Dave Landreth is an outspoken Southern Appalachian conservation advocate who, through years of researching wildlife in the Northern Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, has developed a passion for protecting clean air and water, public lands and the plants and animals that live among us. His penchant for collecting plaster molds of grizzly bear and wolf paw imprints from the mud of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone gave him his handle, Griztrax.
Dave recently agreed to this interview with Meanderthals and pulled no punches regarding how he feels about the current state government in North Carolina’s capitol city of Raleigh. But don’t take it from me, let’s let Dave tell his story:
[Meanderthals] Thank you very much Dave, and welcome. So, tell us a bit about yourself; your background and what molded you.
[Dave Landreth] I grew up country in a then-rural county in Western North Carolina, with the hills and creeks of Green River and the Big Hungry area as my playground. No World Wide Web, no TV (thank goodness) and no video games. Playing outdoors in the woods wasn’t a ‘sport’
— it was just what kids did to fend off boredom. Some of my happiest memories are those of my buddies and me riding our bikes down to the logging roads that laced the mountains along Green River where the I-26 high bridge now crosses the Gorge. We’d leave at sunrise and spend the day racing and pushing our bikes up and down the ridges and through the river, then ride back tired and dirty, often well after dark.
None of us wore packs
— we’d take a small cloth sack and carry a candy bar and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and get our water from the streams and springs. Looking back, I wonder if the frequency with which we came down with the ‘flu’ wasn’t actually some sort of intestinal malady picked up from drinking the untreated water. At any rate, we survived and had experiences that I wouldn’t take anything for. I had two buddies that were really close, John and Mike, and we were like the 3 Musketeers, always ready for any sort of hair-brained adventure, especially if the adventure included bikes and mountains.
As I grew into my teens, I started spending time hunting in those same hills, toting an ancient 12 guage shotgun that my Dad gave me (it’s still sitting in a corner by my bed, but the barrel is worn so thin that I’d be afraid to shoot the thing.) I could buy shells for 25 cents a pop and 3 or 4 shells would be adequate for a day’s hunting. We rarely killed anything
— the trips were mostly about rambling the hills down in Green River, telling tales and making excuses for not having any luck. To tell the truth, none of us really cared for the taste of squirrel or rabbit, so we would deliberately miss easy shots to avoid having to eat what we shot. I have some really great memories of those long days in the woods with good friends and unlimited horizons.
I mentioned that we didn’t have a TV in the house
— Dad didn’t like them and figured that they would be a bad influence. Right or wrong, it was one of the best things my parents ever did for me. I learned to read at an early age and by the time that most kids were still reading the Adventures of Dick and Jane, I was devouring the stories of Mark Twain, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling and Jim Kjelgaard, a great writer of outdoor books for kids that not a lot of people are familiar with.
There was a lot of adventure in those books and I was greatly influenced by the early explorers and adventurers. One book in particular stands out as a life-changing influence in my life. I don’t remember the exact title and I’ve tried to find a copy on Amazon, but it was about the life of John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who struck out on his own, being one of the first white men to explore the fantastic wonderland that we know today as Yellowstone.
I was hooked immediately and started reading everything that I could get my hands on about the mountain men that explored the west, often being more skilled in survival than the Native Americans that they shared the wilderness with. It became a lifelong passion and I couldn’t wait until I got old enough to see some of the wild country that they explored.
I have to mention a teacher that I had too
— a grand lady named Mamie G. Wells at the old Flat Rock Jr. High School. When I found out that I was going to be in her room, I was terrified because I’d heard rumors that she was a holy terror of a teacher. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and one of my greatest regrets is that I never got around to telling her what a strong and positive influence she had been on my life.
I was a problem student, a teacher’s nightmare, always dreaming about the world outside the window, rarely listening to instruction or completing work on time. The one thing that I had going for me was my love for reading and science and she took a lot of time to urge me to use that love to my advantage.
She was a large lady, both in size and character and she loved to hike. She would often take us out of the classroom on warm spring days to go rambling along the back roads near the school, or to take us over to the the Carl Sandburg farm just across the road. She was friends with the Sandburgs and loved Carl’s poetry. I had some truly great teachers over the years, and I can’t imagine what my life would have been without their patient guidance and forbearance.
Speaking of Sandburg’s place, when we were kids, we would push and ride our bikes to the top of the mountain behind his home, sometimes camping at the tops of the cliffs on Glassy Mtn. The current trail isn’t the original one that he used
— his was more of a meandering path that I think was much prettier and less prone to erosion. He had chairs setting at different places on the mountain where he would sit and write or just enjoy the beauty of his woods. That was before Mrs. Wells introduced us to his work, so we didn’t really appreciate his fame. He was just a friendly, quiet old fellow that enjoyed being out in the woods.
