Interview with Ellie Lamb: Grizzly Bear Whisperer & Wildlife Guide

Ellie Lamb is a naturalist and hiking guide who has made it her life’s work to listen to what grizzly bears have to teach us, and to promote their wellbeing.

Interviewed by Nick Harrison

Pacific Wild has campaigned for years to end the grizzly bear trophy hunt, and celebrated alongside many First Nations and other NGOs when the ban was announced in late 2017. However, bears are still largely misunderstood and mismanaged. We interviewed wildlife guide Ellie Lamb to learn a little more. 

Ellie, I’d love to hear in your own words what you do.

 I make a living watching these animals, bears, I mean. Throughout the year I do work in the field of guiding and education, bringing folks from all over the world as well as locals out into the bear’s habitat. I try to help them see not just how beautiful they are, but also the challenges they face – the life of a wild bear is wrought with natural obstacles and is made that much more difficult by us humans. 

How did you get into this line of work?

It’s really more about the people who have taught or collaborated with me. I’ve worked with a number of conservationists, hereditary chiefs, and scientific experts over the years. But it is the bears who have taught me the most. They can teach us so much about communication through their body language and their natural way of being.

Sometimes I’ll do something, and the bear’s reaction confirms to me – I won’t do that again. They’ve taught me about being nurturing and what it looks like to pass on traditional values in a community. Because they certainly do have a community – friends, enemies, a sense of justice and reward and punishment. They build relationships with each other and even other animals (like the human animal) knowing that sometime in the future they could benefit from those connections.

That is fascinating! Speaking of community – there’s obviously a lot of discussion around bears that find their way into our human communities here on the west coast. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Well, they will often take refuge in human communities when they are in a more vulnerable state. A lot of the time male dominant bears will push mothers and cubs into human communities. So these bears, they are trying to be on their best behaviour to fit in and not cause problems. They will behave as best they can because they know it will benefit them. We think they want to break in, steal and eat our food, but that’s not quite right. When conservation officers say they are killing bears because they are “dangerous”, it is simply not true. They are not a dangerous animal but gentle and empathetic. The females most of all are fair and peaceful to get along with.  

Why do you think there is such a misconception around this?

Well, there’s definitely a lot of projection of fear through hunting groups and governments. We need to educate and help folks understand these dynamics so that they don’t assume the worst of these animals.

Image of Ellie Lamb
Image by Ian McAllister

We hear the word “habituation” quite a bit in relation to bears being too comfortable in human communities. Is that an issue that you can speak to

In my opinion and experience, there is no such thing as habituation – bears are born to be comfortable with others. That is in their natural temperament, as I mentioned before, they are highly intelligent when it comes to social dynamics. So why is it that we have to see a bear running for its life to deem that they are not a threat? That’s essentially what the government classifies as habituation – any bear that isn’t running away. But the issue is that they are not fearful animals by nature, so this is in fact abnormal behaviour.

But surely there are instances where bears can be too comfortable or perhaps cause trouble in our communities?

Well, yes – I mean sometimes we need to tell them what we need from them. And sometimes that needs to be taught firmly. Often, if a bear walks up to a person, it is usually because they are young or immature and haven’t learned spatial respect from older bears. These same lessons at times need to be taught by humans as well. We do not want to scare bears but respectfully communicate our boundaries. Using a firm voice followed by a small hiss of bear spray to push a point home may be necessary. Young bears will respond quickly to lessons that we provide.  

Unnecessary killing of bears is an extreme example of excessive fearful management by our government and uninformed community members which feeds into an unfair cycle. Simply put, killing the bears doesn’t work – because now the dead bear will just be replaced with another bear who hasn’t learned the lessons necessary to coexist easily with people. 

Bears are extremely layered in their complexities and nature, no different than humans. Traditional knowledge is passed on by older bears to younger bears which is extremely important in the survival and safety strategies for these young animals going forward. 

Fear can not be the foundation of peaceful coexistence, bears have demonstrated they can exist with humans. These days communities are insisting on a kinder and more fair ethic in the management of our wildlife. 

I guess a larger question in all this is – why do we want or need to tolerate bears in our communities in the first place?

There’s a number of reasons. They are very important ecologically for our forests – they spread seeds and other nutrients. I’ve seen salmon eggs go right through a bear and come out completely intact. I almost want to put them back in the water! Beyond their importance to food webs and environment, they have an incredible charismatic presence in our world, and we are lucky to still have bears both grizzly and black bears, here in BC. 

As a person who has spent many years having relationships with bears, I believe a long forgotten trait that our forefathers carried can be reestablished. That is the spirit of humility, which can be regained just knowing we share and live on the same lands as these animals. 

