Backstory: Bearology in grizzly detail

Chapter 2, in which the mysterious thumping on the trail is explained.

Shannon Podruzny and I wheel around - nervously - to see what is thumping toward us. I find myself thinking about golf: Will I still be able to hit the ball with only one limb?

It turns out to be a hunter on a horse, who takes considerable delight in our startled response. "I left the bear back in the woods," he says. I consider releasing some pepper spray in his direction, but remember he's the one with the gun.

Ms. Podruzny seems anxious, too, which makes me feel only modestly better. After six years of shadowing grizzlies in the woods, the ecologist is savvy around bears and maintains a healthy appreciation for their ferocity.

By most accounts, grizzlies are only defensively aggressive. They will attack if you startle them, roust a mother with cubs, or interrupt one eating a carcass. Often they bluff charge: run at you and veer off. If they do attack, you're supposed to stand your ground and be passive, something I told Podruzny I didn't have the fortitude to do. My instinct would be to run, the one response that usually ends up with someone sending your family flowers. A grizzly, after all, can outrun a horse, and I'm no Seabiscuit.

Surprisingly, Podruzny and her current team of five researchers rarely see a grizzly. Despite their many forays into the lodgepole pine and huckleberry over a summer to study the bruin's habitat, the field-study team encounters a grizzly only about once every 25 trips into the woods. That's by design. They don't want to endanger themselves or disturb the bears.

Yet anyone who studies grizzlies usually has tales of goose-bump encounters. Podruzny recalls hers as easily as a family phone number. She and another scientist were surveying a trout stream in Yellowstone National Park in early 2000. They were going upstream. A mother and two cubs were sauntering downstream. The protective female, 20 yards away, reared up and huffed, suggesting the human intruders try a different route. "We complied," says Podruzny, matter-of-factly.

On another occasion, she confronted a grizzly that had just killed an elk calf. This one was only a menacing 10 yards away. It bolted up a riverbank and started to devour the carcass, acting as if Podruzny was going to steal it.

"The guy I was working with grabbed my collar and started to pull me back," she says. "I had a little adrenaline after that."

Despite the occasional Stephen King moments, Podruzny's work may not be any more dangerous than bagging groceries at a Piggly Wiggly. Researchers say only one person in the 32-year history of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a collection of federal and state scientists of which she is a part, has had to use pepper spray against a bear.

One reason for Podruzny & Co.'s good fortune in the woods is their caution. They check a radio telemeter to see if the bear they're shadowing is in the area. If so, they bypass the site. They also follow a cardinal rule of hiking etiquette: They make noise to alert the bears to their presence. At least they usually do.

Today, Podruzny is talking quietly. It's the first weekend of elk season, and she doesn't want to alienate the hunters by scaring off game. I tell her that I don't want to risk being a beach ball for a bear so some hunter can fill his freezer with venison. I tell her this loudly.

Being savvy around bears is something more people in the West are being forced to do. As the population of grizzlies in the Yellowstone area grows - from 200 in the 1970s to an estimated 600 today - man-bear encounters are increasing. In some areas, notably Yellowstone National Park, experts have done a good job of minimizing the conflicts. Long ago the park put in bear-proof garbage cans, ones that require a virtual safe- cracker to breach. Rangers also routinely patrol campgrounds and confiscate food left out. Campers are required to watch a video about bears before trekking into the backcountry.

The result: Despite hundreds of encounters, only about one hiker is mauled in the park a year versus an average of 50 prior to the 1970s. "We've proven that you can have a fair number of visitors and still have bears," says Kerry Gunther, a bear-management specialist in Yellowstone since 1983.

Outside federally managed areas, though, the rules of the woods aren't always as well understood or followed, which raises concerns about the perils facing both people and bears. One focus of Podruzny's research, in fact, is to see how grizzlies migrating south out of Yellowstone are interacting with people, as well as black bears.

Podruzny - a bespectacled, medium-built woman of few words - might seem an unlikely person to be shadowing one of the fiercest creatures on earth. She grew up in suburban Atlanta and lived for a time in New Jersey. Yet she has always harbored a fascination with carnivores - what she calls the "big, charismatic species."

Affable and cool-headed, Podruzny wanted to study mountain lions when she graduated from Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman with a master's degree in fish and wildlife biology. But there were no jobs. She signed on with the Bear Study Team instead, happily. "When I got my first bear job, I was running and skipping through the house," she says.

Like many in the small fraternity of bearologists, Podruzny is captivated by the grizzly persona - the bruin's intelligence and individuality. Some are timid, some dominant, some aggressive, some playful. "Each has its own idiosyncrasies and personality," she says. Or as Mr. Gunther puts it: They are not like a herd of antelope. They "think things through. They are a lot more like people that way."

Studying bears also has the advantage of going to an office in the woods. Many of the young, enthusiastic researchers on Podruzny's team are attracted to the work for similar reasons - the mystique of the grizzly, the allure of the outdoors.

Meghan Riley, a graduate of Smith College, is a wildlife junkie. She has researched spotted owls in New Mexico, tree frogs in Florida, and seabirds off San Francisco. She likes to pick up every snake she sees. "I've just got a big thing about animals," says Ms. Riley.

Similarly, Bryn Karabensh, a summer worker and student at MSU, finds bear biology "incredible and endless," she says. "Bears are hard not to like. They are amazing creatures."

The researchers' devotion is evident on the last hike of the day, a trek into the Bridger-Teton National Forest to examine a black bear site. We drive a couple miles in on a road with ruts as deep as an open-pit mine. We trudge uphill, in a steady rain. Mud is flowing into my shoes. The rain mocks my $5 slicker. At 7,300 feet, I am gasping for air. Podruzny and Riley saunter on, effortlessly and contentedly.

When we finally reach the site, Podruzny decides just to retrieve some bear scat because it is getting too hard to record measurements in the rain.

Later I ask if hiking that far through those conditions just for some feces is a good day on the job. "We got our poop," she says. "It's data."

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