Russell grew up in Alberta in the Canadian Rockies as the son of the well known hunter, guide, film maker, and naturalist Andy Russell. Charlie and his two brothers learned about the wilderness from their father, assisting him as adventure guides and cameramen. His brothers went to college and became biologists, while Charlie became a rancher. But he was fascinated by grizzly bears, trying to overcome their image as savage killers by making his cattle ranch open to grizzlies and leading ecotourists on bear-viewing trips (as opposed to hunting which had previously been the objective of grizzly tours). He has tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to convince wildlife officials to treat bears with respect and trust, arguing that it is people's fear of bears and aggressive actions toward them that makes them dangerous.
Russell is best known for his ten years of field work in Kamchatka, where he taught local guides how to lead bear-viewing tours. He began to buy orphaned grizzly cubs from zoos, taking them into remote areas of Katchatka and teaching them to be wild. He has been the subject of two television documentaries: Walking with Giants: The Grizzlies of Siberia (PBS, 1999) and Bear Man of Kamchatka (BBC, 2006).