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Wilderness, a log cabin and bears

Wildlife biologist, Bruce McLellan and his wife raised two children in the wild while studying 170 grizzly bears.

February 23rd, 2024

Dr. Bruce McLellan holding a tranquilized wolverine that is ready to be collared for study.

For 42 years, he gathered intimate knowledge on their behaviour, eating and mating habits to find ways to lessen the impact of salvage logging on the bears and their habitat.

by Tom Hawthorne

In the fall of 1978, graduate student Bruce McLellan and his partner Celine moved to British Columbia’s Flathead Valley, living first in a VW van before moving into a riverside log cabin so old that steel wool was stuffed into gaps in the chinking to help keep mice out.

One morning 20 months later, the ground was covered by fine ash, while the sun was obscured by a grey haze covering the sky. The couple was so isolated, so removed from print and electronic media, not to mention people, that several days passed before they learned of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

McLellan has emerged after 42 years of field studies, as well as dozens of research papers, with a dense, informative and detail-filled book about the lives and behaviours of bears. He also shares with us the pleasures and the tribulations of raising a family in the wilderness.

Dr. Bruce McLellan and his family in front of their log cabin.

Over the decades, he has followed about 170 different grizzlies with the assistance of radio collars. The placing of those collars means trapping and drugging an animal the size of two Shaquille O’Neals—with a less amiable disposition than that of the former basketball star.

McLellan’s study began to determine ways to lessen the impact of salvage logging on the bears and their forested habitat. He practiced behavioural ecology (“Why do bears do what they do?”), as well as population ecology (“What are the interactions that determine how many grizzly bears there are? Or more simply: Why aren’t there more bears?”).

As a scientist, McLellan avoids anthropomorphizing the creatures he studies, other than giving them names for identification. Still, it seems to be human nature to reduce the threat posed by bears through humour, or cautionary tales. In popular culture, we’ve got Yogi Bear and his felonious intent on “pic-a-nic baskets,” though the Goldilocks fairy tale hints at our primal fear of the creatures, which also finds expression through the use of pelts as rugs, a symbol of our triumph over a feared predator.

McLellan next to a tranquilized grizzly bear.

McLellan has an intimate knowledge of the grizzlies and their behaviour. He is an ursine voyeur unlike any other and has possibly conducted the longest uninterrupted wildlife research project done by one person. He amassed intimate knowledge of bear movement and behaviour, including eating and mating habits. He first spotted one female, called Aggie, as a days-old cub and was still tracking her when she was shot by a hunter 32 years later.

And then there’s Mitch, one of 17 cubs born to another bear named Elspeth. Mitch was a “bait hound” who revelled in the easy pickings of a trap. Despite McLellan’s best efforts not to capture him, Mitch got caught in eight traps in 1988 alone. Happily, four of those were in aluminum barrel traps, so they could just roll him out without needing to use tranquilizers. Mitch was happy to mooch a free meal even at the cost of his liberty. In the end, Mitch was killed during mating season by a larger male bear named Wilt. That bear was named after basketball’s Wilt Chamberlain for his great height.

Do bears poop in the woods? You know they do. For years, McLellan collected bear scat. He allowed it to air dry before sending the samples to a fellow known as the master of bear poop, who lived outside Missoula, Montana. Over time, McLellan sent along 1,190 chunks of dried grizzly scat and another 395 souvenirs of black bear scat.

McLellan and his colleague carrying a tranquilized grizzly bear.

The desire was to learn more about the grizzly diet. The gathered scat didn’t answer all their questions, so another step was to feed captured bears a diet of their favourite foods before checking the scat. Data in, data out. The challenge: Bears eat a lot. In exchange for a nutrient analysis of grizzly bear food samples, McLellan agreed to gather glacier lily bulbs, cow parsnip stalks and buffalo berries from sites foraged by tracked bears. Digging out the roots was a lot of work and he learned what to expect from the angle of the slope, other vegetation and soil textures. “Doing what bears do,” he writes, “is a good way to learn the minute-by-minute challenges they face.” High-tech science eventually showed a path beyond being knee-deep in scat. Isotope ratios provided the best picture of a grizzly’s diet.

Another black bear he tracked, a female, managed to locate a big, dead, hollow larch tree in the middle of the forest. She climbed up and in to kipper down for a six-month snooze, free of fear of attack from wolves, cougars, and grizzlies while hibernating. Her ability to walk through a thin snowfall to the location of the hollow tree offered anecdotal evidence of bears possessing spatial memory.

While a general reader, like me, learns much about British Columbia’s bears, McLellan’s book will be particularly useful for those interested in wildlife ecology and related fields, where such concepts as minimum convex polygon and marginal value theorem will be better appreciated.

The author has included in the text the latitude and the longitude of described events which can be typed into the search box of Google Earth. That is most helpful, as is an index which includes such entries as: “Mitch (grizzly bear), 62, 63, 191.” 9781771605656


Tom Hawthorn is the author of The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country (D&M, 2017) and Deadlines (Harbour, 2012). His anecdotal history of baseball in Vancouver will be published next year.

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