What do you mean by that – a charismatic presence?

Bears have got to be one of the easiest animals ever to get along with. They manage so well with all sorts of other animals. They can teach us a lot about ourselves, too, in how they act and build relationships and have community. So if we can’t get along with them, what does that say about our tolerance for other humans with respect to large human issues like war and immigration? If we have dogs in our homes and squirrels in our yard but a bear shows up and we call someone to shoot it – how does that reflect? It’s inconsistent and shows a certain intolerance for those we don’t understand or have been conveniently misinformed about their intentions. 

That’s quite profound.

Yes. I really believe that. It’s bizarre to me – we enjoy those animals but don’t consider and respect these ones. Maybe it is as simple as we just don’t understand them. I think if we can see it as “oh, this animal isn’t here for long, then they leave. That’s okay.” Maybe we can shift our mindset and keep them alive and healthy.

Image by Ian McAllister
Image by Ian McAllister

On that topic, I want to come back to bear spray. You mentioned that you recommend carrying it. I think for a lot of us who spend time out in bear habitats, there’s confusion around how to act or what to do when we come across a bear.

Well I want to dispel the old narrative that when you see a bear you get really big and yell because this is scary to them. We don’t have to be frightened, and neither do they. Of course there will be adrenaline for both us and the bear in an encounter, but remaining calm is important. Usually, the bear will wander off. If they don’t, I recommend changing course and giving them as much space as you can. 

What if the bear continues to follow?

This year I’ve been hearing of a few bears walking up to people or following them. Social media has shown several interactions along these lines. Generally these are young bears who do not understand social cues and haven’t had a lesson taught to them by older bears or humans. It could also be a bear walking on the trail, and you need to step off the trail and let them pass by. 

Occasionally, a young bear will be curious and might walk up towards your group. You may try to remove yourself and others from the situation. But if the bear continues to walk in your direction and follow, you must stand your ground and don’t take a step back.

This bear may need strong encouragement to not follow or get too close. This education may simply be raising voice or stepping into their space, but if the bear is adamant then possibly a small hiss of bear spray in support of your voice and body language to change his mind on continuing to pursue you. They will listen next time.These animals have evolved for millions of years, do we really believe they cannot learn spatial boundaries, they live in a world full of spatial boundaries, of course they can learn, that is why they are still here. Bears are incredible students and incredible teachers – this is simply who bears are and our world is richer because of their presence.

Could you walk me through your own process when you run into a bear on the trail?

I’d love to. I recommend always carrying bear spray on your person and having it readily accessible, likely you will never use it, but if you do need it, you will wish you brought some.

Here’s are the steps I would take: 

  1. Step off the trail and likely the bear will walk past. Most of my encounters on trails look like this. 
  2. If it is a pushy or more curious young bear, do NOT back away, stand your ground. If the bear is approaching you, have your bear spray out in front of you and let the bear know in a firm voice “HEY, that’s close enough”.
  3. If the bear continues to come towards you, take a step forward into their space. This tells them “I’m not weak and I’m not going anywhere, so you better back off” – this step means a lot to the bear since they use this type of body language between each other. 
  4. If the bear continues to approach, use a firm voice, step into their direction and use a hiss of bear spray into their face.

Now the bear will learn to respond in the future to a firm voice and avoid escalating a situation that is not in his favor. Keep in mind, this same bear would eventually have to learn this lesson from a larger or more dominant adult bear. But the lesson is the same – to respect the space of others, whether it is humans or bears teaching the lesson. Once they have learned that lesson it avoids bears escalating a behavior that is challenging to coexist with. Because if they get away with behavior with no consequences, then they say ok that worked. I’ll keep doing it. So it’s very important that you don’t just back away.

And what if you don’t have bear spray?

Use human dominance, if you have a hiking pole or a pocket of rocks, that will establish the same boundaries. Remember bear spray is very important – for your safety and so the bear can learn. I educate rangers and community members across the province, giving them the same training that I described and I show them how to use the bear spray. My work is about what is proven to work, not about fear based strategies and management. Ultimately it is about respect between humans and bears.

This has been really helpful, I know personally I had been carrying a lot of misconceptions about bears and how we should be interacting with them both in our communities and in their communities.

We have so much to learn from bears. It would be a devastating loss to lose them here in BC  like they have been lost in most places around the world. That’s why we need to help people understand these animals, and learn how easy it is to coexist with these willing neighbors. We can live together in a respectful way and teach our children the same, for the future generations to come, of both bears and humans. 

Thanks so much, Ellie. 

Thank you!

Ellie gives talks in communities in the sea to sky region of southwestern BC, and is always happy to share her knowledge and learnings about what it is really like to live with bears. 

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