Death of an Icon

Death of an Icon

She was the first wild grizzly bear that Kristin and I ever saw. As we came around a corner one October afternoon just over a decade ago she sat in the middle of a wide trail, so stuffed with apples she could barely move, under the tree she had just been denuding.

The first thought that entered our heads was to flee. Bears are terribly dangerous, we had been told repeatedly. They can rip through the soft metal of cars, break into buildings, snap your neck with a single bite.

For a moment we paused, adrenalin pumping through our bodies. But this bear seemed if anything a little comical, certainly not menacing. She scratched and grunted and tried to raise herself awkwardly into a standing position as if preparing for a formal introduction. But after all that fruit the effort just seemed too much for her. Eventually she slumped down again and just sat gazing at us, neither signalling us to back off, nor inviting us forward.

That first sighting of a wild grizzly bear seemed auspicious for Kristin and I, recently arrived from Europe. We had already put down a small deposit on Grizzly Bear Ranch and were trying to wheedle more financing out of reluctant banks to make the place ours.

Four months later, mortgage secured, we arrived with all our belongings in two heavily-laden vehicles on a snowy late winter day. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Over the years the bear we had seen that day became an integral part of our lives. Apple, as we began to call her after the eponymous fruit that she so liked to gorge on, furnished me with much of my early bear knowledge.

She was a good teacher. At times she would deign to walk within a dozen feet of me without a raised eyebrow, but on others, especially when she was on a kill or felt hemmed in, she would become wilder, huffing and moving her head anxiously at the first sign of my approach.

I learned to watch the position of her ears, the subtle open and closing of her mouth, and the stiffness of her body posture, all indicators of her mood and intent. Several years later Apple had two cubs and we watched them grow up, returning to our valley each year to feed on the salmon.

To say that Apple was an ambassadeur extraordinaire for grizzly bears is an understatement. For many of our guests she was the first grizzly bear they ever saw. Sometimes we watched her stride like a monarch along the dirt road next to the ranch. On other days she would dexterously feed on red-osier dogwood berries that grow alongside the river.

More than one guest over the years stood in awe, tears rolling down their faces, after an ephemeral early-morning meeting with this wild grizzly bear on the banks of our misty river.

Locally she became something of a celebrity too. Her image hung in photo galleries in the nearest town. Once, thanks to a timeless photo taken by my friend Jakob (above), she graced the cover of theWall Street Journal. And then this year, just as she was rearing her second set of cubs, she disappeared.

At first we thought that because of the poor fish run and hot summer she would just be a little late to arrive for autumn feeding. But then one day her cubs returned alone. They were only yearlings and they looked lost and unsure of themselves. Once we saw the cubs with guests by the roadside. Another time we found them chewing on a chainsaw case I left for a couple of hours in the bush. We fretted about their ability to survive. But there is little you can do to help young bears trying to make their way in the wild.

The disappearance of Apple would have been perhaps less piercing if we thought she had been taken by old age. The cycle of life, though sometimes bitter, is one that we witness day in, day out. The hawks eat the songbirds, the cougars eat the deer, the wolves and cougars feed on snowshoe hare. But this year, according to information we winkled out of the ministry, out-of-town trophy hunters had shot four grizzly bears in the forest behind the ranch. They are not supposed to shoot females but few of them can tell the difference and the statistics tell us that each year more than a third of the bears shot province-wide are not males.

Of course, we don’t know for sure that Apple was shot by a hunter. She may have died of natural causes. Bears, just like the rest of us, grow old and die. They too can suffer from human ailments such as heart disease. But she was in great shape last autumn, well-rounded and apparently healthy. And grizzly bears usually keep their cubs for two or three years. She certainly wouldn’t have willingly abandoned her cubs at such a young and vulnerable age.

I have asked the official responsible for the grizzly hunt in our area for a breakdown on the age and sex of the four bears killed. But I’m not holding my breath. Last time I requested information it took many months to get a reply. If we find that an older female was among the bears shot that would, perhaps, be a piece in the puzzle. We could also try and get a DNA profile of the bears killed in our area from the ministry, though who knows if they would be willing. I could then try and match it with a sample from my chainsaw case. That might give us a more definitive answer.

Either way, it won’t make any difference. Apple is gone. The only thing we can now do is redouble our efforts to try and get the grizzly hunt, something opposed by 91 percent of British Columbians, banned for good.

As part of that effort we recently invited our local MLA (the Canadian provincial equivalent of an MP) and the opposition party’s Environment Critic to the ranch. We showed them both their first grizzly bear and they promised to go away and consult with their colleagues to see if their party is ready to support an outright ban on trophy hunting. The ruling party, meanwhile, has said that as long as they are in power, the current policy, which allows hunters to shoot around 300 grizzlies a year, will remain unchanged.

We have also written to the minister in charge of grizzly hunting asking for the season to be shortened, even if they are not ready to ban it outright. (Again, nothing back yet.) A week ago we had the front-page story in the main provincial paper arguing that viewing bears makes more economic sense than hunting them . A recent study concluded that BC makes more than 10 times as much money from viewing grizzlies as it does from hunting them. The groundswell of sentiment against the hunt is already there and perhaps one of these days the politicians will do their democratic duty.

In the meantime, as we approach our 10th anniversary at the ranch, I want to thank you all, guests and friends of Grizzly Bear Ranch, for all your support during our first decade. And especially, though they will never know it , I want to raise a glass to the bears without whom we wouldn’t be in the valley at all. I’m not sure what the appropriate tipple would be – a mug of fish soup, a can of huckleberry juice, or a glass of cider. But here’s to the memory of Apple.