Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication data is available on file
1. Bear attacks – North America – Prevention.
2. Outdoor recreation – North America – Safety measures.
3. Bear viewing – North America – Safety measures
4. Wildlife viewing – North America – Safety measures
5. Black bear – Distinguishing traits
6. Grizzly bear – Distinguishing traits
7. Brown bear – Distinguishing traits
Prologue: Ghost in the Storm
Preface: Who’s Who, Who Cares, and Why?
Chapter (Preceeding each chapter on the art of knowing bears is a short adventure with two ghost grizzly cubs)
Ghost cubs go clamming
1. Where can I find each species?
Ghost cubs nursing
2. Which species of bear is that? I thought I knew how to tell.
Ghost cubs crossing rivers & riding bear back
3. A rainbow of fur colors within each species.
Ghost cubs at play
4. Is that a male or a female? How old?
Ghost cubs go fishing
5. Ursine romance and bear-enthood.
Ghost cub falls prey to a cannibal
6. I know that bear! Or do I?
Epilogue: fate of the ghost grizzlies
End Notes & References
Author Bio & Book Orders
Glacier National Park, September 1992. Vertical cliffs rose a thou-sand feet or more from the valley floor into dense dark
clouds. Less than an hour before, dawn had painted the rock walls blood red. Now they were black. Light rain had come first,
soaking the cliff faces and darkening them. Then, rain turned to snow. Billions of white flakes drifted downward, swirling in
wind eddies. Flakes glistened platinum in the morning light until the sun was hidden by clouds.
Within minutes, daylight disappeared as though dusk had settled upon the land. Gradually, the clouds sank ever lower and the
wind intensified. The snow flew sideways, hinting of a blizzard building higher along the Continental Divide. All too soon, it
would sweep down the Eastern Slope of Montana’s Rocky Mountains, past my cabin on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and
beyond across the Great Plains.
Time to cancel my blueberry picking and race for lower altitude. Getting caught in Glacier’s high country during a snowstorm
could be fatal. Snow didn’t fall as deeply here as on the Park’s western slope. But the eastern side got horrendous winds that
quickly built drafts. Within an hour or two, they could block trails with so much powder snow that no one could cross on foot.
I’d sink out of sight.
Yet, desperate though I was to race down the trail, something slowed me to a crawl. Something in the fresh snow that looked
like the print of a naked human foot, but wasn’t. Bear, definitely bear. Their huge size and marks of inch-long toe claws
revealed that much.
But grizzly or blackie? Even blizzards aren’t as hazardous as grizzly bears. Especially not just before hibernation if the griz hasn’
t laid down enough fat to last all winter. A black bear wouldn’t worry me. I could bluff it or blast it with pepper spray. But
Interior grizzlies are a lot touchier and might attack before I could get my spray into action
I was down on hands and knees, using my hat to shelter the track so that new snow wouldn’t obscure it. The shape of a grizzly’
s foot is slightly different from that of a blackie, with less arch to the instep and more curvature to the outside of the foot. But
the print wasn’t distinct enough to reveal such subtleties. So I looked for hand prints, which differ much more between the
species. Prints were plentiful, but most were too drifted over to reveal what I needed to know.
It took fifty yards of searching before I found clearer tracks. The bear had passed below huge conifers with branches that
overhung the trail. There was no snow here, but the ground was muddy from the ear-lier rain. Tracks in that goo were
unreadable. But just beyond the mud was a slab of granite over which the bear had passed, leaving one muddy handprint as clear
as if it had been stenciled. Only four of the bear’s five finger’s had touched the rocky surface, so I couldn’t check whether the
pinkie was in line with rest of the fingers as in a griz, or back half a pad- length as in a blackie. Fortunately, though, the bear’s
claw tips had left impressions too. Whereas a grizzly’s finger claws can be 2-3 times as long as its finger pads, a blackie’s aren’
t. And these were definitely short. A blackie, thank God!
Climbing back to my feet and breathing easier, I started down the trail at a jog, singing out as loudly as possible to warn the
blackie I was coming up behind it through the snow-filled air. Judging from its foot size, this bruin weighed at least 300 pounds
– big enough to walk faster than I jogged. Unless it stopped for something, I’d probably luck out and never catch up.
