Grizzly book cover

We’re entering a new paradigm of grizzly co-existence: Bruce McLellan

They say 10,000 hours of dedicated study is enough to make you an expert. If that’s the case, Bruce McLellan’s grizzly bear expertise is undeniable. After more than 40 field seasons spent studying grizzly bear populations in southeastern British Columbia, Bruce has amassed an incredible understanding of these beautiful animals. Now, having nominally ‘retired’, he’s sharing his knowledge with the public through his new book: Grizzly Bear Science and the Art of a Wilderness Life.

Intertwined between information about grizzly diets, body composition and population dynamics is the story of how Bruce and his wife, Celine, built a cabin in the woods and raised their two children amongst the wild creatures of B.C.’s Flathead Valley. Given the Flathead is known as one of the grizzliest places in Canada, there’s perhaps no better person to talk to about the ‘new paradigm of co-existence’ that residents of southern B.C. are entering into with grizzly bears.

Wildsight: What inspired you to write this book?

Bruce: One way or another, taxpayers have paid for my 40-something years of work. I wrote many scientific papers during that time, but nobody really reads those. So, it almost felt like my duty to let the people who paid for my work know what I found out. The other reason is that I thought I had a story to tell. We had a very unique life, living in the Flathead; I don’t know anyone else who did what we did.

And finally, I retired officially at 65, but you can’t stop this stuff cold-turkey. It dominates your life — if you’re a grizzly bear researcher, it’s what you do. You live and breathe it 24/7, so you can’t just put it down when it’s over. It’s in you.

Family in front of wood cabin
Bruce, his wife, Celine, and two children, Charlie and Michelle, in front of their Flathead cabin.

W: What are the main takeaways you want your readers to get?

B: The main one is that we’re entering a new paradigm of grizzly bear conservation and management. The populations in the southern half of the province — not all of them, but most of them — have been gradually recovering since the 1970s, largely due to the U.S. listing them as threatened. We knocked grizzly bear numbers way, way back in southern B.C. Not as badly as they did in the U.S. and Alberta, where they more or less wiped them out, but badly enough. So now the numbers are going up and we’re getting more and more of what we call ‘interface bears’: bears that spend some or a lot of the year in the valleys where people live. And we’re seeing that all across southern B.C. It’s a new paradigm of co-existence.

As remote places like the Flathead get to carrying capacity, and bears start to disperse, they’re filing into these valleys where they haven’t been for probably over a hundred years. And that’s where the people are.

We’re getting more and more of what we call ‘interface bears’: bears that spend some or a lot of the year in the valleys where people live. And we’re seeing that all across southern B.C. It’s a new paradigm of co-existence.

W: So, if grizzlies are moving into the valleys where people are, that brings up a whole new set of conservation challenges.

B: Yup, absolutely. We’re going to have to get better at looking after attractants, and putting electric fences around things. In the Kootenay region, whitebark pine seeds, buffaloberries and huckleberries are their major energy foods, so minimizing access in those areas is important.

Humans have a major affect on bears still. That’s how they die, basically. Once they get to be two years old and independent of their mother, about 85 percent of grizzlies end up being killed by people. And that’s true all across the southern part of the continent. I followed one bear from birth to when she was 32 years old. Eventually, she got shot. If you live that long as a grizzly, that’s just what happens to you.

W: Wow, that must’ve been hard to see. You raised your family around grizzlies, your career has been focused on them, even your children have made their careers out of them. How would you summarize what these animals mean to you?

B: That’s hard to answer. They’ve dominated my life for the last 40 years. They’re a fascinating, intelligent animal; you can’t avoid ending up having quite an affection for them. And that’s always a challenge as a scientist — to not allow your emotions to overshadow your data and how you interpret your data. My whole life I’ve had to consciously separate my emotional human self from bears, or the wilderness, or things that could bias my interpretation of data. I’ve struggled with that.

W: On the flip side, you could say it’s because of your dedication to bears that you’ve made so much progress in your research.

B: There were a few things that happened over my career that really helped that. Of course, being able to live in the Flathead was one. But the technology was interesting, in that we had good, reliable radio collars, but they weren’t so good that they relayed locations to satellites and back to your laptop like they do today. We still had to go out and actively find and follow bears every day. We had to go out and hike, and watch them. And you learn quite a bit doing that.  

Radio collaring a bear
Bruce puts a radio collar on a bear while his son Charlie stands by.

W: I wanted to circle back to your comment about the intelligence of bears. Do any anecdotes spring to mind that demonstrate their intelligence?

B: One time, we were catching bears in the Flathead. We saw a bear on an open slope, and it was going to be an easy capture — just shooting a dart out of the helicopter — but as we were approaching, it runs up the hill and jumps into a cave. Somehow, he knew exactly where that cave was in his 1,000 km2 range, and he knew that caves are a good place to be when a helicopter is on your tail.

There are lots of similar cases of bears memorizing where things are. Bears will sometimes hibernate in little rock caves, and these entrances are often only 50 cm high. When they go to these caves, they’re completely covered in snow, yet they know exactly where to find them. And how they have such an accurate awareness of space is amazing to me. It’s a different type of intelligence to ours. We usually measure intelligence according to our human yardstick, but in some respects, their intelligence is far beyond our own.

Bruce’s book, Grizzly Bear Science and the Art of a Wilderness Life, is available from Rocky Mountain Books. Or, ask for it at your local bookstore.

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