The Spine of the Continent: Protecting Grizzly Bears
(Page 4 of 5)
Now say you are a grizzly bear. Grizzlies once inhabited the entire north–south trajectory of the continent, from Alaska to Mexico, and from the West Coast nearly to the center of the landmass. Now their numbers are small enough to keep tabs on: There are more than 600 grizzlies in Yellowstone, and just about 900 more distributed through the northern Continental Divide, the North Cascades, the Selkirks, and the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains. The Cabinets, the Selkirks, and the North Cascades all straddle both the United States and Canada. The Bitterroots, covering central Idaho, are perfect habitat for grizzlies, but the last of their kind was shot there in the 1940s. These six areas are “recovery zones” that patched together on a map look like big watermarks over mountain ranges; they don’t quite touch one another. Bears are not like wolves. While their territories are large, bears don’t make such big trips looking for new grounds. Most female grizzlies live in territories that overlap their moms’. To keep the Yellowstone grizzlies genetically viable over the long haul, populations of bears need to be close enough together to intermingle all the way up through Glacier-Waterton, and then onward up to the mother lode, the still-thronging Canadian wilderness, home to more than 27,000 grizzlies. If bears in the lower forty-eight can’t mix with those above, their populations will become inbred and that will be that.
When an animal goes extinct, we not only lose vital pieces of biodiversity; we also lose contact with a cultural history. The grizzly bear has been revered by indigenous cultures all over the world for hundreds of years, American Indian tribes among them. The Native belief systems did not merely honor grizzly bears with the distinction of being almost human, but in general endowed all animal life with a more than natural status, issuing from their existence on the earth prior to people. Joseph Epes Brown writes that for Plains Indians, animals “in their anteriority and divine origin . . . have a certain proximity to the Great Spirit . . . which demands respect and veneration. . . . They are intermediaries or links between human beings and God.”
Should you choose to define God simply as the “as yet not known,” in animals like the grizzly there is much undisclosed: for example, hibernation. While other hibernating animals wake up every couple of days to eat, drink, and eliminate, grizzlies don’t. In a process tracked but incompletely understood by science, hibernating grizzlies live off the breakdown of fat, muscle, and organ tissue as a starving animal would, but then in a reversal from the trajectory that would eventually kill that animal, the bear utilizes urea to actually build new protein. Living off their own fat, hibernating bears create a unique form of bile that prevents hardening of the arteries or cholesterol gallstones.
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