Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.


Did you hear about Igor Vorozhbitsyn, the man who was walking to a fishing spot in far northeast Russia last month when he was attacked by a grizzly bear?

Mid-mauling, Vorozhbitsyn’s cell-phone rang, playing a ringtone of the Justin Bieber song, “Baby.” The startled bear ran away.

“I know that sort of ringtone isn’t to everyone’s taste, but my granddaughter loaded it onto my phone for a joke,” Vorozhbitsyn said, according to the New York Post.

That story gave me a chuckle. But could it be relevant to our lives in Arizona?

Turns out it could, in a way.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service June 18 demanding a new “recovery plan” for grizzly bears, which are a threatened species in the lower 48. The center isn’t demanding reintroductions of the huge bears yet, but it knows what would be its top pick for a reintroduction site outside the bear’s current range: the area including Arizona’s Mogollon Rim east to New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.

Among the other sites in the center’s top five: the Grand Canyon, especially its western reaches and the North Rim. The petition also points to areas near these top spots that could make good habitat, such as “the Chiricahua and surrounding Sky Islands south of the Mogollon Rim and Gila Complex.”

Don’t go out and buy bear spray just yet. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the center, emphasized to me that the petition isn’t primarily meant to prompt reintroductions of grizzlies. The center’s first order of business is to prod the Fish and Wildlife Service into writing a new recovery plan for grizzlies, replacing the one produced in 1993.

Greenwald added, “One of the things that’s a driving factor in the timing of us doing this now is that Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to remove protections for grizzlies in the Yellowstone area and the north Continental Divide.”

Grizzlies ostensibly exist in six areas of the northwestern United States. The two big ones are the greater Yellowstone area in Wyoming and Montana, and the area including and surrounding Glacier National Park in Montana. Hundreds of bears live in both locations.

Two other areas in Idaho only have a few dozen grizzlies each. And the last two areas of theoretical grizzly habitat have none or just a few individuals: the north Cascades in Washington and the Selway-Bitterroot area of Idaho.

Grizzlies used to live in most of the western United States, especially the Great Plains, California and the mountain ranges, mostly avoiding desert regions. There are a few different stories of the last grizzly’s death in Arizona, but they have these factors in common: It was in the 1930s and in the high country of Eastern Arizona, the same area the center is pointing to as good habitat now.

“It’s the biggest one where (grizzly) bears don’t occur right now. It’s got a lot of potential,” Greenwald said.

Among its greatest assets: a lot of roadless, unpeopled area, and miles of oak trees that provide acorns grizzlies can fill up on.

Whether it’s really big enough, and unpopulated enough, is open to question. Bob Hernbrode, a Tucsonan who was on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and spent a career as a wildlife biologist, doubts it.

“I don’t think there are any big enough places left that there wouldn’t be so much conflict, that it wouldn’t be a viable process or project,” he said.

Local residents are unlikely to be any more thrilled by the presence of grizzlies than they have been about reintroduced wolves, which have suffered mysterious deaths and disappearances after being reintroduced there in 1998.

And you can add many campers and hikers to the list of people made mighty uncomfortable by the idea of needing to consider grizzly bears when they prepare for their outdoor excursions.

Once upon a time I was hiking up a Grand Canyon trail when a bighorn sheep came striding around a curve toward me on the trail, maybe 20 yards away. If that had been a grizzly...

Well, I called someone who knows about grizzlies to learn more about what really happens when you hike and camp in grizzly country. Turns out, it’s not that different from black-bear country in that, most of all, you need to be careful with your food.

A.J. Chlebnik, curator of education at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont., moved there from Michigan nine years ago.

“The biggest change I made is that I don’t go (hiking) alone, and I always carry bear spray with me,” she said.

The closest she’s come to grizzlies is when she got back to a trailhead and pressed the button on her remote to unlock her car. The beeping startled a pair of amorous grizzlies in the midst of the breeding act, she said. They started from the bush and scurried away.

Almost all interactions between people and grizzlies end up with the person seeing the bear’s rear end disappearing into the bush, she said.

That may be true, but I’m going to have my kids load up a few painful pop ringtones for me just in case.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter