Resurrecting a Future for the Great Bear
Why should we care?
This is the question I get asked the most when I’m on tour, reading from The Grizzly Manifesto or talking about the fate and future of this remarkable creature. Even my publisher wanted to know the answer before he’d print the book. Why? Why should we protect grizzly bears? Does they really matter?
There are plenty of answers. For one thing, they are remarkable creatures. A Perhaps the most incredible part of their lives is their reproductive strategy. Grizzly bears mate in the spring, when hormonal males track down cub-less females. The courtship can last days, even weeks, while the amorous couple plays and roughhouses. This foreplay brings the female into estrus, her body dropping an egg or two into place. Then they copulate again and again, the sex interrupted by numerous bouts of feeding and resting, sometimes in each other’s arms.
Eventually the male moves on to other pastures. If he is a dominant bear, perhaps to other females. But the magic doesn’t stop there. The fertilized egg (known as a blastocyst) floats around the uterus, waiting to decide whether or not to affix itself to the uterus wall and become a cub. The deciding factor is whether the female is able to find enough food to put on enough fat reserves to support a nursing baby. If she does not, she’ll simply absorb the blastocyst and try again next year. If she does, she will give birth in January while she’s asleep in the den. The newborn cub – blind, hairless and the size of a newborn puppy – will begin its first solo adventure, climbing its way up her body where it will feed on her ready teats.
Grizzlies are more than interesting cub factories, however. They are also essential components of healthy ecosystems, those inscrutable things upon which we depend for our personal and economic health. If we provide for the needs of the grizzly bear, the logic goes, we will be able to maintain an ecosystem healthy enough to support all its constituent parts — including us. It’s not a foolproof assumption, but all other things being equal, focusing on a sensitive “umbrella” species like the grizzly is an effective way to protect birds, mammals and fish, and to ensure water supplies stay clean and abundant.
Dr. Stephen Herrero is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and one of the world’s pre-eminent grizzly bear experts. He calls the grizzly bear an indicator of sustainable development. Like monarch butterflies and coral reefs, grizzly bears tell us whether the sum total of our activities are being conducted in ways that meet, “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Where grizzly bears are allowed to continue to exist, our behaviour is sustainable. Where they are being extirpated, we are dipping into our natural capital and leaving the world a depleted shadow of itself for our children and grandchildren. So self-interest alone should dictate that we might want to prevent their continued decline.
But their importance may, in fact, go deeper, much, much deeper even than that.
Our fascination with bears began long before we devised the scientific method. In fact, our relationship with grizzly bears stretches back at least 60,000 years. When modern humans left Africa to populate the rest of the planet, Ursus arctos was their constant companion. An equally adaptable and omnivorous animal, the brown bear had already spread across most of southern Eurasia, where it lived in a cold world dominated by ice, tundra and grass.
As the climate warmed and the ice sheets retreated, bears and humans alike moved farther north into Europe and Asia, but the grizzly always seemed at least one step ahead of us. Grizzly bears would have been better prepared than most species to tolerate the harsh conditions found just south of the ice sheets. In fact, grizzly bears re-colonized the glacial landscape of central and northern Europe faster than any other carnivorous mammal. Expanding from island refuges bounded by ice in what are now Spain, Italy and Moldova, grizzlies literally followed the southern edge of the ice as it retreated toward the North Pole. Humans soon followed, where we waited together in what is now Siberia for the door to open a passage into the New World.
Grizzly bears beat people into North America by about 30,000 years. The fossil record indicates that grizzlies first crossed into what is now Alaska about 50,000 years ago. The constant ebb and flow of the ice meant that grizzly bears occupied what would become North America in four waves. The first colonists arrived, only to be trapped by ice sheets in a tiny island of habitat in what is now Alaska. Isolated and competing against the much bigger short-faced bears and dire wolves, they died out. Nevertheless, as soon as the ice sheets retreated far enough, they returned repeatedly until finally they made their way into North America for good. DNA tests on a jawbone found in an Edmonton, Alberta gravel pit indicate that grizzlies made it south of the North American ice sheets before they had closed off access between Beringia and what is now southern Canada and the continental United States – about 23,000 years ago. By dispersing south, the ancestors of the grizzly bears we now see in Alberta, Montana and Wyoming arrived long before Amerindians.
You see, humans didn’t just learn about bears, we actually learned from them. They helped us figure out not only how to survive, but who we are. In many indigenous cultures, the bear is considered the “supreme physician of the woods.” Medicine men used a variety of plants, rituals and songs to heal the sick and tend to the wounded. This power and specific herbal remedies were often communicated to the shamans through dreams, at least according to the Lakota. To relieve the symptoms of a cold, the Cheyenne drank tea made from yarrow, which they knew bears ate when they could. Bears also consumed the leaves, berries, stems and roots of kinnikinnick (also known, not surprisingly, as bearberry); something the Crow people must have known as they pulverized its leaves as a remedy for canker sores.
“The bear seems to be a guide for men,” wrote Paul Shepherd and Barry Sanders in The Sacred Paw, their seminal work on the symbolic and spiritual importance of the bear in human consciousness. “We will never know whether men simply discovered that they and it lived parallel lives or, taking note of the bear’s example, sought out the same forest resources. But in oral tradition it is said to be the latter.” We will never know for sure, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Either way, an intimate relationship formed between humans and what would become known among Amerindians as “Real Bear” and among Europeans as Ursus arctos horribilis, the Great Bear.
To think that the grizzly may have introduced the idea of life after death is almost unfathomable today. Yet, such a notion may well be so. Back at the dawn of human consciousness, bears were considered people like us, an idea that may have sparked a revolution in thinking that is still fundamental to our belief systems today. For the antecedents of North America’s Indians (and perhaps Europeans too), the bear became an intermediary between this world and the next, and a religious symbol that helped explain the greatest of all life’s mysteries.
Consider: Each winter, grizzly bears buried themselves underground as much of the rest of the world “died” beneath the weight of frigid temperatures and a thick blanket of snow. In the spring, often with a cub or two in tow, the bears reappeared along with much of the life our ancestors depended on for their survival: plants, berries, migrating waterfowl, newborn elk and bison.
In many ways, the bear became to Aboriginal cultures what Jesus Christ is to Christians today. It represented not only healing and spring renewal and the idea of rebirth, but the hope of resurrection after the mysterious finality of death. According to Shepard and Sanders, the bear “spoke to the seasons’ inescapable analogy to the life of man. Gradually, perhaps over centuries, the human question went beyond ‘How do we survive the cold winter?’ to ‘How do we survive the cold death?’ The bear, more than any other teacher, gave an answer to the ultimate question—an astonishing, astounding, improbable answer, enacted rather than revealed.”
To think that the grizzly, which evolved alongside the distant ancestors of both Native Americans and Euro-Americans, may have introduced all of us to the idea of life after death is almost unfathomable today. And yet such a notion may well be so, which seems reason enough to make room in our modern lives for this remarkable species.
This column was excerpted from The Grizzly Manifesto. Jeff Gailus’s next book, Little Black Lies: One Man’s Search for Meaning in the Tar Sands Propaganda War, will be published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2011.