In fact, I nearly didn’t. Had I been but a little slower, it would have disappeared into the forest before I arrived. As things
happened, though, I rounded a corner just in time to see it‘s big snowy rump sticking out of the strip of willows bordering a
creek where it was drinking.
I don’t know what possessed me in that moment. Normally, I took great pains to avoid revealing myself to bears. But not now.
For this bruin’s fur wasn’t covered with more than dusting of snow; the fur itself was white! It was a so-called Spirit
(Kermode) Bear, the first that I’d ever seen or even heard of away from Princess Royal Island on the coast of British Columbia.
A Spirit Bear in the Rockies was unique. I had to get this on film! Quickly slipping out my camera and focusing it, I said “Hi!”
expecting the bear to look up at me, then bound away.
Well, surprise, surprise. The bear looked up all right. Then it stood upright, facing me. But this was no blackie. Its dished face
and humped shoulders guaranteed that. I knew it had to be the same animal I’d been following. Tracks had led me right to it.
But the finger claws in its tracks had looked blackie-short! How could I have been mistaken?
I wasn’t. In the merest fraction of a second, I saw and understood. This grizzly’s claws were worn down. It had probably
been digging out marmots or ground squirrels that had fattened up for hibernation.
I’d been wrong to rely on just tracks and even coat color to identify the kind of bear I had followed. Over the years,
I’d been wrong on a lot of things about bears. And this might be my last mistake.
That’s how it looked for an infinity of seconds, as the bear dropped back down to the ground and walked uphill toward me,
before veering aside and resuming its walk down the trail.
I might have been in a rush to beat the snowfall, but this bear wasn’t. It wasn’t in a rush for anything. Perhaps it was half-
lethargic, as it pre-pared to enter winter sleep. Or, perhaps it was just one of the many bears that prefers a live-and-let-live
existence, offering no harm to people and hopefully receiving none in return.
If the Spirit Bear is among the rarest of blackies, the Ghost Grizzly is certainly among the rarest of it own species. And I’d had
the privilege of not only meeting one, but capturing its image on film.
Or had I? Only after this Ghost had disappeared into the blowing snow did I realize that I’d never snapped the shutter.
* * *
A decade passed before I encountered other Ghosts – this time on the Alaska Peninsula, at Katmai National Park. I spend part of
each year there studying bears and guiding wildlife viewers. During the summer of 2003, I was guiding for Katmai Coastal Bear
Tours, accompanied by Kent Frederiksson, the photographer whose phenomenal images grace the cover of this book and many
of its pages.
Less than 2 hours after our boat Waters motored into Hallo Bay, we finished breakfast then skiffed ashore with Captain John
The wind was chill, stinging our faces with icy saltwater. Beneath an overcast sky, 2-foot swells and silty brown
waves beat against the skiff, the last vestiges of a recent storm. For the past 3 days, an easterly wind had raged through this
bay, plunging past 7400 ft. Mt. Stellar down more than a vertical mile of snow and ice that crusted Hallo Glacier.
The previous night’s moon had been full, raising the tide so high that it covered this beach with more than 20 feet of water.
Now, with the moon on Earth’s far side, the ocean had been pulled in that direction. This drained Hallo to one of lowest tidal
levels that year, around minus 4 feet. Sand flats were exposed for a quarter-mile offshore, providing bears with rare access to a
bonanza of sweet, succulent razor clams.
It was to photograph coastal grizzlies digging clams that the clients had come. I led three guests ashore, wading through knee-
deep water from skiff to sand flat.
My clients and I crossing the sand flats at Hallo Bay during low tide. Hallo Glacier looms in the background. (Kent Fredriksson photo)
More than a dozen grizzlies foraged along the water’s edge, sniffing at tiny holes in the sand, searching for the telltale odor of
clam. When one was scented, a bear would dig down and use its claws to rake up the mollusk.
Among these bruins, to my delight, was the sow Alma and her year-ling son Snowball. Although Alma was brown, and thus
darker than most sows at Hallo Bay, she had given birth to two white cubs, Snowball and his sister Alba (the Spanish word for
Ghost grizzlies. Alma with her twin 1st-year cubs, Snowball (in front of her) and Alba, behind her. (Kent Fredriksson photos).
