Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: "Ice Bear" by Michael Engelhard

Of all the bears of the world, polar bears are probably the most fascinating. Unlike grizzlies and black bears, the isolation of the white bear to the polar region means we mostly have to live vicariously through the work of Arctic scientists willing to venture forth into the bear's icy world in order to learn much about them. This gives the polar bear an almost otherworldly sense of mystery.

Few truly great books have been written about polar bears, certainly not as many as have been written about grizzly bears. Richard Ellis's "On Thin Ice", Nikita Ovsyanikov's "Polar Bears: Living With the White Bear", and Ian Stirling's "Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species" come immediately to mind. Now Michael Engelhard's "Ice Bear" joins the ranks as one of the best works devoted to these elusive animals.

Unlike most authors, Engelhard focuses not on the bear's biology but on its cultural history; from myths and legends to religious beliefs and even sexuality; from hunting tales to Arctic expeditions; from cuddly "celebrities" like Knut to the perils and pitfalls of training polar bears for the circus, while presenting wonderful photographs, paintings, and Native arts and crafts along the way. In the end a clear picture is presented of the polar bear as one of the most powerful and resilient animals in the world, not as the anthropomorphized cuddly teddy of human imagination or as the relentless man-eater of Arctic lore and legend.

This was easily one of the best books I've read on the subject of polar bears with information that kept me turning pages. Highly recommended for any bear lover's collection!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What a Trump Presidency Could Mean For Grizzlies

It's impossible to study bears and advocate for or against them without getting sucked into politics. For decades, the subjects of bear management and protection have been fought - sometimes valiantly, sometimes violently - in wildlife agencies, in lecture halls, classrooms, and the field; from Montana all the way to Washington, D.C. and that will probably never change. The issue has always been highly politicized and always will be. The line has been consistently drawn between those who want to protect and preserve the great bears and those who see no need for them and consider them a useless liability.

As hard as I try to stay out of politics and remain unbiased, a bias is ultimately inevitable, and right now a political battle is being waged to determine the future of the Yellowstone grizzly bear and whether or not they will retain protections under the Endangered Species Act. Public comments on this matter have been closed and there are expectations that a final decision will be made sometime this month. 

So what does it say for the outcome of this decision and the final fate of these bears that Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States and the Republican Party (consistently the most anti-environmental and with the most representatives fighting on the side of the anti-bear campaign), is firmly in control?

Well, let's take a look at some of Trump's environmental policies:

1.) He does not believe in man-made climate change. To be fair, I myself am somewhat on the fence about whether climate change is man made or a natural cycle. Either way, I've spent enough time in the far north to visibly see the effects with each passing year and I know full well the devastating impact it's had on the Yellowstone grizzly population and the polar bears on the Arctic tundra. Regardless of the cause, something is happening and there are ways these animals could be preserved and protected from it. But first we would have to stop squabbling about it and acknowledge that something is happening and that's not the nature of politics.

2.) Myron Ebell, one of the country's best-known climate change skeptics, has been chosen by Trump to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency that Trump has even considered disbanding altogether. 

3.) Open protected lands (i.e.: National Parks and forests) to privatization, meaning control by the states with no federal protections. The Republican Party argues that this 200 million acres of currently-protected land should be "used to the best economic potential for the nation". This means logging, gas and oil exploration, and development. Sure those trees, lakes, and mountains are pretty but wouldn't you rather have a shopping mall and a McDonald's?

4.) The GOP is arguing that the Endangered Species Act should be significantly curtailed so that species cannot be listed as endangered in one location if they exist in healthy numbers in another location. The platform states the act has "stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects and burdened landowners." Why should Yellowstone grizzlies be protected when there are plenty of grizzlies in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia? Good enough, right?

5.) Among Trump's potential candidates for the Department of the Interior are Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who pushed to delist the gray wolf and has been pushing the campaign to delist the grizzlies and open them up to trophy hunting, and - according to some sources - possibly Sarah Palin, a trophy hunter who has waged all-out war on Alaska's predators.

As grim as these prospects are, we have to acknowledge the future is uncertain and things could go in either direction, but for now a very, very dark cloud is looming on the horizon in the battle to save the Yellowstone grizzlies.

Friday, August 12, 2016

My thoughts as a solo hiker...

A few weeks ago, a bicyclist was killed by a bear of undetermined species in my old stomping grounds of West Glacier, Montana. The man was not only a Forest Service Ranger but also the cousin of a friend of mine. It was determined to be a surprise encounter and the decision was made to spare the bear's life. The incident forced me to face some hard questions and forced me to answer them.

As a primarily solo hiker, I'm well aware of the risks of venturing alone into grizzly country, especially the risk of encountering a mother with cubs or surprising a bear at close range. Not only do I solo hike, but I tend to hike silently. For me, wild country - and especially grizzly country - is healing and therapeutic and I frequently crave the solitude it brings, so I feel that making a lot of unnatural noise disrupts that solitude. Obviously, this puts me at greater risk of startling a bear and possibly getting attacked and I have in fact startled a grizzly at close range in Glacier National Park on two separate occasions. One on the Siyeh Pass trail three years ago and one just two weeks ago at 6:30 AM on the Iceberg Lake trail. The bear in the first encounter did an abrupt about face and bolted back down the trail. The other ran down the hillside huffing and crashing through the brush. Both incidents happened too fast to react to. So what if I were to run into the wrong bear at the wrong time? What if I were to be the unlucky one and it were to happen to me? 

