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Part 2: A Tribute to Charlie Russell

A Conservationist’s Lasting Legacy

By Kevin Van Tighem

I knew about ranching back in the 1980s. Ranchers were the bad guys who killed off bears and whose cattle trashed their habitat. Like most environmentalists of the day, I got my insights from urban-based environmental groups. In Alberta’s ranch country the story seemed almost always to be about conflict between ranchers and carnivores, or conservationists and ranchers.

Then I met a soft-spoken rancher named Charlie Russell from the southwestern corner of Alberta who loved both bears and cattle ranching. He showed me how wrong I was.

To the extent that the story about ranching, bears and conservation is no longer framed by conflict, a lot of the credit goes to Charlie. He died in Calgary May 7, 2018, predeceased by his parents, his son Anthony and a younger brother, John. In his final year, plagued by chronic health problems, Charlie told me he felt he hadn’t done enough—that his messages about bears and bear country weren’t getting through.

Typically, he had underestimated himself. “He was excited about bear country expanding,” says his brother Gordon. “Grizzlies are going off the Eastern Slopes onto the prairies, onto the grain fields and farms. Much to the consternation of some of the landowners, but not all of them, fortunately. That was partly because Charlie was pretty successful.”

Says Gordon: “Man, the number of people who contacted us after he died and the things they wrote… I don’t think anyone quite grasped the impact that he’d had on people’s lives.”

Charlie was born in 1941 in the lee of the Rocky Mountains, the second child of Andy and Kay Russell. The province into which he was born had fewer people than live in today’s Calgary.

In that Alberta, prosperity was still just a dream. Its cities were small and dusty, with few buildings exceeding three storeys. Most roads were gravel. Many of the young men were overseas, fighting a war. Oil had arrived—in fact, the Turner Valley oilfield reached peak production in 1942—but it would be another five years before the Leduc #1 well blew in, heralding an era of prosperity and urban expansion. Alberta’s economy was still based on the uncertain fortunes of rural agriculture.

The first year of Charlie’s life brought major flooding to southern Alberta, and that summer brought dust storms. Nature—with its floods, fires, storms and predators—was widely perceived as an adversary. Young men might be fighting fascism in Europe, but at home their families continued a decades-long fight against nature that seemed the only way to assure their future. Many ranchers still managed livestock in ways that made predator losses inevitable.

Those losses were one reason why grizzly bear hunting regulations were so draconian. There was simply no room for grizzlies around people.

How bad was it for the bears? A 1947 government report, when Charlie would have been 6, stated: “Grizzly Bear is still considered to be a predatory animal in some parts of the Province. In the areas lying to the south of the Crow’s Nest–Medicine Hat branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Grizzly Bear may be shot at any time and without a license, the reason being that this area is mainly a farming and livestock area and the year-round open season is necessary for the protection of livestock. In addition… the department employs special hunters to kill any Grizzly Bear in the Forest Reserves and the Waterton–Carbondale Game Preserves.”

Grizzly bears didn’t live on ranches when Charlie was young; they died there. Even so, he grew up to defend both ranching and bears in a world that undervalued each. His success is why “grizzly country” now includes western Alberta’s agricultural landscapes and not just the remote mountain wilderness. Lately, grizzlies have even been seen in Calgary’s urban fringe and in farm country south of Lethbridge—unimaginable in Charlie’s youth.

Charlie’s mother, Kay, was the daughter of Waterton-area outfitter Bert Riggall. His father was legendary conservationist Andy Russell. Andy had hired on with Riggall as a wrangler and guide. In 1942 he wasn’t famous yet; he was just a tall, rangy outdoorsman who had married the boss’s daughter. When Riggall retired in 1946, Andy and Kay took over the outfitting business.

With his brothers, Dick, John and Gordon, and sister Anne, Charlie grew up among horses, wind and spectacular wilderness. The family lived in Waterton Lakes National Park during his younger years, and later on a ranch just north of the park. They rode deep into the mountains of southwestern Alberta and southeastern BC with pack trains, hobnobbed with tourists on day rides in the park, and grew up as part of rural Alberta’s cowboy culture.

The wilderness backcountry still held a few grizzly bears, animals Charlie had been told were dangerous and unpredictable. But the bears he met didn’t seem scary. Mostly they just minded their own business.

By 1960, when his parents finally shut down the outfitting business because oil and coal roads were ruining the wilderness their clients sought, Charlie was in his late teens. With his older brother Dick he joined Andy on a new venture: filming wild grizzly bears in their natural haunts. The project had a dual purpose. On the one hand his father hoped to replace the family’s lost outfitting income with another way of earning a living from their wilderness knowledge. On the other hand, it was a more idealistic venture: educating an increasingly urban society about the real nature of grizzlies.

