World-renowned bear expert, author, photographer and rancher Charlie Russell spoke to a local audience this past Saturday afternoon at Carnival Cinemas. Russell visited Red Deer as part of his life-long mission to shed light on an untrue belief that bears are violent creatures.
His mission began at a young age on his family’s ranch near Waterton Park in southern Alberta.
His father Andy Russell, a well-known hunter, guide, and filmmaker recruited 20-year-old Charlie and his brother to help as cameramen on a documentary about grizzly bears.
It was here that Charlie’s life-long love and respect for bears was born.
“I’d been around bears my whole life but what I really took away from the documentary was that this was an animal that was incredibly misrepresented by stories,” he explained. “I saw this wasn’t the animal that stories portrayed. Instead, I saw a bear that really wanted to get along with people and wanted to be social. I really learned to appreciate these animals for their intelligence and emotion.”
Charlie’s work has shown that bears, in particular grizzly bears, are not the violent and frightening creatures people have come to know them as, but rather curious, caring and social animals.
For years, he has tried to show society that if people treat bears with respect and trust they will return the notion.
He believes and argues that it is “People’s fear of bears and aggressive actions toward them which makes them dangerous.”
His work, especially the 10-year timeframe he spent studying and living alongside the bears of Kamchatka, Russia, has proven to show that humans can live just as he did side-by-side with bears.
“I’ve lived in the same area here in southern Alberta for all of my 72 years, with the exception of my time in Russia, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in people’s views of bears,” said Charlie. “When I was a child everyone killed bears. There was just no question – if a grizzly showed up on your land, you shot it and there were no repercussions for it because people thought they were dangerous to people and to their cattle.”
After a study done by the Government of Alberta found the number of Alberta’s grizzlies to be drastically lower than they had expected, all hunting of grizzlies became illegal until further notice.
“Up until the time our culture obtained guns we coexisted with these animals peacefully,” said Charlie. “The hunters try to keep the notion going that these animals are dangerous and violent so that they can feel good about killing them.”
Charlie explained the hunting culture in Alberta and throughout the world has led to a misconception surrounding bears, which has people believing they are violent and has bears believing humans are going to harm them, which can lead to aggressive behaviour.
“If the only experience a bear has ever had with a person is that person trying to kill it, it will be more likely to be aggressive,” he explained.
Since the ban on the hunting of grizzly bears, the residents of southern Alberta are seeing more and more grizzlies on and near their land.
Charlie added the sightings have not been this frequent in nearly 125 years, however with less threats from hunters, bears have begun to venture down from the Rocky Mountains into the prairies in search of better food sources to prepare for their six months of hibernation.
Today Charlie is working closely with southern Alberta ranchers and residents to use his deep understanding of bears to help them adjust to the idea of allowing bears onto their land.
Although Charlie agrees he has led a fascinating life among the bears, he admits it has been a frustrating one.
He wishes society’s fear of bears could be relinquished, a fear that often leads to the death of one of Alberta’s most iconic animals, he said.