I used to be in the bear police back in the 1960s and 1970s in the mountain national parks, although the actual policing meant ticketing bear botherers rather than the bears themselves. Lots of people were fined, though not nearly enough, and too many bears died as the result of poor garbage management and political pressure to protect the public and avoid lawsuits. Although we definitely had bear jams and photographers to deal with, which is still the case today, we didn’t have today’s bear guardians babysitting bears and tourists. We did not have the bearparazzi, stalking celebrity bruins and recording every twitch and grunt for an eager audience of wealthy hedge fund managers, sipping lattes in their million-dollar second homes in Canmore. We didn’t have bear porn, in other words, or the bear selfie that our author here describes, where aspiring Darwin Award winners pose, smartphones aloft and dumb asses turned on a momma grizzly with cubs.
You will learn all about such things in What Bears Teach Us, by bear biologist Sarah Elmeligi, with ample photographic illustrations by photographer John E. Marriott. Mr. Marriott is a pro who believes in using long lenses and giving his beloved subjects lots of room, which is ethically commendable. If you are a ursinophile, like me, or a mere arctophile (a fond collector of teddy bears), like Sir Winston Churchill, you will swoon over some of Marriott’s shots, especially of the mothers and cubs from Khutzeymateen to the high Arctic of all three species.
What bears teach us; well, the lessons vary, depending on your particular experience, which Elmeligi tells us can be defined by three terms: “positive, neutral or negative.” New Agers (do they still call them that?) raise hands here and ask, “What about the spiritual nature of such encounters?” Being a scientist, Elmeligi loves categories, I suppose. But I can tell you that trapping a 700-pound male grizzly in a culvert trap can best be described by a John Prine verse:
“It’s a mighty mean and a dreadful sorrow/ It’s crossed the evil line today.”
Elmeligi wants to educate the public, and politicians, to avoid such outcomes. She urges us to treat bears with respect, to “live with them” rather than “live next to them,” which, she explains, are two very different things.
“Every time I encounter a bear,” she writes, “I take time to listen to what the bear wants and then honour his or her request,” but she also wants everyone to carry bear spray, just in case. Vital advice if you are on foot or a mountain bike.
I would add that it’s not great advice if you are on horseback, where horses play as much a role as bears do in deciding what happens next. Bear spray while a-horseback? No good, no bueno. But Elmeligi’s advice to mountain bikers should be required reading before any such person is allowed on a mountain trail in bear country. Bears hate bikers even more than horses and yours truly hates them, and for the same reasons: the elements of silence and of surprise, due to the speeds at which they can travel.
Read this book, even if you know much about bears, and give it to some greenhorn set on venturing into the mountains for the first time to escape the COVID-19 horror show. That way they will become a bear respecter, not a bear botherer, and be part of the solution in living at peace with our charismatic ursine friends.
—Poet and writer Sid Marty is a former national park warden and the author of The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek.