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Know the West

The grizzly's in the house — or at least, the yard

  To make it in the wild as a grizzly in the Lower 48, you need an education. But mom may be teaching you some questionable survival skills: how to raid garbage cans, pilfer grain from barns and scavenge birdseed from backyard feeders.

As humans spread into prime bruin habitat, some bears are becoming "suburban guerrillas." But a team of wildlife managers in northwestern Montana is working as hard to retrain such "problem" bears as the bears have to work to put on the 20,000 to 30,000 calories per day they need before winter.

In True Grizz: Glimpses of Fernie, Stahr, Easy, Dakota and Other Real Bears in the Modern World, wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick, a self-proclaimed "grizzly groupie," rides along with bear educators who wear caps emblazoned with the slogan "Teach Your Bears Well." They range about the Rockies in a pickup truck, trying to improve the odds that the 1,000 to 1,300 grizzlies that live south of Canada will continue their modest comeback.

The grizzly educators’ lesson plan relies on a stiff course of negative re-enforcement. Tactics include shooting bruins with rubber bullets, shepherding the bears with a pack of imported Karelian dogs, and — their most controversial teaching tool — feeding roadkill to a particularly vexing specimen, so he’ll put on enough fat to den, and quiet down.

The bear educators teach humans, too. (Note to self: Keep the 50-pound bag of dog food off the back porch when a hungry sow and her two cubs have been spotted in the neighborhood.)

Some of the bears are good students, and return to a diet heavy in wild huckleberries, instead of half-eaten hamburgers. Others, however, just won’t learn, and either end up in captivity on a diet of human handouts, or are killed.

Despite its corny title, True Grizz goes a long way toward clearing away rip-snorting tales to explain what most encounters today between Montana’s two top predators — grizzlies and humans — are actually like. Sadly, today, it’s not just circus bears that have to be trained.

True Grizz: Glimpses of Fernie, Stahr, Easy, Dakota and Other Real Bears in the Modern World By Douglas H. Chadwick, 176 pages, hardcover: $24.95 Sierra Club Books, 2003.