Saturday, February 18, 2012

Defending James Gary Shelton

With my hopes of visiting Glacier National Park this summer, I feel that it's potentially in my best interests to broaden my perspective on bears to the greatest extent that I can manage. I've written extensively about the individual personalities of bears and Glacier Park is one place where that is most evident, considering the lower food rations in Montana compared to the abundance of Southeast Alaska. To prepare, I'm absorbing enough information to reach the level of unofficial PhD and that requires me to re-evaluate sources of information that I previously rejected.

Chief among those are the books of James Gary Shelton, one of the most militant and opinionated bear researchers out there, and one of the most vilified by conservationists. I myself contributed to that with a scathing review of his book Bear Attacks: The Deadly Truth (Thursday January 28, 2010), which merely reflected my own point of view at the time. Now that I've learned so much more, and in keeping with the picture I've been piecing together in my recent posts, I've taken a more informed look at his work and found two surprising things: (1.) That I'm in agreement with many (though not all) of his points, and (2.) That thinking about his writing has answered a major question that I posed almost a year ago. Before we get into that, though, let's begin with some background.

Shelton started out as a hunting guide in Bella Coola, British Columbia in the 1960s, then, concerned that grizzly bear populations were threatened by overhunting, he became chairman of the Central Coast Grizzly Management Committee, a group devoted to bear conservation. Among other things, they put a number of restrictions on hunting laws that allowed bear populations to skyrocket in the late 1970's and throughout the 80's. In fact, the numbers became so high that they exceeded the local habitat's carrying capacity and the inevitable result occurred: predatory attacks on livestock that were soon re-directed towards people.

Last year I put together a post entitled The Great Bear Conundrum (Sunday March 6, 2011) which questioned the reasons for abnormally aggressive black bear behavior in northern British Columbia and interior Canada. Unlike many of their lower 48 cousins, these black bears not only defend their young as fiercely as grizzlies do, but they have also been responsible for some of the most chilling attacks ever recorded. Who can forget the attack at Liard Hot Springs, when one lone black bear killed two people and injured two others in one assault before being shot? Or, even more chilling, the three young men who were killed one at a time in Algonquin Provincial Park, their bodies stored as a food cache?

I was initially critical of Shelton's writing because it portrays bears in exactly this mercilessly savage light, but now I find it funny that it took me this long to realize that he lives in the heart of this highly volatile bear population and has written his books from that perspective. Knowing that, I'm writing this partly to make up for my earlier bashing of his work and partly to help people realize that he's only doing what almost every other bear researcher does: presenting his information as a reflection of the animals he knows rather than the species as a whole. I think what finally earned my respect was his acknowledgment of these differences. Commenting on Lynn Rogers and his work with the black bears of Minnesota, Shelton says that he has no doubt that Rogers is perfectly safe. He says those bears subsist on grasses, berries, and insects and that the habitat can sustain enough of these natural foods to keep them satiated, just as the coastal grizzlies of Alaska differ in temperament from their interior cousins because of the abundance of berries and salmon available to them. The black bears of northern British Columbia, however, must endure short, cool summers and harsh winters that don't allow for the growth of such prime vegetation. The result is an animal that must rely more on meat and that has become more carnivore than omnivore.

What irks some environmentalists the most about Shelton is his solution to the problem. First, Shelton controversially challenges the opinion that bear attacks are always the fault of the victims. He contends that sometimes it is the fault of the bear, because that is what opportunistic predators often do. I've come to agree with this thinking 100% (sure, the night of the grizzlies and my feelings on that probably have something to do with it), but it causes literal mouth-foaming from those who want to keep a perpetual halo over the animal's heads. Shelton believes that there are not always clear explanations or reasons for bear attacks and that safety advice is alarmingly incomplete and untrustworthy, though he does promote many of Stephen Herrero's (author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, THE top bear safety guide ever written) views. Shelton carries bear spray but advocates firearms and controlled hunting to promote fear of humans in the bear population. In fact, he has helped put hunting regulations in place that have not only brought the bear population down to a more workable level but that have brought down the staggering number of attacks as well.

So how does that fit with all of my previous assertions that hunting can actually make bears more dangerous to people? Can both be true? I've thought a lot about that and here's my theory: I think that bears that are normally shy and timid around people could certainly be made more aggressive by it, particularly in close encounters, while bears that are already aggressive - especially in the predatory sense - can only be made less so. After all, they've clearly learned that people are easy to hunt and easy to kill, so "striking back" will no doubt teach them to re-evaluate that assessment and, in Sheldon's case at least, it seems to have worked extremely well.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about holding two contradictory thoughts in your mind at one time. The study of bears seems to contain more contradictory thoughts than any other field I'm aware of. Bears are killers, bears are not killers; hunting makes bears more aggressive, hunting makes bears more respectful. All of these are true. The further I go, the more I realize what a thin line this is and how careful you have to be to not veer too far to either side. But I'm also realizing that that's a good thing, that a diversity of information, thoughts, and opinions can be useful if I'm walking through the mountains of Montana, or anywhere in bear country. Only then can I be most adequately prepared for any and all possibilities. The way I see it, I can only benefit from walking through those woods believing that nothing out there wants to kill me, yet knowing that somewhere out there in the dark woods...there may be something that does.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

All's Quiet On The Ursine Front...

With all the bears away in hibernation, not much is going on in their world so I'm passing the time (and my own winter hibernation) by taking some of my writings here and adapting them into article form. I've already submitted one to Vital Ground for use in their newsletter, but that probably won't appear until next spring. Since then I've gotten a letter published in Alaska magazine and have sent them a query regarding an article that I want to write. That prospect is exciting and unnerving, as it will be a monumental task to accomplish with no lacking of pressure. I'm also thinking of a travel piece for Alaska Airlines magazine, a bear safety article for some hiking/outdoors magazine that I have yet to select, and - provided my trip to Glacier pans out this summer - an article about that for either Backpacker or Montana magazine. I may branch out into writing about other topics as well, but for now I'll stick with what I know.

Meanwhile, I'm re-reading each and every bear book in my library to keep it all fresh in my mind. This is my third read-through and is a daunting task considering the large number of books that I have on the subject, but I find that my knowledge deepens each time, particularly as my own thoughts and theories change. I've also expanded the collection, even reading controversial books that I once swore off, such as the works of James Gary Shelton, who is very opinionated but, I think, very right in some of his assumptions. There will be more on that later once I've finished everything. I'm now finding myself wishing that I had two copies of each book; one to keep neat and clean and one to fill with highlights, notes, and cross references. As it is, I don't have the heart to mark them up. Maybe on my next read-through, I'll keep a notebook on hand and do it that way.

So that's the gist of what's happening. Things are moving slowly with no clear sign of what's coming next, so hang in there and let's take the time to kick back and breathe while we can.