Book Reviews

“Fact, Fiction, and Opinion”

Book Review by Nathaniel R. Dickinson
The Essential Grizzly by Doug and Andrea Peacock
The Lyons Press 2006

A critical reviewer will, undoubtedly, immediately question the use of the adjective essential to describe the grizzly bear. According to the dictionary essential is defined as: of or constituting the fundamental nature of something, absolute, complete, perfect, or indispensable. The first three might be appropriate, but to say that the grizzly is indispensable is another matter. The natural world is in a constant state of flux and species come and go according to the nature and degree of changes, and the environment adjusts amazingly well.

The authors’ intent becomes quite clear on the front flap of the dust cover. They state that the grizzly is of absolute importance to modern humans, to the survival of our own species, and for rational thought. This certainly qualifies as a very presumptuous statement, which helps to answer the above question.

The introduction goes back in history and notes that for a time span of at least 12,000 years grizzlies and humans have been together and ate the same foods, until European firearms arrived on the scene. The authors credit the grizzly with being capable of complex learning behavior, but the level of such is not explained. They state that this species now occupies only one percent of its former range. In four ecosystems near the Canadian border a handful hang on perilously close to extinction. Certainly, they are aware that the true definition of extinction is disappearance from Planet Earth. This reviewer agrees with them that all wildlife species should be respected and properly managed by responsible governmental agencies. The authors do admit that historical records are incomplete and selective.

There follows a somewhat subjective discussion referring to the grizzly as a thing of beauty and grace, a magnificent beast capable of stirring reverence and humility. This, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder, and would not be appropriate in technical writing. They are referred to as the one animal that challenged human impulses to extend their domain over all lands and creatures, informing us that we still live close to but not at the top of the food pyramid. This suggests that they had a lot on their minds and gave it considerable thought. And then, reference is made to the grizzly being a big human-like omnivore having the power to radically alter our perception of the world around us. The question arises as to who wants grizzlies to be totally eliminated. The discussion suggests that many do. Proper management is needed, including minimizing conflicts with man’s use of the land. It is stated that the possibility of encountering one still lurks in our shrinking wildlands. What? This is loaded. Wildlands acreage is on the increase.

The stated thesis of the book is that the preserving of the possibility of experiencing an encounter would be of considerable value. Who would argue with this, but what does this have to do with the survival of our own species? A degree of disdain for society is noticeable in stating that this would be a counter balance to human arrogance and greed that led us to the highest rate of extinction in history, to overpopulation and damage to the health and viability of the biosphere. Are they referring to the United States? It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the species once present on Earth have become extinct, and most long before man came into being. There is far too much play on emotions and unqualified statements — disappointing indeed. It is not explained what qualifies grizzlies as indicators of ecological balance. And then the statement that it might be a good idea to keep a few around for selfish purposes — certainly justified and possibly the main reason.

The existing so-called remnants of grizzly habitat are referred to as wilderness. What about the vast acreages of National Forest and private forest holdings throughout the Rockies? Once again the question of the grizzly’s thought process comes up with the statement that they must make daily decisions about food, travel, and survival. Should it be referred to as instinctive behavior?

The authors state that the future of the American grizzly depends upon what value we urban-dwelling people place in keeping viable grizzly populations. It was good to see their reference to urban areas which take up a grand total of six percent of the land area of the U.S.A. Why do they state that they must be granted vast areas of roadless habitat? Are they not able to cross roads? Unfortunately, more emotional tugs — all grizzly ecosystems are being gnawed away and fragmented by industrial and commercial development. What? Where? Wilderness and woodlands comprise 49 percent of this country’s land area and the percentage is on the increase. Oh, and then more scare tactics such as the poisoning of the air, oceans being overfished and climate changing. This all certainly affects the grizzly. And, just who is for sacrificing natural systems? More and more acreage is being set aside. Do they really think the grizzly cares about such? Finally, is it a simple fact that we cannot live without the grizzly?

