preferring the zoo-born cubs to wild and more unpredictable bears.