Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska

One generally expects to hear ignorant assumptions about bears in places where bears do not actually exist, but I was surprised to find those assumptions are just as alive and well in bear-heavy states, such as Montana and Alaska. Even there, the stalking beast of lore has found its way into the human consciousness.

Sherry Simpson, a freelance writer and regular contributor to Alaska magazine, spent years traveling across the Great Land, interviewing bear people and anti-bear people, hunters, photographers, state officials, game officials, biologists, authors, and independent researchers. The result is this stunning and excellently written treatise on the state of bear issues in the Last Frontier. Seldom have I seen a book juggle so many points of view and do it so successfully, without losing focus.

Sherry is without question an advocate for the bears and this book represents a plea for them, a begging for a change of perspective before it's too late, and a grim look at the force new ideas are pushing up against. Larry Kaniut, author of the well-known and over-exaggerated Alaska Bear Tales blood and guts series, declares in 2009 that Anchorage is too soft on bears and that if he were calling the shots, any bear that came within the city limits would be mercilessly destroyed. In newspaper letters all across the state, locals bemoan and lament bear sightings in their backyard and frequent calls to eliminate all ursine residents of the state - particularly grizzlies - are put to the Fish and Game department, citing the need for safer hiking trails. It is these very people that baffle me; if the idea of a bear in your backyard is so frightening, then move to the city with the gangs and crack addicts that you may like better. Sherry concludes that people want the mystique of living in the Last Frontier but they don't want the "frontier" aspect that must necessarily come with it...and that for me would be the primary reason for living in Alaska.

For every demand to cull bears completely, Sherry shows the tremendous revenue the state takes in from people who often come from thousand of miles - and who often spend thousands of dollars - to walk free and unseparated with the giant brown bears of the Katmai coast as they fish for salmon. For every garbage can-raiding black bear, we are shown the incredible interactions between human visitors and habituated bears at McNeil River and Brooks Falls. For every dark cloud that threatens, Sherry still manages to show us the rays of sun that struggle to peek through.

But sometimes the darkness prevails. The book culminates with a look inside the inner workings of Alaska's predator control operation, the Sarah Palin-esque "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" politics that are driving it, and the horrendous damage it's done. This chapter is troubling and angering and clearly outlines what the future consequences could be.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough and it may be evident that I've struggled for words to describe it throughout this review. The writing is absolutely top form and, while the chapters are lengthy, I could never once tear my attention from them once I started. Check this one out! Odds are you won't find it on the shelves of many Alaskan retailers though. Too many copies of Alaska Bear Tales to sell.

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