What’s in a Grizzly Name?

Labeling and Naming

From the time our hominid ancestors first uttered a semiotic grunt, we humans have been obsessed with categorizing and labeling things. And for good reason. Labels can efficiently convey a large amount of emotionally-resonant information with just a few syllables, including the appearance, behaviors, location, and usefulness of stuff. All of which can be vital for humans trying to survive and reproduce in a complex social and natural environment. Although Kierkegaard may have made a worthwhile existential point when he wrote “Once you label me, you negate me,” in all other regards he pretty much got it wrong.

Among other things, labeling can denote relatedness and descent. Most obviously this holds when we identify a fellow human with a surname, tribe, clan, ethnic group, or nationality. But taxonomies are also pervasive, explicitly or otherwise, in the many schemes we use to organize communications about the natural and physical world. Such relational ascriptions not only convey information about differences and commonalities, but also notional explanations for these patterns—all of which is foundational to the industrial-scale process by which we humans make meaning.

Plants and animals have been subject to a rigorous account of descent only since the development of contemporary taxonomic schemes, beginning (more-or-less) with the hierarchical binomial structure that Carl Linnaeus developed during the early 1700s. Genera and species were the centerpieces of Linnaeus’s scheme, although he made provision for Kingdoms, Classes, and Orders as well—strictly on the basis of morphologic similarities. Only since Mendel’s account of heredity and the theories of Darwin and Wallace emerged during the mid-1800s has an evolutionary, gene-mediated, notion of descent infused our understandings of variation in the natural world. And only since the quite recent post-1950s development of methods for describing, querying, and sequencing the genome has genetic material rather than superficial morphology dictated how we describe and understand evolutionary descent.

Ursus arctos Linn.

The classification and naming of brown bears (which include grizzly bears as well) has gotten embrangled with this evolution of theory and methods informing taxonomic deliberations. Linnaeus got us off to a helpful start in 1758 by giving his native Swedish brown bear the noble name of Ursus arctos. We puttered along during the early to mid-part of the 1800s adding roughly one subspecies per decade to the diversity contained within the over-arching rubric of Ursus arctos. But then in 1896 a proliferator named C. Hart Merriam signaled a disturbing tendency towards rampant splitting by denoting in that year alone five subspecies of Ursus arctos unique to North America. And then, a short 22 years later, he published a monograph entitled “Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America” that differentiated 78 species (not subspecies) of brown and grizzly bears, including five in the Yellowstone ecoregion alone. This “excessive splitting” was based on obsessive attention to variation in skull morphology.

Morphologic and genetic variation within species is, in fact, useful for understanding evolutionary processes, especially when coupled with spatial information. But most distinctions at a scale finer than species are notoriously prey to judgment and professional posturing, especially when based solely on sub-specific variation in appearance. That being said, morphology-based classifications at the higher-order grain of species and genera are often quite robust to time, place, and culture, as with the consilience that Jared Diamond found between the systems used by western taxonomists and Foré people of New Guinea to identify bird species. Of 120 species described by European taxonomic schemes, 93 had a one-to-one correspondence in the Foré system.

But such is not the case with sub-specific variation among brown bears. It is obvious to close observers that brown bears can exhibit a substantial amount of morphological variation driven by diet rather than evolutionary descent or corresponding variation of the genome. As a result, the same genetic stock can give rise to enormous uniformly-brown coastal bears and diminutive blond arctic grizzlies, each with distinctly different skulls. Yet they are of the same approximate lineage with the same approximate biogeographic history. Bob Rausch was perhaps the first to authoritatively make this point in a paper he published in 1963 reporting on his thorough examination of numerous bear skulls, and without the benefit of more recent genetic techniques. He concluded that virtually all of Merriam’s distinctions were bogus, and that only two subspecies warranted differentiation in all of North America on the basis of skull morphology: bears living on Kodiak Island and all the rest; Ursus arctos middendorffi and U. a. horribilis.

Clades of Bears

Which brings me to the post-1980s world of modern genetics. A veritable host of papers have been published since 1990 by researchers throughout the Northern Hemisphere reporting on the results of investigations into the genome of brown bears. John Davison and his co-authors did us all a highly useful service by publishing a paper in 2011 that summarized and interpreted this corpus of research, including a distillation of sub-specific variation, biogeography, and history. Side-stepping the potential minefield of politics organized around conventional nomenclatures, researchers now often talk about clades of brown bears rather than subspecies. According to this usage, a clade is simply a genetic lineage of sufficient definition to warrant distinction when interpreting hemispheric distributions and evolutionary histories.