The project started poorly. Bears were hard to find and too often fled before the Russells could collect any film footage. Andy later reflected that the turning point—and a big learning experience for all of them—came in 1962 and 1963 when the team headed north to Alaska’s Denali National Park. Park authorities wouldn’t let them carry firearms. Without guns, they had to assume a more humble and respectful demeanour. And the bears appeared to respond, becoming more relaxed around them. The resulting movie, Grizzly Country, and Andy’s subsequent book of the same name, amazed audiences who were expecting gory tales of bear attacks and depredations. Andy Russell showed them intelligent, patient animals more interested in eating roots than chasing people.

Knowledge, respect and even friendship are possible between humans and bears—not just the fear and loathing perpetuated in frontier-era stories.

Charlie’s views soon became even more radical than his father’s; his encounters with bears led him to wonder if, rather than being more tolerant of people than commonly believed, they might actually like us. Charlie returned to Denali in 1964 and spent a summer alone among the bears with a 35mm camera. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. By the time I met him many years later, it was pretty clear that Charlie understood and liked bears better than he did most people.

“I had an experience with an incredible, beautiful bear that did something that puzzled me at the time and I wanted to explore it more. She walked slowly up a ridge and at first I didn’t think she even saw me because she was coming towards me, but I moved around a bit and she’d definitely seen me. I sat and talked to her and she came right up and lay down a few feet from me and she was obviously really interested in me.

“A few days later I saw her again and she did a similar thing, only this time she lay down only 10 feet from me and in a totally relaxed, friendly manner…

“It was that experience that made me decide there was something about these animals that wasn’t generally recognized. When I got to ranching for a long period of time, about 18 years, I was determined… to give them the benefit of the doubt and see if we could get along better.”

After his experience in Denali, Charlie needed to make some money, so he found work with mining companies, first in BC and then in New Zealand.

“About that time,” says Gordon, “[Andy] started making noises about selling the place. Charlie was the only one of us four guys that was willing to take it on. So he came back from New Zealand and… bought the seven quarters from Mom. Belton Copp had bought the Cloudy Ridge Ranch and the two of them decided to put the two operations into one. They ended up with one of the biggest ranch operations in the area.”

Charlie believed passionately that cattle ranching and conservation were meant to be the same thing, and that bears could live among cattle without conflict. His ranching experience proved him right. In all the years his family owned their ranch, they never suffered a single loss of an animal to a bear. Charlie told me about watching a grizzly work its way through a resting herd almost as if it were trying not to disturb the cows.

“It was a huge male and he would pick the widest path between animals, but some places that was only a few feet, and these cows would just lie there unless he came within three four feet. I tried to carefully repeat this with my horse and quite a few animals got up from my horse and myself trying to do the same route. It pointed out to me that these animals must have been getting along very well all summer, even though I’d seen him eat a dead cow that I knew had died by itself.”

Charlie was winding his ranch down and starting to work full time with bears when I went to Waterton in 1991 as the national park’s conservation biologist. Our friendship had an awkward start. Charlie was mad at Parks Canada—my employer. He had good reason to be.

Waterton Lakes National Park gained recognition in 1979 as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve under the United Nations’ Man and the Biosphere program. Biosphere Reserves are meant to be global examples of how to integrate humans and the natural environment successfully. They normally include a core protected area—in this case, Waterton—and a surrounding zone of co-operation where economic land uses are managed in ways that sustain the area’s natural values.

In Charlie’s view, it was a perfect fit. The large ranches bordering the national park had been protecting natural habitats for decades. Large carnivores might be unpopular there, but they, along with other native wildlife, still occupied the lightly peopled ranchlands. Charlie’s vision was that, under the Biosphere Reserve concept, visitors to the area might not actually know where private land ended and protected park began. He volunteered to chair the new Waterton Biosphere Association and convinced some of his neighbours to participate too.

The 1970s and 1980s were a time of growing environmental awareness, but environmentalism was too often characterized by fault-finding and finger-pointing. Rural people were often seen as the bad guys, especially with regard to carnivores. Parks good; ranching bad. For its part the ranching community was deeply offended by the environmentalist attacks, given that land stewardship was, for most of them, a core value.

In stepping up for the biosphere reserve Charlie was, consciously or not, helping to build a new paradigm. The Waterton Biosphere Association pulled rural people, urban environmentalists and Parks Canada together in common cause and mutual respect. Charlie’s leadership got them talking with each other about shared values.

But Parks Canada is a bureaucracy and bureaucrats are often rule-bound. One of Parks Canada’s rules was that major contracts should go to the lowest bidder. That’s what Charlie was mad about when I met him in 1991.

Parks Canada needed a gravel supply for a major road project. Rather than protect the Biosphere Reserve’s zone of co-operation, park bureaucrats accepted the lowest bid from an acreage owner who promptly bulldozed a large hill right beside the park entrance. The massive gravel pit destroyed native fescue grassland and replaced it with an ugly scar still visible to this day.

After assuring his neighbours that their good stewardship would be valued as something complementary rather than in opposition to the park’s protection mandate, Charlie Russell felt deeply betrayed. The seamless transition the ranchers had bought into had been compromised by Parks Canada’s decision to save a few dollars rather than buy responsibly sourced gravel. Charlie quit the Waterton Biosphere Association in disgust.

