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Doug Chadwick, wildlife biologist and author, spoke last night at the Patagonia store in Westport CT, sharing excerpts from his new book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies. I enjoyed Doug’s last book, The Wolverine Way, which I wrote about in 2010. I was excited to hear about his work with the Gobi Bear Project, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the Gobi Grizzlies, what he calls “the dustiest, thirstiest, and rarest bears in the world.”

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Theirs is an improbably existence, in a wind-swept rocky and mountainous desert that ranges from -40 in the winter to about 120° F in the summer. There may be as few as 35-40 of these bears in the world, and they are the only bears that live exclusively in deserts. The Gobi Grizzly is the same species as the North American Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos, but a smaller subspecies, called Ursus arctos gobiensis.

The study and conservation work takes place in southern Mongolia, and efforts are focused (not surprisingly) on minimizing conflicts with humans and livestock, and reducing both competition for water resources and impact of land development and mining operations. The bears’ current range is contained within the “Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area”, which is about 5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Efforts of biologists from the project are focused on learning more about the bears, protecting the ones left, and protecting wildlife corridors for the bears to move back into habitat that may have been in their historical range, but is now separated by land that may be developed for mining. This is similar to work that Doug has been promoting for some time now, with the Freedom to Roam and the Yellowstone to Yukon initiatives.

I enjoy Doug’s writing voice, and it was nice to hear his storytelling voice as well. He’s a self described optimist, and while he recognizes the obstacles and hard work ahead, he has hope for conservation efforts to support biodiversity in the long run. Doug heads back West soon with upcoming talks in Dillon, Montana and Seattle, Washington, and if that’s your neighborhood, it’s worth popping in to say hi and give a listen. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

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I missed this when it first came out on PBS in Nov 2010, but a colleague just sent me the link to this video (Thanks, Caryn!), which is a companion piece to the book The Wolverine Way, which I wrote about back in October.

PBS Video. Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom

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"The Wolverine Way" Douglas Chadwick. Patagonia Books 2010

I mentioned this book, “The Wolverine Way” by Douglas Chadwick, back in July after posting about the Ocelot sighting in Arizona, and I’ve been meaning to write a full review since finishing it.  (Yes, I know it’s been a while.  Other half-written posts since then have included Experiments in Pickling, How to Build a Cold Smoker, and several food-related summer ideas that could possibly end up at some point in the future as a collaborative food blog.  More on that later if it comes to fruition.)

I first read about Chadwick’s book in an essay of the same title “The Wolverine Way” in a Patagonia catalog, which described the project and the book, and it contains longer excerpts than included here.  It’s what got me hooked on the book.

This book is fascinating, and a must-read for any outdoor enthusiast or armchair biologist.  Chadwick describes his experience on the Glacier Wolverine Project, and he introduces you to this incredible dynamo of an animal with first-hand accounts of his work tracking and tagging wolverines in Montana.  He also brings you into the circle of the dedicated leaders and volunteers who carried out the study; these are people I’d love to sit around a campfire with.  (I was a seasonal wildlife intern for a few years before I started teaching, studying birds, and this is a project I wish I had known about back then, because I’d have been happy to switch over to mammals for a while.  Plus, let’s be honest, who else would you rather sit around a campfire with?  Field biologists, quirky as they are, make for great conversation.)

In the grand scheme of things, for a North American mammal in the 21st century, we don’t know a ton about wolverines.  Their scientific name, Gulo gulo, literally means “glutton glutton.”  Although they consume what they must (when they can) in a quite unforgiving habitat, they have largely been vilified over the course of history through myth, misunderstanding, and hyperbole.  Chadwick provides some insight into their natural history, including new information on its territorial ranges, metabolism, diet, and social structure within family groups.  He also describes the selective forces that have served to shape the wolverine over thousands of years into the creature that it is today, one built for the brutal cold, for survival on ice-covered peaks, where it has a distinct advantage over just about anything.

“…the list of adaptations that allow wolverines to make an ally of winter is impressive.  Yet until scientists started to focus on climate change, no one gave much thought to how creatures with built-in snowshoes, a super-cozy fur coat, smoldering metabolism, and food cached in nature’s refrigerators are supposed to handle swimsuit weather in our ever-toastier Age of Industrial Exhaust.”

I also appreciate that Chadwick is working to bring wider attention to the Freedom to Roam initiative (along with Patagonia), an effort to to connect large areas of wilderness with migratory corridors for animals. He describes wolverines as basically “badass, but vulnerable,” and he explains why in another Patagonia Environmentalism Essay called “The One Thing Wolverines Can’t Take On.”  All are worth reading.

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Indoctrination! Propaganda! cry the skeptics in the Comments section!

How about Responsibility, Conservation, and Sustainability?

An interesting read from last week’s Opinionator section of the Times; Allison Arieff on “How to Green Your Parents.”

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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, by Timothy Egan

This is a book for the conservationist/forester on your Christmas list.  Timothy Egan describes the 1910 wildfires that swept through a huge section of Washington, Montana, and Idaho in the Coeur d’Alene and Bitterroot forests, wiping out an area of forest about the size of Connecticut in the process (about 3 million acres).  It is also a book about the birth of conservation as we know it, and it chronicles the work of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, as they set aside millions of acres of forest for preservation at the beginning of the 1900s.  This was an unprecedented effort, and they ran up against stiff opposition from the entrenched railroad, copper, and timber barons of the day.  This protection of land, setting aside forests for the people, necessitated some oversight, and here we see the formation of the U.S. Forest Service.

So the narrative portrays this fledgling Forest Service, the brainchild of Pinchot, working to prevent fires at every turn, to protect this national investment in nature.  The dry summer of 1910 and years of unburned undergrowth served as fuel for a fire that they had no chance to stop.  Egan writes about the heroes and cowards of the day, and he tells of the sheer destructive power of the fire, a force that felled millions of trees and wiped ramshackle frontier towns completely off the map.

The take home message of Egan’s book is twofold.  First, the fires shifted public sentiment in favor of the Forest Service, which was tragically understaffed and underfunded.  Changes in Congress provided much-needed manpower for maintenance and oversight of the forests.  But second, it firmly set the Forest Service’s misguided policy of fire-suppression-at-any-cost for much of the 20th Century (some background here).  Also, with a change in leadership in the Forest Service came a change in philosophy.  Whereas the early goal of the Service was to protect the forests for the people, to protect nature, the new goal of the service seemed to be to suppress fire as a means to protect forests for the timber industry.

Egan has a knack for writing about disaster.  His book The Worst Hard Time describes the tragedy of the American dust bowl.  It’s also an intriguing read, and he balances the story of the people with the the forces of nature that were at work as the land literally blew away.  These disasters were mindblowing in scope, and I’d recommend both books for anyone interested in learning more about this period of American history.

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Additional information on the U.S. Forest Service current policy on fire management can be found here.  Some folks that think this policy is misguided: here, here, and here.

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