Summoning the Ghost Bear

Reports of a large, gray grizzly gathered thick as mist in the North Cascades of Washington State in the 1940s. A hunter after deer near White Chuck Cinder Cone glimpsed a silvery mother and cub. Near Fire Mountain, not far from the town of Darrington, a grizzly with long gray fur and two cubs ran at a man on the trail. She chased him up a tree, raking through his boot to his foot with roughly three-inch claws. After an hour and a half in the branches, he was rescued, carried out on a horse. Roughly a year later, the bear—or a similar one with gray fur that fluttered “like a flying squirrel,” an observer reported—charged at a family of six who were admiring the view from Fire Mountain. The husband shot the bear, who stopped, veered off toward Fire Creek, and then disappeared.

At the time, grizzlies like these were common enough that no one was surprised, but rare enough to make the newspapers. Their longtime presence in this sodden landscape along the Canadian border—characterized by sharp peaks, silver fir forests, and riotous rivers draining them—was memorialized in hunting accounts of the Salish peoples and, later, fur trading records of the Hudson Bay Company. Accounts of bears from white settlers moving in and claiming land during the late nineteenth century carried a whiff of the fable and violence of Davy Crockett tall tales. In 1888, one grizzly was shot with seven bullets, finally dying just a few moments before reaching the hunter. In 1924, an animal referred to as “a monster grizzly bear, whose footprints are as large as an ordinary hat” plundered campsites for bacon. They ravaged sheep, killed cows, and, wounded, left long, bloody trails into the bushes.

Not long after the silver sow abandoned Fire Mountain, though, grizzlies became increasingly scarce. And as scientists tried to puzzle out reasons for the decline, they collected these stories, attempting to turn them into data points. Paul Sullivan, the author of a 1983 report tallying grizzly bear sightings in the North Cascades, commented on the challenge of this documentation: witnesses had died; others offered conflicting reports; still others were known to be serial exaggerators. Many white colonists’ early reports of bear encounters seemed like mythological battles. But the mythologizing resulted from the nature of the observations, the glory, the dread. Sullivan wrote: “I am keenly aware that encounters with wildlife species as majestic or fearsome as the grizzly bear are privileged moments in the life of any observer.” Grizzlies, like other large, fierce animals, generate legends.

The introduction to my middle school short-story anthology outlined the three kinds of conflict: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself. “You will like these stories,” the preface concluded, which I thought a bit presumptuous. But it is true that humans versus nature, particularly nature in the form of a beast, is one of Western culture’s oldest forms. Hercules stalking the hydra to its swampy lair, holding his breath against the poisonous scent of the monster. Or Odysseus, slipping his ship past the hungry mouth of Scylla, lurking in her cave with her triple row of fangs, or Beowulf, challenging ravenous Grendel, who consumes men entirely, drinking their blood and eating even their hands and feet.

Part of the terror of the beast is its unknowability. The heat of its breath, the sharpness of claws that might remind you of those that raked an arm as you lifted the cat off the kitchen table, though, much, much larger. Who knows what the beast is thinking, how its mind is organized, how its bizarre body—all those necks, or a lion torso topped by eagle wings—works? A theory I love proposes that dragons and other early monsters were based on dinosaur bones, unearthed and dressed in the papier-mâché of assumptions, with imagination offering the breath of life.

But what happens when these beast stories take as their subject actual animals? When the werewolf is real a wolf? Or a “monster bear” is just a bear? When metaphors of evil and malevolence get tangled with biology? How does it affect our ability to gauge actual danger, and to make decisions about how we want to live and the nature of our communities?


A while ago, I attended a public meeting in Darrington, Washington. The issue at hand was whether grizzly bears should be restored to the North Cascades Recovery Zone, a swath of mostly public lands that connects with a small Canadian grizzly population. For the past twenty years, grizzlies on the U. S. side of the North Cascades have been so rarely seen, they are called ghost bears. Some believe they’re still there, eluding surveys and camera traps. But there have been no sure records since a biologist glimpsed a sow and a cub in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in 1996. A cast of her track became the last uncontested piece of evidence.

So, after decades of planning and debate, government agencies were presenting four options to the public, three of which included bringing grizzlies from Canada to enhance whatever small population may remain in the United States. For many, it was about time; interests as diverse as the National Wildlife Federation, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 191 out of Everett, and the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians wrote letters and resolutions in support of restoration. But the places suggested for new bears included North Cascades National Park, very close to Darrington. What comes to mind, I wondered, when people contemplate grizzlies just outside of town—a froth-mouthed monster, a gentle giant, a piece in the puzzle of a complete ecosystem?