Depending on sun angle, wetness of the fur, and how clean it was, each cub’s fur varied in color from snow white (small photo
on the book’s front cover) to yellowish or grayish white (above photo), with Alba being slightly greyer than her brother.
We don’t know for sure what happened to Alba after the end of the 2002 viewing season, but pilot Bill Simms reported flying
over a sow with twin white cubs facing off against a large adult male. So Alba was likely killed and eaten; fortunately, Snowball
escaped that gruesome fate.
From then on, Snowball had no sibling to play with. Alma compensated by sparring with him more often. But what he craved
was experience with peers. He often sought the company of cubs in other litters. Alas, their mothers didn’t lay out any
Welcome mat for Snowball, if only because none of their cubs were his age. When he tried playing with younger (1st-year
cubs), their mother chased him away. When he tried playing with older (3nd-year) cubs, they mauled him until Alma came to the
rescue, provoking the other mother to intervene in favor of her own hooligans. Since nearly every other sow outranked Alma,
Snowball’s escapades often got his mother into trouble. To minimize that, Alma usually kept her distance from other families and
discouraged her lonely son from wandering away.
I may never know how Snowball’s story ends. But I have enjoyed following several years of it. The larger photo on this book’s
front cover shows Snowball as Kent Fredriksson and I last saw him at Hallo Bay. After a year or so of not seeing Snowball and
fearing he was dead, we finally found a grayish-white male about 20 miles away in Kukak Bay. Snowball? We may never know,
although we can hope -- hope not only that Snowball lives on, but that he sires cubs, some of whom will share the rare genetics
that create a Ghost Grizzly.
Competition over whose genes get passed on to future generations is, of course, the essence of Natural Selection. Selection is
what underlies an adult male occasionally killing cubs, whether to eat them, to eliminate them as future competitors for food or
mates, or to bring their mother into heat a year or so before she would have otherwise.
A male – and his genes – gain a competitive advantage from infanticide only if he spares his own cubs and perhaps protects them
from rival males – perhaps by excluding rivals from the range occupied by his own cubs and their mother(s).
In this, as in so many other aspects of ursine life, each bear needs to distinguish other bears as individuals. With which females
did he mate? Which cubs could be his offspring? Which females are his own daughters, and thus off-limits for mating, lest
inbreeding produce defective cubs? Which males has he fought before and beaten in competition for mates or food – rivals that
he should be able to dominate without having to risk injury by fighting again? Which have beaten him and thus are best avoided
or appeased at the first hint of conflict?
Recognizing bears as individuals is also essential to any person trying to understand their social behavior. That’s true not only for
the deep levels of understanding sought by scientists like myself, but also for more casual viewers who are as fascinated by
ursine life dramas as other people are by TV soap operas or action movies.
Naming bears makes it easier for people to keep in mind that they are individuals, each with its own personality – or should I say
ursinality – ursine being another term for bearish. Names also make it easier to share observations about them when chatting
amongst ourselves or with people who view the same bears on other occasions. With hundreds of people visiting Hallo each
summer, a bear as distinctive as Snowball was simple to keep track of for the next few years.
By contrast, watching animals that you can’t recognize as individuals is as confusing, and almost as boring, as watching a movie
in a language you can’t understand, where some of the characters look so much alike that you can’t tell one from another.
Bears not only distinguish among one another as individuals; but they sometimes distinguish among people. During the summer
of 2005, I arrived at Hallo Bay after a year-long hiatus. The tide was out and more than a dozen bears were scattered along the
mouth of Middle River fishing for salmon. Not wanting to disturb either bruins or viewers, I patiently waited for hours beside a
group of tourists, hoping that a nearby sow with 1st-year cubs would nurse her infants. Timing nursing bouts is one small facet
of my research on impacts by viewers. (I want to know whether being viewed disturbs a sow or her cubs, which could shorten
nursing and perhaps reduce its frequency, which would deprive cubs of milk.)
