Being Nice to Bears

Albertans bring a new approach to bear management in Russia

By Wendy Dudley

The massive grizzly extends its paw, curling its long and potentially deadly claws into the palm of a gentle human hand. It’s a moment of trust—and a moment of extraordinary communication between a man and a wild brown bear. It is also proof that bears and people can live together without fear, says Alberta naturalist Charlie Russell, who is studying grizzly bears in a remote wilderness on eastern Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. Russell and his partner, artist Maureen Enns, are the first foreigners to study Russia’s grizzly bears.

The couple, who live in the foothills west of Calgary, are in their sixth year of studying the bears, determined to prove that most people have it all wrong when it comes to managing the wild animals. National park officials in Canada believe a safe bear is one that learns to fear people, but Russell disagrees. “A fearful bear is a dangerous animal,” he says. “And aggression in people will make a bear aggressive.” Russell and Enns intend to continue their Russian study for at least another three years and hope eventually to change management policies concerning bear and human conflicts. Our wilderness is shrinking, so people must learn how to live in close proximity to bears if the animals are to survive.

Because of his work, Russell is convinced that bears are not dangerous if treated with kindness and kept away from such temptations as [human] food. By understanding bear behaviour, he is able to walk with the Russian grizzlies, hold their paws and reach inside their mouths. He and Enns have stood next to mother bears with cubs, massive males and bears with food—situations where one would expect a bear to become aggressive. Yet the couple has never been charged or attacked, and the bear spray they carry has never been used. Keeping the bears away from their food, cabin and float plane has been easy. They’ve simply strung a barrier of solar-powered electric fencing. One jolt and the bears learned to respect the fence.

Their accomplishments have won accolades from the Russians, who are changing their attitudes toward the wild animals. Until now, the South Kamchatka sanctuary was a haven for poachers, with hundreds of bears shot for their gall bladders, which are used in Asian medicine. Now, thanks to Russell and Enns, the sanctuary protects the bears. The couple has hired five rangers and two police officers to patrol the area, the first time the park has received such protection since it was established in 1984. Once troubled by bears roaming through garbage and gardens, the fishing village of Kurilskoye is also now protected by electric fencing. The couple is also paying for a guide to be trained at an outfitting school in Kamloops, B.C., in the hope that eco-tourism may one day be introduced to the Kamchatka region. Such conservation initiatives are part of the study’s US$140,000 annual budget, supported by the Raincoast Conservation Society in B.C., Montana’s Craighead Environmental Research Institute and by donations.

Russell and Enns began their groundbreaking work in Russia in 1996. Russell had long worked with wild bears in North America, having studied the white Kermode bears on British Columbia’s Princess Royal Island and established the Khutzeymateen Valley in B.C. as Canada’s first grizzly bear reserve. For this study, though, he purposely chose the remote Kamchatka peninsula, which boasts the densest population of brown bears in the world. He wanted to work with bears that had not been conditioned to fear people.

By understanding bear behaviour, Russell is able to walk with the Russian grizzlies, hold their paws and reach inside their mouths.

With its lush sedges, abundant pine nut and salmon-rich streams, the area is home to about 700 bears. There are no roads, so few have ever seen a human. Through a non-aggressive approach, Russell and Enns began  to develop a trusting relationship with many of the 40 bears that roamed within walking distance of the cabin they built on Kambalnoe Lake. They would drop to all fours if they felt a bear was unsure and often mimic the animal’s vast range of vocal sounds. Their movements were slow, mirroring the bear’s natural behaviour.

Their first summer was spent working with three bear cubs orphaned when their mother was killed. They fed them oatmeal porridge, then taught them to fish and find salamander eggs, but their three small charges were never hand-fed. “It would be dangerous to develop that relationship, which is why there’s so many problems in campgrounds,” says Russell. “The bears are confused. They get food from some people and not from others. You don’t form a relationship with bears in a campground situation.”

But that’s not to say Russell did not get personal with some of his favourite subjects. When he speaks of the cub Chico, he can’t help but smile at her friendly antics. “She had a special greeting. She would hook her claws in my fingers. It was marvellous to be this intimate.”

If people accuse him of anthropomorphism, so be it, he says. He has learned to read the bears’ language, a dialect expressed through subtle movements and magnificent sounds. The bears’ emotions have been captured in the mixed media artwork by Enns, who hopes to educate people about positive bear/human relations through her exhibitions.

“There’s absolutely no question that bears have a spectrum of feelings,” says the former Alberta College of Art instructor whose vibrant work opened the new Art Gallery of Calgary in 2000. The exhibition then travelled to France and Moscow, where Enns became the first Canadian artist to exhibit in the Moscow Contemporary Art Centre.

So, will these field observations of friendly bear behaviour change how the Rocky Mountain national parks deal with the mobs of tourists who pester the animals for the perfect photograph? Not likely, says wildlife biologist Kevin Van Tighem, who has worked in Waterton Lakes National Park and is now manager of the ecosystems secretariat in Jasper National Park. “We have so many different kinds of people out there interacting with bears in different ways and it contaminates the situation.”

But he does commend Russell and Enns for their work in presenting a much-needed positive image of grizzly bears. “Charlie and Maureen have shown us the ideal and what could be possible if we were as good as we like to think we are. They’ve given us something to measure our performance against and a goal to work towards. In the parks, we’ve done so much communication around bears based on negative messages. People hear about people who get chewed up and attacked by bears, so I think it’s important it be balanced with this positive message.”

Russell knows the majority of people do not understand bear behaviour, so he warns them not to copy his friendly approach. But he still has critics who fear photographs of the couple being cozy with the bears send a dangerous message to the public. Hal Morrison, who specializes in wildlife/human conflicts in Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, worries that people will wrongly interpret the photographs and jeopardize their safety, which could result in bears having to be shot. It definitely makes for a lively debate among park officials, says Van Tighem, who believes “people are considerably more intelligent than resource managers sometimes give them credit for.”

However, bear management policies are gradually changing, he says. Because of Russell’s successful use of electric fencing in Russia, it is now used in summer to keep bears away from a hiking area on Lake Louise’s ski slopes. It has also been used around railway grain spills, keeping the bears away from the highly tempting rotting grain. Conservation officers in southern Alberta now use rubber bullets or Karelian bear dogs to chase the bears from popular campgrounds and hiking areas. And in spring, they haul roadkill animals to ranches so the bears will feed off the carcasses instead of killing calves.

Such measures still use the concept of fear, but a live bear is better than a dead one, says Russell, who’s lived most of his life with bears. Raised near Waterton Lakes National Park, he and his father, Andy, the renowned naturalist and author, were among the first people to film grizzly bears in the wild. In the sixties, they made Grizzly Country, a documentary which began to change perceptions about bear behaviour. Venturing into the backcountry without guns, they walked among the bears, even filming a nursing mother bear.

Russell and Enns are now speaking out on behalf of the bears they love and trust, educating people through their website at and their book entitled Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka, augmented by a companion book of photographs.

It will be many years before people accept living peacefully with bears, but Russell has hope for their future. “There will be the next generation of people, and there will be another generation of bears.”

Wendy Dudley


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