That experience deepened his view that only those with lasting roots in a place could be trusted to care for it sustainably. With the late Francis Gardner, Norm Simmons and other like-minded foothills ranchers, Charlie turned his back on bureaucrats and came up with a new idea for protecting bear country and the ranching industry that keeps it undeveloped: a land trust.

In all the years the Russells owned their Southern Alberta ranch, they never suffered a single loss of a cow to a bear.

Francis Gardner once described the big ranches along southern Alberta’s foothills as “working wilderness.” Cattle might sometimes graze the grassland too hard or foul the creeks, but because that land supported the economy through ranching it was protected from logging, real estate development and other more destructive uses. That’s why bears, elk, deer, trout and other wildlife like it there. But the big ranches are under threat. The price of cows continues to drop relative to the costs of fuel, equipment and other inputs. Aging ranchers don’t always have family willing to take on the hard work required to keep things together. Real estate agents frequently come knocking on doors, hoping to turn ranches into residential acreages.

Charlie and his friends launched the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society (SALTS) to hold donated conservation easements on ranchlands—ensuring that those ranches remain undeveloped and undivided in perpetuity. It was the second land trust to operate in Alberta and the only one run by ranchers. The larger Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is run mostly by business people. Many foothills ranchers didn’t trust the NCC any more than Charlie trusted Parks Canada—they saw it as another bureaucracy of outsiders. That has changed over time; both land trusts frequently collaborate now.

Alan Gardner, a former executive director of SALTS, told me: “Charlie was part of getting SALTS started. He was committed to it and when Charlie said he was going to do something, he did it. He promised to donate conservation easements on his five quarter sections to SALTS. But the NCC went to Charlie and said ‘If you put those five quarters with us, we’ll give you $40,000 each.’ Charlie turned it down. He said to me, ‘I turned down $200,000. Sometimes I wonder if I should have done that, but you know, I’d already committed to SALTS.’ That was a lot of money back in 2002. But that’s the kind of guy he was. His word was his bond.”

Charlie certainly could have used the money. He had embarked on increasingly ambitious ventures to test his belief that bears and humans could get along peacefully. He even built his own ultralight airplanes to fly deep into bear country—crashing them more than once. Each time he got back in and flew back to his bears.

His passion for bears took him and Maureen Enns to Kamchatka, Russia, where he spent several summers in a remote area with one of the highest population densities of grizzlies on the planet. There he raised rescued bear cubs to maturity and helped them learn how to fend for themselves. He taught them to fish and forage, defended them from predatory adult male bears and even babysat the cubs of wild female bears who trusted him. His work there, and earlier in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest, was chronicled in books and films that earned him a huge following among wildlife conservationists, animal rights groups and people from all walks of life.

Most see Charlie’s legacy as having changed how we think of bears. “Everyone says that grizzly bears are dangerous and unpredictable,” he told me. “Well, they aren’t. They can be dangerous but usually that’s because we treated them badly. And they aren’t unpredictable at all. We’re the ones who are dangerous and unpredictable. The bears just want to get along.”

But Charlie’s lesser known legacy was no less important: building bridges among rural Alberta ranchers and environmentalists to ensure that bear country—not the remote wildernesses of rock and ice to which bears were relegated when Charlie was a boy, but the lush, well-vegetated ranches and farmlands of southwestern Alberta—will always be there. SALTS has more than 23,000 acres under conservation easement. The NCC has protected almost 140,000 acres under easements or by outright purchase.

And bears are welcome there. Ironically, given that he quit the organization in disgust, that’s partly due to the Waterton Biosphere Association that Charlie helped get up and running. Inspired by Charlie’s work, the WBA’s Carnivores and Communities program now helps ranchers and farmers coexist with bears safely. Under the leadership of Cardston-area rancher Jeff Bectell, they pioneered the use of “deadstock” bins—bear-proof metal containers for livestock that die during the spring calving season. Instead of getting bears in trouble, carcasses now get recycled as compost. The WBA helps ranchers replace leaky feed sheds with bear-proof storage bins, enclose bee hives with electric fences, and learn how to use bear spray to keep themselves safe.

It’s a different world than Charlie was born into. He helped make changes by showing that knowledge, respect and even friendship are possible between humans and bears—not just the fear and loathing perpetuated by frontier-era stories.

Charlie also helped change our stories about ranching. In spite of the massive waves of landscape change that have swept North America in recent decades, Alberta’s western foothills remain largely intact, sustained by ranch families whose stewardship values and personal ethics Charlie Russell exemplified and honoured.

Kevin Van Tighem is a former superintendent at Banff National Park and the author of Bears Without Fear (RMB 2013). He has written many stories and essays on conservation and wildlife. His books include  The Homeward Wolf (2013), Heart Waters (2015) and Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta (2017), all published by Rocky Mountain Books.

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