At this point in time, six, possibly seven, clades of brown bears in the Northern Hemisphere have been identified, all of which arose in Eurasia during the last 600,000 years or so (for more, follow this link). The most ancient split around 566,000 years ago gave rise to the clades that spawned polar bears and currently occupy Europe and the ABC (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) islands of Alaska (Clades 1 and 2). The next most ancient split happened around 343,000 years ago, giving rise to the considerably diverse and morphological distinct clades that occupy the Gobi desert, Tibet, and the sprawl of mountains terminating at either end in Iran and Nepal (Clades 5, 6, and possibly additional clades in Iran and the Gobi desert). And from this same comparatively ancient branch arose all of the brown and grizzly bears occupying North America (barring the ABC islands) and the remainder of Asia and eastern Europe (Clades 3 and 4). Notably, Clade 2 only survives on the ABC islands, and Clade 4 only in the central part of North America…along with a weird isolate on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Parenthetically, all of the taxonomists who focused on morphology alone got the sub-specific differentiations wrong, at least according to the geneticists, and at least for brown bears in North America. On the other hand, some of the historical work by taxonomists in Eurasia has been confirmed by geneticists, including the taxonomic standing of distinctive bears occupying the Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, and Gobi desert (Ursus arctos isabellinus, pruinosis, and gobiensis ≈ Clades 5 and 6), as well as part of the Middle East (U. a. syriacus, partly encompassed by an as yet unnumbered clade found in Iran). These sub-specific variants have been robust to the vagaries of method primarily because their taxonomically-relevant morphological features are distinctive enough to have arisen from distinguishable genetic differences.


Turning the focus back to North America, some questions logically follow from the fact that all brown bear clades arose in Eurasian. For example, how and when did grizzlies and brown bears get to North America? Why do we have Clade 4 bears nowhere north of southeastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta? Why do we have Clade 2 bears nowhere else but the ABC islands of Alaska (barring the polar bear, which is also a Clade 2 derivative)? Why is Clade 3 dominant everywhere else, with sub-Clade 3b predominant in the interior of North America and sub-Clade 3a predominant closer to the ancient landmass of Beringia?…Beringia being the land bridge between Asia and North America that was exposed by lower sea levels during the Ice Ages and the route by which all brown bears almost certainly reached this continent.

Up until the early 2000s most scientists thought that grizzlies had arrived in the middle part of North America only after the last continental ice sheets had melted enough to allow passage of bears from Beringia through an ice-free corridor along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains—probably around 14-13,000 years ago. However, the discovery of grizzly bear remains in central Alberta dating to roughly 32,000 years ago turned this assumption on its head. Moreover, recent genomic studies have established that grizzlies were in central North American prior to closure of the penultimate ice-free corridor. Which would have been when? A definitive summary of ice sheet margins by Chris Stokes and some co-authors suggests that this penultimate passage-way occurred between 80-65,000 years ago, possibly as late as 55,000 years ago.

And who were the first grizzlies to set up residence in central North America? Almost certainly they were among the first brown bears to venture east from Asia into Beringia. These venturesome souls showed up around 70,000 years ago, comprised of bears belonging to Clades 2, 4, and sub-Clade 3c. Of these, only bears of Clade 4 managed to successfully complete the journey to the middle part of the continent. They were then isolated for thousands of years when the ice door figuratively slammed shut roughly 55 millennia ago. At least two additional waves of migrants arrived afterwards in eastern Beringia between 21-10,000 years ago, all descendants of sub-Clades 3b and 3a. These newer colonists dispersed south from Beringia during the terminal melt of North America’s ice sheets between 15-8,000 years ago only to encounter northward dispersing Clade 4 bears in what is now central Alberta and British Columbia. Notably, all of the bears descended from sub-Clade 3c disappeared, along with all of the Clade 4 bears that remained in Beringia, and all of the Clade 2 bears barring those on the ABC islands. The newcomers were clearly the big winners (for more on all of this see this link and this link).

Parenthetically, some researchers have theorized that grizzlies also got to the mid-continent by following ice-free coastal areas of what is now Alaska and British Columbia, prior to the opening of Alberta’s ice-free corridor. Land levels at these ice free margins were dramatically elevated during the Ice Ages as a compensatory (“fore-bulge”) response to depression of the Earth’s crust by a Cordilleran ice sheet farther inland, which would have thereby provided ample firm ground for migrating coastal grizzlies subsisting on marine resources. That having been said, the lack of Clade 2 genes among modern-day grizzlies in central North America suggests that coastal migrants played only a minor role, if any, in Ice Age colonizations.