Although I accept the risk of hiking alone in grizzly country more than I accept the risk of driving an automobile down the Interstate (arguably much more dangerous), I still ask myself the "What if?" question, and the tragic death of Brad Treat helped me find some answers.

Two weeks ago on the Iceberg Lake trail I encountered dozens of hikers decked out in bear bells, clapping and yelling around every corner, and I became so annoyed by their presence that I had to bite my tongue each time I passed these noisy intruders. That said, I completely understand their mindset. I was once so terrified of bears that I wanted to make all the noise I could on a trail but was so paralyzed with fear I could barely make a sound. Now that fear has been replaced by fascination mingled with a healthy respect, so I snap sticks, kick rocks, and loudly clear my throat to announce my presence around blind corners or in thick brush, sounding like a larger animal moving through, and wonder why people who feel the need to wear tourist scams like bear bells and shout at everything are even venturing into places like these. If their goal is to never see wildlife, they're on the right track; I, however, go out with the hope of encountering something. 

So if I were to be killed by a bear - be it surprise, defense of cubs, or even predatory - I would want no action taken against that bear. While I definitely don't go hiking with the expectation of never returning, I would rather die in the woods and mountains than in a chunk of metal on the highway or in the kitchen of the restaurant I'm working in.

When I was younger, I had a nightmare that something happened to me and everyone thought I was dead but it turns out I wasn't and I awoke buried alive in a coffin. Recalling that I can say with certainty that when it comes my time to go, I don't want to be buried in the ground in a coffin. I want to be driven far up into the deepest, thickest grizzly country imagineable and thrown out for the bears to eat. I can think of no greater use for what's left of me than to fuel something else's survival.

How can I get this legally put into writing?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bear Behavior Observations

After six years, I'm back at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska and will be here at least through the summer. Coming back has taken some adjustment, considering the amount of time I've spent with wild bears in Montana over the past few years. For awhile, seeing them in captivity again didn't have the same impact as encountering one on a trail, but being able to closely observe and interact with them has won me over and this time around I feel more suited to be their keeper than I did years ago just because of the vast knowledge of bears I've compiled since then and how much more at ease I feel around them as a result. That's a good thing because this time I've really got my work cut out for me: eight bears are currently housed at the facility, five brown bears and three black bears.

The five brown bears I'm very familiar with. My old buddies Chaik and Killisnoo (Killisnoo pictured above) are still here, along with Baloo, Lucky, and Toby, the three cubs who were breaking into the facility on a nightly basis with their mother. The trio is much bigger now, with Baloo beating out Chaik as the largest, and now most dominant, bear.

                                          Baloo regarding his reflection.

The three black bears are Bandit, Smokey, and Tuliaan, a native Tlingit word that means "gentle". Smokey and Tuliaan were siblings orphaned in Seward and Bandit was a lone cub living in a tree in Juneau. All three are as passive and gentle with the keepers as their brown bear cousins and are impossible not to fall in love with from the first moment of interaction.

                                          Bandit (lower), Smokey (left), and Tuliaan,


I was skeptical if any of the bears would remember who I was after so many years, but Fortress director Les Kinnear was adamant that they would and it seems he was right. My first meeting with Chaik and Killisnoo, I held my hand up for them to smell and they almost instantly reacted with recognition, licking me and taking treats from my fingers.

                                          Feeding carrots to Chaik and Killisnoo.

Toby, Baloo, and Lucky took a bit longer to get used to my presence since one of our interns primarily worked with them last time, but they've adjusted to me extremely well, as have the black bears. I feel like I know them and I get the sense they feel as comfortable with me.

Daily observations are interesting. While the black bears mostly frolic and play, the social dynamics of the brown bears, while mostly cordial, are always changing. Two or three years ago, Les constructed a breezeway connecting both habitats so the brown bears could mingle and interact with one another. While Chaik and Killisnoo are both extremely passive, Toby, Baloo, and Lucky spent more time in the wild and can be a little more pushy. Baloo has already established himself as the bear in charge while Toby has begun courting Chaik. Lucky mostly stays on the sidelines and poor Killisnoo gets the brunt of everyone's bad side. 

When Chaik and Killisnoo were rescued as cubs in 2007, Killisnoo was in bad health and didn't fully develop so he's considered something of an outcast by the wilder bears, particularly Toby, who would find him unworthy as a suitor in the wild and is instinctively compelled to push him away, so she usually dumps all her aggression on Killisnoo and keeps him trapped inside his den. During the more intense scuffles, Chaik usually comes to Killisnoo's aid, often landing him in the doghouse with Toby. It's wonderful to see Chaik so protective because when he and Killisnoo were the only residents six years ago, Chaik was often pushy and rough with Killisnoo, as older brothers often are with younger brothers, so seeing Chaik's devotion to him now when he's outnumbered is heartwarming.

Of course, Baloo and Lucky feel equally protective of their sister so they sometimes take her lead and gang up on Killisnoo or try to block Chaik from rushing to his brother's defense, leading to some pretty hair-raising bellowing matches. Fortunately, Killisnoo has started standing up to Toby and has backed her down a few times. While none of these confrontations have been really serious, Killisnoo did suffer a bite to the back of his knee and a bruised tendon so we've separated the two sets of bears for now to give Killisnoo time to recuperate stress-free (The photo at the top was taken while sitting and talking to Killisnoo during his recuperation in the den). Now Toby sulks and picks on her brothers because she can't snuggle up with Chaik. 

And the soap opera continues...

                                          Lucky balancing on a pipe while Killisnoo watches and Baloo sleeps.