When I was about 14, my buddies and I were squirrel hunting up on Glassy Mountain one fall day. I’m not sure that Carl was still living there then, but his family still owned the property. I shot a squirrel on the hillside next to the little reflecting pond that is located part way up the first steep climb up the mountain. I was up on the opposite hillside about 100 feet away and took off running to pick up the squirrel before I lost sight of it in the leaves.
I didn’t know about the pool at the time and hit it at a hard run. It was covered in floating leaves, with just a trace of water showing through. I went in neck-deep in the chilly water
— and never did find the squirrel. It’s hard to believe now how open the forests of the area were to hunting. I quit hunting early on, but as a kid, it was nearly always OK to hunt just about anywhere that wasn’t posted against it. It was a certainly a different world then
— and not necessarily always a better one.
[Meanderthals] You have studied grizzly bears in Yellowstone, the Tetons, and other areas of Wyoming for years. What have you learned, and what are some of your most amazing discoveries?
[Dave Landreth] I’ve been fascinated (some would say obsessed) with bears since I was a child. Mom used to tell me the first ‘sort-of’ sentence that I ever put together was one that I said while we were driving back from a visit to Virginia. “Bear in tree, duck on pond…” The bear in the tree is still there by the roadside, Hwy. 176 near Saluda, NC
— a black metal sign marking the entrance to a mountain home. I’m not sure about the duck on a pond though.
Reading about the adventures of mountain men stoked my passion for grizzlies, and I read everything that I could get my hands on in preparation for the trip that I knew I was destined to make to grizzly country. I had no idea of how important those trips would be or how often I’d be going to the Northern Rockies.
Something I learned is that probably 95% of what I’d read about grizzlies was total BS. They were either portrayed as bloodthirsty beasts in a constant hunt for human prey or cuddly teddy bears with no capacity for violence or aggression. Grizzlies are studies in contradiction. They’re ferocious predators, but are capable of moments of surprising tenderness with their young.
The she-griz are great role models of parentage, ready to sacrifice their own safety in a heartbeat to protect their cubs. Most grizzlies have a mostly vegetarian diet, though some specialize in predation or scavenging carcasses. They’re remarkable opportunists, rarely passing up anything that might possibly provide a meal. They have a sense of smell that is much more powerful than the best bloodhound. If they have the choice, they’ll avoid human contact, but if a hiker or backpacker breaks the rules of bear country etiquette, they won’t hesitate to pound a bit of sense into the offender.
Regardless of how much I love the grizzly, they don’t love me or any other human in return. We’re tolerated, barely (bearly :), and if the human race disappeared from the earth tomorrow, the grizzly would hardly mourn our passing. What a grizzly does best is to simply be a grizzly
— a great big, stinking, brawling, magnificent beast that makes wild country really and truly wild.
One of the most amazing things that I’ve learned about grizzly is their capacity for forming rough partnerships with wolves when hunting. It’s not a friendship, but the two animals will sometimes combine forces to score a meal and even share a kill side by side at times. Grizzly sows have also been observed watching calmly as their cubs play with wolf cubs, though the two species are more often bitter enemies that will kill one another if given the chance. Again, one of the traits of grizzly is their individuality.
I’ve had one really hairy encounter with a grizzly where I had to use pepper spray to turn its charge. It had mauled two hikers that passed through the area earlier, but I was unaware of that incident, having been out in the backcountry for several days. It charged from behind in dense timber, flowing over downed trees like smoke over water. It’s impossible to describe how fast they can be, even over rough, broken terrain.
I didn’t have a chance to get my hands on the spray at first (should have had it in my hand and ready to use, since I’d been seeing scat on the trail for some time.) I threw my hands up in the air above my head and yelled at it like I would a charging dog. It plowed to a stop only a few inches from me and started circling, growling louder than I ever dreamed any animal could growl.
I mentioned to one of the bear managers later that it ‘roared’ and he told me that bears don’t roar. I beg to differ
— when a growl is that loud and that deep, it’s a roar. It sounded like it was coming from inside a 55 gallon drum.
After a standoff that might have lasted 30 or 45 seconds, I was able to ease a hand down to my belt where the spray was and blast the bear at point blank range. It backed off a couple of feet and then growled again. Then I gave it a long blast and it started retreating, with me still yelling and trying to stand as tall as possible.
