‘A bear’s best friend:’ Alberta naturalist Charlie Russell dies at 76

An Alberta naturalist who lived with bears to learn that people are part of nature and not separate from it has died.

Charlie Russell, who died Monday in hospital, was 76.

“The bears of the world have lost their best friend,” said Russell’s brother Gord, speaking from the cabin overlooking Waterton National Park in Alberta where the two lived.

Charlie Russell, son of the renowned conservationist Andy Russell, was raised in the foothills of southern Alberta. He grew up to be rancher — until 1960, when his father took him and his brother to help shoot a documentary on bears.

“It was a big adventure for me,” he recalled in a 2013 magazine profile.

The family travelled widely in search of grizzlies. Over the course of the shoot, young Charlie discovered something important.

“Everyone thought of the bears as being ferocious and aggressive, willing to kill at any moment. But I came to see them as peace-loving animals who just wanted to get along.”

The idea of discovering more about these compelling creatures by living with them came to dominate his life.

He began experimenting with ways to co-exist on his ranch, then rented out his land to become a full-time guide for the first company in Canada to offer grizzly eco-tours.

Eventually, he raised enough money to undertake an even bolder move.

For 13 years starting in the 1990s, Russell lived in Kamchatka, a peninsula in eastern Russia that is rife with grizzlies. Living in a cabin reachable only by plane, surrounded by a lightweight electric fence, he set about living companionably among some of the most feared predators on the planet.

The experience resulted in four books as well as feature documentaries on PBS and BBC.

“What I learned from my experience is that grizzly bears — even adult males — are not unpredictable, and losing their fear of humans does not make them dangerous,” Russell later said. ”In fact, the more we abuse bears, the more angry and unpredictable bears become.”

But Russell learned a bigger lesson, said Kevin van Tighem, a longtime friend and former superintendent of Banff National Park.

“He got to know bears as individuals, as a species capable of forming relationships. Charlie was one of those few people who don’t assume that human beings are what it’s all about.

“It goes to placing humans inside nature.”

Russell approached nature not as a scientist looking for data, but as an observer looking for life, said his friend Larry Simpson of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“He probably understood grizzly bears better than any human being who ever lived.

“He certainly changed my thinking about the depth of intellect that must be there among those animals.”

Russell changed a lot of people’s thinking about living with wildlife, said van Tighem.

“I think he’s had a great influence. We can’t go back from where Charlie’s brought us. We’ve learned too much.”

And, perhaps, about more than wildlife.

“If you’re going to approach learning about bears that way, it really affects the way you’re approaching life and nature in general,” van Tighem said. ”There’s a great deal to be learned from that.”

Gord Russell has only one memory of his brother interacting with bears. His voice grows stronger as he describes it.

“We were sitting on the porch and the bears came to visit. We had one that would come right onto the porch, not trying to put a paw on us or anything but just being there. (Charlie was) welcoming and calm, not particularly talkative.

“They’d be here for a few minutes before they went on with earning a living. They don’t take too much time for social stuff.

“It was fantastic.”

—Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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