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From studying bears in Alaska to trapping them in Yellowstone, book shares man’s stories

April 9, 2017

Larry Aumiller spent 40 years trying to come to terms with the expression on the Boone and Crockett Club’s bear statue.

“Those bears can be aggressive,” Aumiller said. “But that’s less than one-hundredth of a percent of what they do. In fact, if you want to be really typical, you’d have them sleeping.”

Standing beneath the ferocious bronze with its flared lips and reaching paws, the man who ran Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for three decades can back up his opinion. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a huge bear catching a salmon, it was probably taken by someone standing close to Larry Aumiller. He recently winnowed through 35,000 slides he shot while leading visitor groups to the fabled riverside.

Aumiller’s experiences have been compiled in a new book by Jeff Fair released in March. Titled “In Wild Trust,” it lays out Aumiller’s conviction that big bears deserve a place in a human-dominated world.

Aumiller told his story to Fair, first in an Anchorage coffeeshop and then through dozens of interviews at Aumiller’s Missoula home. Fair himself spent 23 years in Alaska studying wildlife. He also trapped grizzly bears for radio-collar studies in Yellowstone National Park and worked for decades managing loons and other creatures all over North America.

A recent McNeil River study logged 14 serious bear charges toward people in the sanctuary’s 50-year existence. In each case, it appeared the person triggered the charge and the bear was a non-habituated newcomer to the scene.

“Habituated bears are very predictable,” Aumiller said. “I realize it’s a really tough sell, but it’s possible for humans and bears to co-exist in the same place. And to live with them not only enhances our day, it sets the stage for long-term human survival. There’s a quote from Chuck Jonkel: ‘If we can live with them, we can live with ourselves.’ ”

Jonkel died last April at 85 after decades of teaching bear biology and founding the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula. Most living bear researchers and managers today had some contact with him as a student, colleague or occasional scratching post.

At a recent conference on bear-human interaction, the roomful of experts was debating how to handle the growing interest in raising chickens (which tempt bears). From the back of the room, Jonkel raised his hand to speak.

“The room went silent,” Aumiller recalled. “Chuck says, ‘7.2 billion people in the world, and we’re talking about chickens?’ He was always a big-picture guy.”

Because the big picture shows humans building houses and roads in prime bear country. The vast majority of those humans only deal with bears in two dimensions, as a photograph or possibly a rug. The idea of sharing personal space with, as Aumiller says, “something big and furry that bites” engages more the cave-dweller’s primal fear than the space-traveler’s rational consideration.

“We have an intellectual ability to get beyond fear,” Aumiller said. “Just driving to this interview today was statistically more dangerous than all those years in the (McNeil) sanctuary. I wish we were more tolerant as a species. It would be good for critters and good for us, too.”

When former Missoulian reporter Ginny Merriam got a chance to visit McNeil River in 1999, she encountered Aumiller. As she described the scene:

Humans can visit here, but only in groups of 10 or fewer, flanked at either end by bear biologists armed with tender sensibilities and Remington Model 870 shotguns that they never use. The guests must bunch together, talk softly, make small movements, never threaten or crowd a bear and never, ever allow a bear to get human food. In the 25-mile-long and 4- to 5-mile-wide McNeil River State Game Sanctuary at the top of the Alaska Peninsula and off Cook Inlet, no bear is hunted or even darted and tagged.

Aumiller, who has been called “the Dian Fossey of bears” and “obsessive,” is recognized as one of the best in the world at reading bears. He believes passionately that people and bears can live together peacefully if the tone of the relationship is set up properly. Bears can be habituated to the presence of people if the people exhibit “inoffensive and predictable human behavior” rather than setting up an adversarial relationship in which we yell and shoot, and bears flee and attack, he says. His definition of habituation means the absence of a flight response and the absence of aggression.

Some bear biologists believe any habituated bear is a dangerous bear. Aumiller and (fellow McNeil staff member Derek) Stonorov disagree. They say a key is keeping bears from seeing people as food sources, becoming “food-conditioned.”

Aumiller maintains that basic rule underpins all good bear management. As federal, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming wildlife managers contemplate removing Endangered Species Act protection from grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains, those rules will undergo lots of review.

In advance of that possibility, Aumiller has spent much time working with organizations like Missoula-headquartered Vital Ground Foundation, which protects bits of landscape necessary for bear survival.

“Larry’s experiences in McNeil River produced some amazing insights,” said Vital Ground administrator Shannon Drye. “He’s helped us select properties and made sure they were the best parcel for grizzly bear need, like biological connectivity between ecosystems. He really brought the biological expertise.”

All that expertise came despite never attending a wildlife class or earning a biology degree. Fair described Aumiller’s first day at McNeil in 1976, wondering when he would see his first bear:

Then he remembered the raft carrying his equipment and goods, out there by the incoming tide. He went to the door. Something was wrong with the picture before him. His raft and its cargo were now animated. Bow, stern, and sides leaping up and down, loaded rifle (protection!) tossing into the air now and again, boxes of food somersaulting in the wild tumult…

“The engine of the whole performance, the perpetrator, was a young brown bear, who had become infatuated with the rubbery bounciness of the raft. Aumiller watched the young bear, rump-down in the raft and obviously enjoying the effects of pounding his paws on the inflated sides of his new playpen, making the gun and food boxes bounce to high heaven — reveling in the entertainment.

“He stood at the threshold of his new headquarters, the bear now in possession of his loaded gun, his food and his raft — and wondered what the hell to do.

Aumiller told the bear to leave, and it did. That idea of setting trust boundaries became the foundation of McNeil River interactions, although the wider world still has trouble with the concept. Looking at a map of the sanctuary, Aumiller points out the surrounding McNeil River State Game Refuge, itself surrounded by the Katmai National Park and Katmai National Preserve, which in turn are enveloped by the rest of Alaska. Each place has different rules where bears are revered as tourist attractions or keystone predators or hunting trophies, with the bears themselves wandering across invisible lines at will.

“I spent 34 years with (Alaska State) Fish and Game,” Aumiller said. “I understand hunting, although I’d never shoot a bear. I hope to get people convinced that it’s possible to live with them. To do that, you have to protect the absolutely best places on earth.”