I want to point out that what I did isn’t what is advised in a charge, and it isn’t necessarily what I’d advise myself. It just seemed to be the only option at the time and it worked. The bear continued to stay close for a minute or so, giving me time to snap a blurred photo from the camera hanging around my neck. It’s my most-prized photo of all time!
I learned later that it had put two hikers in the hospital earlier after they panicked as it charged them. One ran and even though they both had spray, they had it stashed in their packs and grizzlies don’t do time-outs. It ran past the hiker that stood his ground and knocked the runner to the ground and started to maul him. Then the other hiker drew its attention and it turned to him, mauling him while giving the first guy time to get the spray out of his pack. Once sprayed, the griz immediately retreated without further injury to them.
Spray works and it’s by far the most effective defense that you can carry in grizzly country, despite what the gun fetishists claim. There is no way that I could have made an accurate shot under the circumstances of the charge, and I would have probably been badly mauled or even killed if I’d tried to use a gun. The spray worked great, just like it’s supposed to and more importantly, both the grizzly and I walked away.
[Meanderthals] Your nickname is Griztrax. How did that come about?
[Dave Landreth] I found the tracks of a 700+ lb. grizzly near Togwotee Pass in Wyoming, perfectly preserved in a muddy trail leading into the Mount Leidy Highlands region. I didn’t have any casting material with me, something that I still regret. It was by far the most detailed and huge track that I’ve found in all of my years of rambling through grizzly country.
I’ve started carrying plaster with me on all of my trips to the Yellowstone/Teton region, and over the years I’ve cast hundreds of grizzly and wolf tracks. Most have been given away, but I’ve saved a few that I really like. One has a grizzly, a wolf, a coyote and a raven in a single cast. I got it near a worn-out bison carcass by the Lamar River in Yellowstone after the scavengers had moved on. I have favorite locations with good mud that I return to over and over when I’m in the Yellowstone and Teton region, hoping to find another track like the one at Togwotee Pass. My nickname came from the hobby.
[Meanderthals] You are significantly involved in conservation matters. What are some of your pet projects and greatest successes. Particularly in Western North Carolina, what are the conservation issues still needing the most attention?
[Dave Landreth] Something that I was really passionate about in the early 90s was a drive to do away with grazing on Forest Service land near Grand Teton National Park. The area, known as the Blackrock/Spread Creek region, had some of the best potential grizzly habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem. However, the grazing of thousands of cattle on the allotment meant that it was treated like a giant subsidized feed lot.
A lot of grizzly died there after getting into conflicts with the grazing interests. One giant bear in particular, #209, was trapped and killed after getting two strikes because of his taste for prime rib. I think that #209 was the grizzly that left the huge track that I found near Togwotee Pass. After being trapped for killing a beef in the Spread Creek region, he was moved to northern Yellowstone in hopes of keeping him out of trouble. He was moved to the south side of Specimen Ridge, my favorite Yellowstone backcountry destination. It only took him a few days to work his way back to Spread Creek and the easy prey that was grazing there. For that sin, he was again trapped and euthanized.
A movement was started to end the grazing in the region and a lot of us worked to publicize the problems that grazing was causing in Blackrock and Spread Creek. The cattle were finally removed. Now the land is one of the prettiest and most wildlife rich regions anywhere in the Northern Rockies; with elk, bison, grizzly, black bear, cougar, wolverine, lynx and many other species roaming over its vast wild lands. I’m really proud of the efforts we made to get the cattle off the land. I spent a lot of time up there last fall. It’s amazing how quickly the land recovered once the trampling and fencing was out of the picture.
Locally in WNC, we had a battle royal when we were fighting to protect the North Shore of Lake Jocassee, the North Shore of Fontana Lake and what is now the DuPont State Forest. Publicizing opportunities for conservation like that is the best way to protect them. If they remain secret, being visited by only a handful of people that know of their existence, they’re as good as lost.
A big coalition of people came together to protect and save the DuPont State Forest
— hikers, photographers, mountain bikers, hunters and horsemen
— without which it would now be lost forever to a chock-a-block maze of roads and trophy homes. It was a textbook example of groups with different interests working together to achieve a common goal for the benefit of us all. For my part, I’m not much of a mover and shaker in those efforts
— I just take photos and do everything that I can to make people aware of how important saving places like that can be for our future.
Today, the work of groups like the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy is invaluable because of their goal of helping landowners build a legacy of public access that celebrates the love of their land. Some of the most important successes in conservation in Western North Carolina have come through the efforts of partnerships between landowners and conservation organizations like CMLC.
We still have a lot of battles ahead. Funding for any sort of public lands is always the first to be removed when the paper shufflers go to work. Access to what has always been legally protected streams and rivers is under attack by wingnut property rights advocates.
