National Geographic : 1986 Feb
moved behind a clump of brush and started digging. By the time I shifted to a better viewpoint with my binoculars, it had uncov ered the carcass of a bison, which it must have cached earlier beneath dirt and twigs, and was ripping off gobbets of flesh. Now ravens wheeled overhead. The grizzly pulled back and circled the carcass once, enormously alert. I could see an old scar across its blood-wetted muzzle. Abruptly the bear lifted the bison's body and dragged it into the trees. Twice the grizzly somehow broke into a brisk trot with that half-ton prize in its teeth. As I shouldered my pack, I froze. An other grizzly was crossing the sage, follow ing its nose in the direction the first had gone. Moments later roars stormed over the valley, scattering the ravens. I saw a snarl of bodies through the trees. Walloping blows were ex changed with the speed of a shiver, branches snapped amid more roaring. Then nothing. Silence. I walked light on my toes for two days afterward, still aquiver with amaze ment and humility, still alive in every fiber. Not all of Yellowstone is especially good grizzly country. It is merely where grizzlies are allowed to exist. The park itself is a lofty plateau on the Continental Divide, snow bound nearly two-thirds of the year. Lodge pole pine forests offering scant grizzly food take up more than half the land. The moun tainous national forest areas surrounding the park actually have a better variety of habitat, but just beyond lies people country. Yellowstone's bears, therefore, have been cut off from other grizzly populations for more than 50 years. GRIZZLIES WERE easy to see in the park in years past, because three out of every four bears had learned to come looking for the handouts humans pro vided. Until 1941 bleacher seats were set up at garbage dumps for grizzly viewing. But following the 1967 deaths of two Glacier campers from grizzlies used to garbage, Yel lowstone began to shut its dumps, hoping to force the bears back to a natural life. At the time, a pair of independent sci entists, the leading authorities on grizzly biology, were working in Yellowstone. Pio neering radiotracking studies by brothers John and Frank Craighead, Jr., provided an 190 Track of the big bear URSUS ARCTOS, the mighty brown bear, evolved about one million years ago into the ruler of vast territories. Today several subspecies, most reduced to insular populations, roam an impressive worldwide range including central Italy's Apennines, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, the Himalayas, and Japan's Hokkaido Island. In North America Ursus arctos horribilis means the grizzly. The same animal is also known as the brown bear, or brownie, in parts of Alaska and Canada. The Kodiak bear, limited to an Alaskan island group, is sometimes considered a separate subspecies. From the Great Plains to California and south into Mexico, tens of thousands of bears flourished before the repeating rifle brought them low. Today, while some 50,000 may inhabit Alaska and Canada, only 600 to 900 grizzlies-listed since 1975 as a threatened species survive in the lower 48, most around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.