Timely reflections on the current state of our grizzly affairs

Monday, May 10, 2010

Battle for Breakfast (Excerpt #2)

We pull over and climb the steep path onto a hillside that offers a spectacular view of the entire valley. At six o’clock on a May morning, the Lamar Valley is blissfully quiet. Through our spotting scopes, we see camouflaged elk browsing the high ridges on the far side of the valley. Closer to hand, Soda Butte Creek meanders through this wide, flat basin with the rhythmic beat of a metronome set slow. Big, dark bison crop new-growth grass on the far bank, and sandhill cranes stand stock-still in the shallows, hunting. Only a meadowlark dares break the stillness with its flutish song.

More than two dozen “watchers” bundle thick against the cool morning air for the chance to see a grizzly bear or a wolf. We are part of an annual pilgrimage to the mecca of accessible American wilderness. People journey here, hundreds of them, from all over Canada and the United States to answer a deep-seated desire to connect with wildness. For many, it has become an obsession.

“We’ve been comin’ here, oh, 15-odd years now,” says one of the watchers, a 74-year-old retired rancher named Les Smith, pointing to his wife, Clare. “We’ve watched [some of Yellowstone’s] bears since they was cubs.”

Among us, too, are the filmmakers, journalists and writers that have come for the media tour – some from as far away as Los Angeles, some from such prestigious magazines as Time. Several well-known wildlife biologists are also here to act as our guides and expert witnesses as we muddle our way through the biology and politics of grizzly bear conservation.

A shout breaks the still morning air. One of the watchers has spotted wolves. Four members of the Druid Peak pack trot west along Soda Butte Creek before huddling around a dark shape 500 metres from our vantage point. They have found the bison carcass and all lean down to rip and tug at what I imagine is frozen flesh. They take turns lifting their heads to survey the valley, looking and smelling for anything that might usurp their caloric bonanza.

A few minutes later, another shout announces a grizzly sow and her three yearling cubs lumbering eastward toward the wolves. The sow is dark brown, her guard hairs tipped with the grey-gold that gives these bears their “grizzled” look. Her cubs are the size of domestic dogs. They are all hungry.

Behind me, the biologists banter back and forth like mill workers arguing about which team will win the Stanley Cup. On one side are the “risk takers,” who think the sow, only recently out of the den and famished after a foodless winter, might just challenge the wolves for the much-needed protein. On the other side are the “risk avoiders,” who conclude (rather emphatically, it seems to me, given the uncertain circumstances) that the sow’s concern for the safety of her cubs will lead her to forsake the opportunity to pilfer the prize from the much smaller wolves. One voice confidently says that as an organic whole, a healthy wolf pack sits firmly atop the food chain here. They have been known to attack, even kill, grizzly bears.

I am astonished to learn that anything but a high-powered rifle or a speeding vehicle could kill a grizzly bear. After all, grizzly bears did win out over sabre-toothed tigers and a whole horde of fierce competitors who vanished when humans showed up in North America about 11,000 years ago. In fact, grizzlies arrived 15,000 years before humans; their bad tempers and poker-faced bluff charges allowed them to thrive in a world full of giant short-faced bears, American lions and packs of dire wolves much larger than this one. Less confident in my predictions than the scientists, I keep my thoughts to myself and just sit, watch and listen. Grizzlies are nothing if not resilient, though, so with quiet confidence I know I side with the bears.

At first it seems the “risk avoiders” are right about the mother bear’s caution. The sow and her cubs pass within 15 metres of the wolf-covered carcass, but it does not appear as though she intends to challenge the wolves. The grizzly doesn’t even seem to look at them as she waddles by, though the black wolf, his head hung low, watches her with a vigilance reserved for the wise or the fearful.

“See?” boasts the confident voice behind me. “I told you. No way. It’s too risky.”

As the word “risky” trails off into the wind, the sow whirls around and charges the wolves with the speed and intensity of a middle linebacker blitzing an unprotected quarterback, her cubs following close behind her. When she reaches the dark mound of dead bison, the wolves scatter like leaves in the wind. She climbs atop the carcass and whirls this way and that to face them, each wolf taking a turn to dart in and nip at her or grab a cub. She whirls and whirls, the cubs plastering themselves to their mother’s gyrating haunch, hoping she can fend off the wolves.

After a few swats of her giant paws, the wolves relent. They are patient, if nothing else, and there is time. They hunker down in the long grass to watch the grizzly quartet tear bright red flesh from white bones. She has won the carcass, at least for now.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Hunting for Grizzlies (Excerpt #1)

This is the first of many short excerpts from The Grizzly Manifesto I will be posting until the official book launch on May 25.

Near Yellowstone National Park, 2001: I wake up in the cold and the dark of my Cooke City motel room, the air redolent of two-stroke oil and gasoline. Cooke City, on the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park, is more village than city. Every winter it is overrun by thrill-seeking snowmobilers, some of whom had obviously used my room as a repair shop. I stumble around for the light switch and immediately put on a pot of coffee before hunting the oil-stained carpet for my clothes. It’s 5:23. I have seven minutes to get ready. We’re on the hunt for grizzlies.

Louisa Willcox had invited me to attend her annual media tour to learn about the plight of Yellowstone’s grizzlies, a population of 600 or so bears that has been listed as endangered since 1975. Now that the population has more than tripled in size, the US government wants to remove the protections afforded it by the US Endangered Species Act. Willcox believes, with the conviction of an evangelical preacher, that this move is a mistake.

As a lowly reporter at a weekly newspaper in Canmore, Alberta, I often covered the lives and deaths of grizzly bears in and around Banff National Park. Willcox, on the other hand, is the grande dame of grizzly bear conservation in North America. Thin and wiry-strong, the former monkey-wrencher and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) guide has more energy than a wolverine. She has worked to protect Yellowstone’s grizzly bears for more than 25 years. When Willcox found out I often wrote about bears and the politics that decide their fates, she thought I should come down to witness what was happening in Yellowstone.

To my great dismay, I had learned the night before at the “meet and greet” that the best time to locate Yellowstone’s more mythical beasts is during the auroral hinge that joins night and day. Despite my vampire-like aversion to early morning wake-up calls, I manage to find my way into the parking lot before the last vehicle has left. I stumble into a red minivan driven by a genial documentary filmmaker from Bozeman, Montana. As we pull onto US 212 in the tepid daylight, I take a long pull on the coffee steaming from my travel mug. Ten minutes later, we are in the park. As we approach our destination – a roadside pullout near the carcass of a bison killed by wolves the day before – a coyote dashes across the road and a golden eagle glides insouciantly over the car. It feels like we are on an African safari.

The next excerpt – "Arrival of the Great Bear" – will appear
on Monday, May 10.

To order The Grizzly Manifesto in one, easy-to-hold-in-your-hands package, visit Rocky Mountain Books. Or you can wait until May 20, when it will be in your local bookstore. Thanks for your interest.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"My Canada doesn't include Alberta"

I ran across a blog today that kind of turned the world on its head.

I often struggle with the fact I'm from Alberta, which is one of the least progressive, least sustainable, least environmentally friendly places on the earth. And yet it's part of Canada, which, despite some similar problems of its own, still has a lot going for it.

Back to the blog. After reading an article in Explore Magazine about the slaughter of wild horses in Alberta, the anonymous blogger wrestles with the same demons for awhile and then declares: "Yes, I'm proud to be Canadian. But my Canada doesn't include Alberta."

Have a look for yourself. It's quite brilliant.