Fast forward 11,000 years or so, a period during which Clade 4 grizzlies made their way into eastern North America, followed a retreating ice sheet margin north, lingered in northern Labrador, and then disappeared pretty much altogether from the eastern part of the continent (see this overview). Fast forward to around 1800 A.D., when grizzly bears on this continent first encountered substantial numbers of westward-marching Europeans, many armed with large-caliber firearms advancing under the banner of Manifest Destiny and a narrational corollary that advocated cleansing the Earth of all impediments or inconveniences to “civilization.” A narrative that not only permitted but even promoted genocide and extirpation—of native peoples, bison, wolves, grizzly bears, and others.

Clade 4 grizzlies bore the brunt of this onslaught, which was concentrated at middle latitudes and aimed straight at the ancestral millennia’s-old homeland of these bears—the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Coastal Ranges, and Pacific coastal lowlands. In a brief 125-year period roughly 90% of Clade 4 grizzly bears were extirpated from roughly 90% of their former distribution, attributable almost wholly to extremely lethal well-armed Europeans with a bad attitude. In fact, virtually every grizzly bear that encountered an armed European between 1800 and 1950 probably ended up dead. The fruits of a near 70,000 year history of exploration, daring, curiosity, and endurance—on the part of grizzly bears—were nearly eliminated in an evolutionary if not historical blink of the eye (for more on this history see this link and this link).

And so it was that in 1975 the remnant of Clade 4 grizzlies still surviving in the contiguous United States was given Endangered Species Act protections. A long and agonizing 35 years later, grizzly bears in Alberta—the bulk of which are Clade 4 descendants—were listed as Threatened by the Province of Alberta, but only after it became painfully obvious to a regressive conservative government that these bears were in jeopardy (for more on this history, see Jeff Gailus’s book). Meanwhile, the residuum of Clade 4 grizzly bears in neighboring British Columbia have been rendered increasingly vulnerable by a cancerous progression of fragmentation that has relegated bears to mountainous enclaves. In no single fragment anywhere do Clade 4 grizzlies amount to more than 1000 animals, and more often a few hundred or few dozen.

Arrogance and Ignorance

For anyone who has the heart and soul to care about such things, this sacrifice of a genetically unique and currently rare lineage of brown bears on the altar of pathologic human impulses is tragic. Doubly tragic is the fact that these bears have been natives of this land for millennia longer than any humans, even First Peoples, and doubly so in comparison to European newcomers who can lay claim to only a few centuries.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that the managers entrusted with the fate of Clade 4 grizzly bears have adopted a cavalier attitude that assumes the best “use” of these animals is in providing an opportunity for some guy to kill them for fun—and then be stuffed for permanent display to his boozy friends and their trophy wives (e.g., my Trump-voting hedge-fund managing neighbor a mile up the road). And, adding insult to injury, the agency with primary responsibility for management of these bears in the United States—the US Fish & Wildlife Service—has slaved itself to Bob Rausch’s primitive 1963 taxonomy. As a result, the Service has failed to acknowledge in any meaningful way that the grizzly bears at their mercy belong to a unique lineage with a rich history. The Fish & Wildlife Service clings to the fallacy that all grizzlies other than those on Kodiak Island are of a single “subspecies” (see their proposed rule), and, in the process, ignore 25 years of compendious research. The Service is rushing to remove ESA protections for Clade 4 grizzly bears in the United States at as fast a pace as they can bureaucratically sustain and legally justify, prostituted in imagined service of regressive political masters—all the while without acknowledging the priceless natural heritage they hold in their hands. Which is, yes, denoted by a label.

The remedy is obvious. The Fish & Wildlife Service should first stop its headlong rush to remove ESA protections. Second, it should fully acknowledge and integrate the rich body of research pertaining to the history and heritage embodied by the Clade 4 grizzly that survive in the northern US Rocky Mountains. Third, it should collaborate with the provincial governments of British Columbia and Alberta—to the extent they are willing—in developing a recovery plan for this Clade that adequately accounts for history, including the larger evolutionary arc as well as more recent catastrophic losses. Finally, the Service (along with the rest of us) should strive for humility. We humans have not been on this continent that long, especially us Europeans, and especially in comparison to our native biota—including Ursus arctos, Clade 4. The ecological holocaust we perpetrated is every bit as ignoble as any ethnic cleansing. And we should be striving mightily to atone.

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David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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