Friday, August 23, 2013

The Last Big Predator

When humans first reached North America, there was a wealth of giant mammals roaming the continent. Our land was home to amazing creatures that we can only imagine today because the Native Americans wiped them all out.

There were all manner of vast mammals wandering the forests, plains, mountains, streams, rivers, and canyons. Among the many things we will never witness are Mammoths, Mastodons, Glyptodonts, Megatherium, Camelops, Smilodon, Homotherium, Miracinonyx, Arctodus, Tapirs, Bison antiqus, Bootherium, Castoroides...I could go on.

But they're all gone. Fled into oblivion. Of the great Pleistocene mammals, few remain in North America today, killed off by the humans who first colonized the New World.

A griz I saw in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. I was well over a mile away when I photographed him asleep on the banks of the Lamar River. The best way to see a Griz. From a distance.

The last truly great Pleistocene predator still roaming small pockets of North America is the Brown bear. These animals were more than equal to the task of competing with giants like the Short-faced bear and the American lion. Their enormous wild companions all fell before the onslaught of human depredation, but the grizzly bear remains.

I've read accounts of how and why they made it through the great extinction that took their fellows, but I take no sides. Perhaps they were just too damned mean to fade before fire and arrows and superior numbers. Maybe they just toughed it through. One of my guesses is that humans never squeezed them out of the territory they preferred, finding those places too cold, too high, too wet, too inaccessible. The Brown bears that inhabited the deserts and the plains did fall before those early Americans and were too few in number to last out the first wave of gun-toting Europeans who journeyed across the lands killing everything that they perceived as even the slightest of threats.

But the griz held on in some few places. The wildest and most inaccessible lands remained their final redoubt.

I have a healthy respect for Grizzly bears. They are today, as in the past, the biggest and baddest soul in the Valley. They know they're tough. They have to be. I've only hiked and camped in the lands where they live a few times. I saw some of them, at a distance, which is the best and only real way to witness them. I'll go again to roam the same lands of this last of the Pleistocene giant predators, but I will tread lightly in their home, as I always do. I will make noise to let them know I am there, and I will retreat if I find myself too close to them. They are, indeed, awesome creatures.

I'm glad they toughed it out.

My favorite hike in Griz country to date: to the summit of Avalanche Peak. I did see a griz just as I began the hike. He wanted nothing to do with me and quickly moved off into the forest in the other direction.

Here's a good video about hiking around big animals. It doesn't concern Grizzly bears, specifically, but the same general rules apply.


Mark Gelbart said...

I changed my google account, so I'm just adding this to see if my original comment made it through.

James Robert Smith said...

Yep! It showed up!

Mark Gelbart said...

Actually, my original comment didn't get through. This is what I originally wrote.

I hypothesize that grizzly bears survived extinction because of their hibernating habit. They were hidden in dens during the time of year when humans were desperate enough to risk hunting them.

Grizzly bears were absent from Alaska for a long period of time, and some scientists think this is because they couldn't compete with giant short-faced bears, although the 2 species did co-exist at several locations south of Alaska, so I'm not sure about this conjecture.