Finally, as the tide began returning, driving most bears and people ashore, I was left alone with the grizzly family. Not waiting
for the sea-water to reach her brood, the blond mother arose and stretched. Then, to my surprise, she didn’t head for shore.
Instead, she made a bee-line for me, accompanied by two very nervous cubs crowding against the far side of her body. Not
knowing what to think, I used one hand to activate my camcorder and record the event, even as my other hand flicked the safety
off my can of bear pepper spray.
Not until the sow walked past me, just an arm’s length away, did I recognize her as Kara, a bear I’d known from infancy, and
who was normally one of the most friendly bruins in the region. She’d long since learned that people were much safer
companions than other bears. So even as a youngster, she often rested close to viewers to avoid harassment by peers. Now she
was protecting her first cubs the same way.
But why the “fly by” with me? Perhaps to renew acquaintances. We weren’t friends. I’d never touched her, much less played
with her. I’d simply been just another tolerable nuisance and passive protector. One of many such people perhaps, but one she
knew better than any other except Kent. Moments later, back she came, cubs in tow. Reaching high ground safe from the tide,
she sat down again, rolled onto her back, “tits up” and let her cubs nurse. And yes, this time I did get it on film. Or video,
The more closely you watch bears, the more you see happening, and the more fascinating the bruins become as individuals with
distinct personalities, strengths and weaknesses.
Get wrapped up in their lives, and you might find yourself watching for each new news report and photo on the blog at bear-
viewing-in-alaska.info. Or you might become one of the many people who keep coming back to Katmai or some other viewing
site year after year to watch their favorite bruins (For information on each major viewing site in North America, read Bear
Viewing in Alaska).
Indeed, that is why I keep coming back, not merely year after year but decade after decade, watching bear behavior, filming it,
analyzing it – trying to understand what it really means to be a bear. I try scientifically; and I try in that way of knowing which
Indigenous peoples and Zen Buddhists sometimes refer to as “becoming” -- becoming Bear.
Although this book shares some of my most exciting bear encounters, the majority will be left to other books. This manual was
written for the specific purpose of helping you with prepare for own experiences. Not those you’ve already had, of course, but
those you might have in the future. Being able to distinguish not only the species of bear, but its variety, age, gender,
reproductive status, and identity could markedly improve your safety and viewing enjoyment.
Making such discriminations is also important to hunters, but for different reasons. Maintaining a healthy bear population
requires sparing females and juveniles. Each time a mother is killed, her cubs may die too; and all the future cubs she would have
produced will never join the population. Yet, all too often, hunters end up shooting a female because they don’t know how to
distinguish gender or sometimes even an adult from an adolescent. Reading this book could help you avoid ever mis-taking any
other bruin for a trophy boar.
Chapter 1 identifies the world’s eight surviving bear species as well as a few extinct species, along with where they have lived.
Chapter 2 provides finer-detail maps of where grizzly/brown, black and polar bears live in North America. This knowledge is
equally helpful to people who prefer avoiding bears or to those who seek bears to watch or hunt.
Chapter 3 explains how each species of bear differs in appearance, including spinal, chest and facial profiles, hand- and footprint
features, claw length, coat color, ear length, and other traits. Although some diagnostic traits are probably long familiar to you,
others might surprise you.
Chapter 4 documents broad spectrums of coat color for both grizzly and black bears – including such rare varieties as the Spirit
(Kermode) Bear, Glacier Bear, Ghost Grizzly, and many others.
Chapter 5 provides clues for identifying a bear’s age or maturity and its gender. Some cues are obvious; others are so subtle
they are unknown even to some bear experts.
Chapter 6 reviews clues for distinguishing a bear’s reproductive status – for instance whether a female is in heat (and thus likely
to draw suitors like flies to honey) or raising cubs, or whether a boar has lovin’ or eatin’ on his mind.
Chapter 7 provides numerous examples of how much bears of each species vary in appearance. Mastering these features makes
it much easier to recognize individuals.
Published by WildWatch Publications
A division of WildWatch, LLC
39200 Alma Ave. Soldotna, AK 99669
© 2008 by Stephen Stringham
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means,
without permission in writing from the publisher.
GHOST IN THE STORM
"Making good conservation good business"
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