‘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

Just Posted

WATCH: Red Deer shows respect at annual celebration

Central Alberta Sexual Assault Suport Centre holds Respect Day at city hall park

Red Deer man sentenced to 4 1/2 years for fatal shooting

Mother-of-two was killed when a rifle in a sports bag accidentally went off in February 2017

Kitten found in engine is “so far, so good”

It’s kitten season at Central Alberta Humane Society in Red Deer

Fathers’ rights group to rally in front of Red Deer Courthouse

For a few months now, Mattias Battauz has been in front of… Continue reading

WATCH: Red Deer’s Food Truck Friday opens in a larger new venue

Carnival Cinemas space praised by customers and vendors

NDP nominates candidate for pending Innisfail-Sylvan Lake byelection

Seat vacant after previous MLA charged with sexual assault

Hunt underway for two suspects connected to Mississauga, Ont., blast

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Police are actively hunting for two suspects believed to… Continue reading

Handcuffed Weinstein faces rape charge in #MeToo reckoning

NEW YORK — It was the moment the #MeToo movement had been… Continue reading

Waterline work closes 48th Avenue in Red Deer this weekend

Drivers can expect a major closure in downtown Red Deer this weekend.… Continue reading

Stettler police looking for alleged shoplifter who stole shoes

Stettler Mounties are looking for a woman they say stole a pair… Continue reading

Teamsters union members vote 98.1 per cent to reject CP Rail final offer

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference says its members at Canadian Pacific Railway… Continue reading

Wildfire northwest of Kamloops jumps to 1,600 hectares overnight

Ground crews and aircraft are responding to an estimated 1,600 hectare wildfire approximately 55 kilometers northwest of Kamloops, near the Deadman Vidette Road.

Referendum in Ireland would repeal strict ban on abortion

DUBLIN — Ireland’s referendum Friday represented more than a vote on whether… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month