The area around Darrington was a place I knew, but not well. I’d spent my early twenties hiking and backpacking in the North Cascades—canoeing Ross Lake, getting caught in a four-day rainstorm near Glacier Peak, watching wildfire smoke from Devil’s Backbone. Always, in the back of my mind, the ghost bears lurked. While chances were slim a grizzly waited around the trail bend, it wasn’t impossible. The summer before moving to Washington, I’d worked at Glacier National Park, home to hundreds of the bears. They were always just at the edge of sight, on a distant hill, or in reports of coworkers who found themselves on the far side of the lake too late. Multiple trainings on grizzly encounters stressed their size, speed, and the length of their claws. In October, just before I left, one killed and partially consumed a man on a trail I’d hiked just a few days before. When I ventured into grizzly territory, I packed, along with love for mountainous terrain, a sizable bundle of terror. At the same time, I understood the importance of predators in any given ecosystem, wanted the country to be rich in native species. Though twenty years had passed since I lived in Washington, the question of how to balance these responses still dogged me, maybe because it wasn’t just my question, but one for the whole country. And Darrington seemed like a good place to see how people managed these conflicting desires.

Intolerance of large, carnivorous animals arrived with colonists from England, France, and Spain. Puritans didn’t hang wolves from gallows like criminals, as some were rumored to do in Europe (though during the Salem witch trials, they did kill two dogs suspected of being under the influence of the devil). But they killed them and put them on display, posting wolves’ heads in public places around their towns, like vanquished enemies. Victory over a wolf was a triumph of law and civilization. This image—the posted heads—makes clear the purpose was not just saving sheep, but policing boundaries, drawing firmly the circle around what we deem our community, worthy of protection. They were building a wall. And beasts, whether the hydra in the swamp or the wolf in the forest, were defined as outside of it.

It’s easy enough to sneer at the nineteenth-century antipredator moralizing, but, let’s face it, predation is disturbing.

These early settlers feared predators might eat their livestock or children, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, concern shifted. After a century of trapping, market hunting, collecting for science and trophies, the endless abundance of the New World’s wildlife seemed to be faltering. Deer were so scarce, for example, an outdoorsman who’d grown up in Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century said the only ones he’d seen before 1900 were in a circus or tame, on a farm. Predators damaged populations of prey, conservationists concluded, threatening to eat them into extinction. And they were doing it because of some flaw in their characters.

In Roughing It, Mark Twain described the coyote like this:

a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it. . . . He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. 

Wolves, bears, cougars, even birds of prey like the Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk, didn’t escape condemnation. According to conservationist William T. Hornaday, these raptors “may at once be put under sentence of death for their destructiveness of useful birds, without any extenuating circumstances worth mentioning.” The judgement was clear, just as it had been for the Puritans: animals that ate other animals were wasteful, cruel, and evil.

It’s easy enough to sneer at the nineteenth-century antipredator moralizing, but, let’s face it, predation is disturbing. Each day that a wolf hunts successfully, another animal—say, a moose, which treasures its life and fights for hours to stay on its feet—is reduced to strips of red flesh in the mouths of foxes and ravens. Once in Utah, I watched three nuthatches darting back and forth, bringing insects gleaned from under the tree bark to nestlings, while other campers made pancakes. “Polygamy,” a friend suggested, but I thought the third nuthatch was a sibling helper, waiting its chance at a good territory. We discussed how precarious the nest seemed, a woodpecker-carved hole on the underside of a ponderosa branch. The next morning, though, no nuthatches. Birds of prey, one tree over, screamed in the chill air. It was hard not to hate them, suspecting they’d eaten the tiny birds and left the chicks to slowly starve. When I Googled “evolution of carnivores,” arguments about the existence of evil popped up on the first page. There were no meat eaters in the Garden of Eden.

For some, this conflation of predation and sin made getting rid of carnivores a moral imperative, uniting both ranchers and conservationists. In the late nineteenth century, this extermination was accomplished by bounties—an average of one dollar per scalp for coyotes or wolves—a fee that drew so many hunters that some Western states paid out a million dollars per year. At one point, bounty payments made up two thirds of Montana’s state budget, according to Dan Flores’s book Coyote America. In the early twentieth century, under increasing pressure from ranchers, killing carnivores became government business. In 1914, Congress earmarked $125,000 to the Biological Survey, an “eradication appropriation.” Millions of coyotes, wolves, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions were shot, trapped, poisoned, infected with mange. They were killed in national parks to protect the deer and ducks and mountain goats. Wolves were driven to extinction everywhere but the Great Lakes states. Grizzlies, who once roamed the plains, got pushed farther and farther into the mountains.

It seems that for a grizzly bear restoration plan to have even a slim chance of going forward, we will need to find a story that encompasses beasts and humans occupying the same, or at least adjacent, territories, one that allows for predators and the bloody way they make a living. A story that is not necessarily humans against nature, but some other configuration. The question of whether this story can gain popular support is growing more pressing because, after a century of persecution, predators are coming back. Cities are cleaner; attitudes have changed; wild habitat is whittled away. Recently, a black bear was discovered exploring backyards in North Memphis. A coyote turned up on the light rail in Portland. In Los Angeles, a wild mountain lion snuck into the zoo and ate a koala. And, in some cases, we are loading animals onto helicopters and bringing them in.