One of the best examples of that is the situation on the upper Horsepasture River where a wealthy owner of a rock quarry has succeeded in seizing control of the river in the area of Turtle Falls, blocking off access of the stream to paddlers, hikers and swimmers. That flies in the face of the ‘navigatible waters’ laws that have traditionally allowed public access to streams and rivers below the high water line.
The sweetheart deals between Duke Power Company and the administration of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory have resulted in tremendous damage to the quality of our rivers and streams. Take for example the Dan River coal ash spill. The potential for catastrophic failures of other coal ash ponds is overwhelming. In spite of the recent failures, McCrory is still insisting that the best course of action is to remove all of the restrictions and regulations that now protect our water, even though that protection is poor at best. That, to me, is one of the most important environmental issues that we face in this state at present.
I try to balance my enjoyment of a good fight with my need for time in the backcountry, but it’s frustrating that people are so gullible, and that they’re incapable of recognizing the importance of clean water and clean air to our future.
[Meanderthals] If you don’t mind sharing, can you tell us the story about Grace?
[Dave Landreth] I found Grace while heading in on a backpack trip in Pisgah National Forest. She was lying at the trailhead when I first spotted her, in a pitifully emaciated condition. As I headed in, she followed. I shared some of my food with her and figured that she would head back eventually.
My guess was she had been lost by hunters, who will often leave a coat or something at a trailhead for their hounds to return to so that they can go back in a few days to retrieve them. She had no ID though, which is very unusual for a hunting dog. She had also had pups recently, but they were nowhere to be found.
She disappeared as I hiked in and I supposed she’d headed on back to the trailhead. I found her later that evening, lying in the trail too weak to walk. I cancelled any plans that I had for camping and carried her back out in my sleeping bag. Again, I was afraid that somebody would come back to look for her, so I drove to town to get her some more food and took it back to her. I left her there and headed home, thinking that surely somebody would be back to get her.
It’s been a while now and I’ve forgotten the exact timeline, but I think that I continued to drive up there with food for two days and then decided that I’d take her to the shelter in Brevard if nobody claimed her by the next morning. It got really cold that evening and started pouring down a cold rain. Somewhere around midnight, my conscience got the best of me and I drove back once more. That time I put her in the van and fed her. We spent the night there just in case somebody showed up, but by the next morning I concluded that whoever had left her to her fate didn’t deserve her.
I still didn’t intend to keep her, but I did take her to the vet to get all of her shots and to have her wormed. After a couple of days, she was family. She’s a bundle of energy now, but still the quietest dog that I’ve ever seen. She loves to hike, to eat and to sleep – in that order.
I often told my hiking friends and neighbors that I never wanted to own another dog. My last dog was a boxer named Joker and though a really affectionate prankster, he was so high-maintenance that I felt I’d never have the patience to own another pet of any kind. I travel too much, spend so much time in National Parks where dogs aren’t permitted on trails, etc. etc. etc. My neighbor had a cocker/poodle mix that would stop by to let me pet her and to me, that was the perfect setup
— a dog that I really liked but had no responsibility for. Then Grace came along and adopted me.
I think at some point in her life that she had been treated very well. She’s just too well behaved not to have had a lot of prior training. She’s perfectly house-broken, never barks or howls, never shows an ounce of aggression, never meets a stranger, doesn’t climb on furniture, behaves great on a leash (which I never let her off of outside unless we’re in a fenced in area) and is simply some of the best company that I’ve ever had around.
Despite that, when I first found her, she showed signs of having been abused. She would scurry away at any loud sound, and cower if you picked up a stick or raised your hand. She was incredibly malnourished and on the verge of death when she adopted me.
The reason that I named her Grace is that the vet told me there was a pretty good chance that she’d be unable to save her and wanted to know if I’d perhaps prefer to have her euthanized. I told the vet to do whatever it took
— I’ve never had an animal grab hold of my heart the way she did. I still hadn’t given her a name but when it became evident that she would pull through, I named her Grace, as in the Amazing Grace, because of her miraculous recovery.
She’s gained 20 lbs now and is a real bundle of muscle. We rarely hike less than 50 miles a week and often hike much more. So, she’s been really good for me and has earned her keep many times over. I sometimes feel that she would be better off in a home with kids
— she loves children
— but she seems to thrive on the hiking life that she shares with me. She loves to travel and has assumed the role of co-pilot when we’re on the road. She has no interest at all in an open window, but instead, watches my every move as I drive, often with her nose about 2 inches from my right ear. She is, in my humble and very biased opinion, the perfect dog.