The lengthy Introduction is followed by three interesting fictional portraits, the first entitled “The Black Grizzly.” The lead character is a grizzly that happens to reside in Glacier National Park of northern Montana. The authors go into great detail of boar bear’s travels and lifestyle. Obviously, they have a wealth of knowledge of their subjects and their environment. Much can be learned regarding seasonal activity, food habits, home range, hierarchy, competition, and reproduction. In addition their story is very well written and entertaining. Here once again more credit may be given to the thought process than is deserved. Included is a flash-back to the boar’s birth and the rigors of surviving, despite the loss of his mother. Interestingly the cannibalizing of cubs is noted. And, they included a description of the fatal experience of a photographer who pushed his luck. The question of the bear’s ability to remember his first successful breeding may be pushing things a little too far. And then, reference to legal disdain and his fierceness becoming legendary even among bears.

This is followed by a sub-chapter entitled “Fear of Bears,” which continues the doings of Black Grizzly and seventeen years of relationship with the fictional observer, who notes that this great bear became central to his notion of a world in balance. What this means is left to the imagination of the reader. A discussion of bear attacks on humans follows. At times it becomes difficult to determine what is fiction and what is non-fiction. Statements like “bears have every right to be there and be there without human intervention” can be bothersome. Just where do these rights come from? After all bears and all forms of wildlife are not legal citizens, they do not own any land or pay any taxes, and do not meet voting requirements.

Mention is made of the fatal mauling of a lady jogger, referring to the site as an urban landscape, with a wilderness trail cutting through a wildlife corridor. This brings to mind the many problems that are surfacing in may parts of the country and becoming all too common. Some responsible people had better conduct a thorough problem analysis and derive sensible remedies. Wildlife must be kept wild. Subjecting game species to firearm hunting can be very effective. Attracting wildlife to one’s backyard, intentionally or unintentionally, can be disastrous. And the idea of promoting corridors to encourage movement should be subjected to critical review. Incidentally, corridors are a concoction of the ultra-radical Earth First organization whose stated goal is to rewild about 50 percent of the United States. They, along with other well-heeled environmental, animal rights and anti-hunting groups must take a significant amount of the blame for horrendous problems and public attitudes.

Many interesting grizzly bear stories fill the middle pages of The Essential Grizzly. It will be left to readers-to-be to conduct their own reviews of the sections entitled “The Photographers,” “Bear Keepers” and “The Education of the Astringent Creek Grizzly” and “The Bear Who Crossed the Freeway.”

A section entitled “The Politics of Bear Biology” could not be resisted due to this reviewer’s unfortunate experiences that evolved from attempts to blend politics, or more exactly lack of politics with sound wildlife management. The first sentence mentions the Natural Resources Defense Council, another of the many well-heeled environmental groups that employ bad science or none at all and play on the emotions of a gullible public. Then comes the Endangered Species Act, one of the most unscientific, atrocious pieces of legislation ever passed. And why is the Yellowstone grizzly bear on their list? Is it threatened with extinction on our planet? Talk about lousy politics. Are the genus and species not the same as the rest of the grizzlies? And then mention of the presumptuous wolf reintroduction programs. Does not anyone believe that God knows where the wild creatures belong, so maybe it is best to leave it up to him? Incidentally, if grizzly bears must rely on garbage, maybe they do not belong. Just how would a population crash cause any DNA damage? Wow, all of a sudden there appears in the text a statement that like communism, a beautiful idea with serious logistical problems. How does that fit? And would you believe that soon Yellowstone will not be ideal habitat for grizzlies because of global warming? Talk about strictly political issues. What a mess has been created. Why cannot people get along at least as well as the grizzlies? This section ends with a remarkable quote from a bear biologist — “the most important habitat for grizzly bears is the human heart.”

This is followed by a section on grizzly hunting. The last offering is “Practical Considerations in Grizzly Country.” Very nice way to end.

July 11, 2006

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