Darrington’s setting is spectacular. As I drove into town, the valley fog rose over knife-edged mountains, slicing the setting sun into ribbons of God light. Red-winged blackbirds trilled out of sight in the chill damp. But the town itself seemed battered, roofs losing a battle with moss, some entirely caved in. It is a place struggling to recover from the decline of the timber industry that had been its economic engine. A trailer with a plywood sign read everything for sale, though the only item in sight was a plastic garden chair. American flags and Trump bumper stickers decorated doorways and pickup trucks. A Confederate-style flag, just miles from the Canadian border, declared: if the south would of won, we would have it made.

In the window of the town library, a yellow diamond-shaped sign labeled it a “safe space.” I did not feel particularly safe, and my discomfort made me think about where I draw my own lines, who or what is outside the circle of protection. The summer before, I had been on a ferry, going back to the mainland from Isle Royale in Lake Superior, where I’d tagged along with biologists as they searched for wolf-killed moose remains. Hearing I was working on a project about predators, one of the ferrymen came down to chat with me—about the West, which we both loved, about wild animal sightings that had stayed with us. But when he started talking about how he chafed against the rules banning firearms in national parks, and commented that he just didn’t feel safe in grizzly country without a gun, I said that, as a woman who often hikes alone, I felt much more safe if he didn’t have a gun. We stared at each other in silence. In his mind, we were on same side, humans against the wild animals. In my mind, we were on opposite sides, unarmed women against armed men. It’s how I feel about guns in national parks. But it abruptly ended the conversation. I had called him, basically, a predator.

The sense prevailed that city dwellers (like me), those who saw a cub on a postcard and thought “how cute,” those who never might face a hungry bear in their yard, distorted the debate.

Earlier public meetings about grizzlies in Darrington had been contentious. A previous round of public comments included one that claimed, of grizzlies: “They are monsters that eat people, particularly women.” The sense prevailed that city dwellers (like me), those who saw a cub on a postcard and thought “how cute,” those who never might face a hungry bear in their yard, distorted the debate. The meeting room was packed—later counts estimated more than three hundred people—and hot, as everyone kept on their down jackets and fleece-lined camouflage coats. No wolf heads were nailed to the door; maps, graphs, and grizzly bear photographs were everywhere, along with informational posters: background, likely source population, alternatives considered but dismissed. Waiting for the meeting to start, one attendee was pessimistic: “It’s just going to be a bunch of pissed off people.”

And, in part, that was true. An older man with wisps of white hair came up to one of the government officials and asked when people would be able to speak—that’s what he’d been promised. When the official told him there was no microphone, but he could submit a written public comment, the man threw a meeting flyer on the ground and stomped off. One tall man in a cowboy hat said he’d moved from Montana and liked the fact that his wife and kids could go hiking without him being concerned for their safety. The mayor introduced himself to me with a friendly handshake, but when I pressed him for an opinion, he just surveyed the full room and shook his head: “It’s all emotional.”

Many opposed the plan, but gave concern for the bears as the reason. Nearby mountains still hosted grizzlies, one woman insisted. What would happen when strangers were released in their territory? Others knew about failed wild-animal reintroduction efforts that had resulted in starvation. An intense young man with a black beard and moustache wondered whether the bears would still be able to feed themselves now that the salmon runs that supported earlier generations of grizzlies were gone. If the habitat was so perfect, where were the bears? It’s too bad that the grizzly bears can’t vote, one woman commented. Another answered, “They have voted. If they liked it, they’d be there.”

Since that meeting, and others held throughout the state, a process that generated more than 120,000 written comments, the restoration has been on-again, off-again. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke shocked everyone (including me) by enthusiastically backing the plan, then resigned, buried underneath an avalanche of scandal. Its fate may be that of the plan to bring grizzlies back to the Bitterroot mountains of Montana—approved decades ago, but never funded. The animals might just have been briefly caught by the spotlight of human interest before it flickered elsewhere. A ghost plan for ghost bears.

What remains, though, is the sense that many crammed into that sweltering room were looking at the situation from the beast’s perspective, a perspective increasingly available through science and technology. Nest cameras show the first moments in the lives of osprey and peregrine falcons, making viewers across the country invested in their survival, and less likely to demonize birds of prey, as Hornaday did. Radio and satellite collars allow researchers to track a young male coyote as he disperses from San Francisco eighty miles south, through strip malls and the Stanford campus, avoiding humans when possible but sleeping under their ornamental shrubs at night—following the drive for a mate and a den, living his own life, rather than fostering an obsession with attacking people.

For me, it wasn’t until I got close, saw a grizzly in an enclosure at the Washington State University Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in Pullman that my intense fear began to fade. The bear walked on the hot earth, sniffing the breeze, completely uninterested in me. It was the subject of its own narrative—one I couldn’t read, in a language I didn’t understand. Of course, cameras, radio collars, and keeping bears in captivity each pose their own suite of problems. But the fact remains that the more we learn about these animals, the more we can understand their existence on their own terms, and the less they are bones breathed to life in some hideous (or heroic) form by our imaginations. And the more we can reckon with the real risks and take steps to abate them—gathering clues about how to live with predators, if we decide that is something we are willing to do—and reevaluate what, or whom, we make monstrous.