Charlie Russell: on grizzly bears and coexistence

May 24, 2018

Canada’s grizzly bears have lost a true and dedicated friend. After hearing the sad news of Canadian naturalist Charlie Russell’s passing on May 8, 2018, we’ve taken a moment to reflect on how he shaped our understanding of grizzly bear behaviour.

Russell held a strong belief in coexistence, and while he never encouraged people to closely interact with grizzlies, he was able to provide evidence that it is at least possible to live among them in a gentle and respectful manner.

Russell was born into a hunting family, son of renowned outfitter Andy Russell. After a few years of following his father's footsteps working as a guide outfitter, Charlie decided the relationship with grizzlies he was raised with didn't work for him - he saw the animal in a different light. In 1960, he finally spoke with his father about it and they concluded they would change their approach and begin making wildlife films.

Though some saw Russell as someone with radical and impossible ideas of coexistence, his films showing his interaction with wild grizzlies, coupled with his experience coexisting with grizzlies on a ranch, ensured his impact was felt wide and far. Eventually he was even invited to speak to provincial Conservation Officer Service bear managers about his experiences, and with this began to shift the dialogue around bear management.

Russell provided invaluable insight to Grizzly Bear Foundation as one of the main participants at the first Board of Inquiry meeting in Cranbrook, British Columbia. He spoke to us about the importance of trust, believing that if you take the time to understand them, grizzlies can begin to trust you, after which there is little chance they will hurt you. While recognizing female grizzlies can pose a threat if they’re protecting their family, he detailed times when mothers would bring their cubs to him “to baby sit while they got some freedom. They did this for years and years with every set of cubs they had because they decided [they trusted you]” (Russell, pers. comm. Sep 2016).

Russell believed that interactions with grizzlies could be neutral providing we change our attitude. "It's just attitude. If we could change people's attitude. I proved with the ranching that you can do it," but he acknowledges it’s tricky (Russell, pers. comm. Sep 2016). We believe taking small steps to replace fear of bear interactions with knowledge of how to mitigate them will help to realign how we coexist with wildlife.

Russell’s interactions with the grizzlies can be seen in the film The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies (a low quality link is available online here, though we recommend visiting your local library as they may have a high-quality copy). If you prefer reading, his book Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamachatka, can be ordered online. Russell has been featured in numerous grizzly bear documentaries.

Since his passing, there has been an outpouring of appreciation for Russell’s work. His contributions to coexistence with grizzlies will not be forgotten, and we cannot thank him enough for helping us better understand the relationship between bears and humans as we embarked on our first year of operations under the name Grizzly Bear Foundation.

Photo: Jim & Doria Moodie



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