Mountain Magazine — Early Winter 2012
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Yet Another Grizzly Shitbath
Rick Bass

Truth and lies, life and death, bears and beetles, and the great going away of things.

Taking a break from the science and politics of Yellowstone's grizzly beers-or at least trying to—self-proclaimed renegade naturalist and grizzly bear biologist Doug Peacock, the famed forest entomologist Dr. Jesse Login, and I are in Doug's drift boat rowing down the Yellowstone River as it Sows from the park. We're casting to trout, and as we pass through rapids, the more turbulent air above the blue water smells fresher, charged, oxygenated, sweet. In the slow stretches, osprey chirp at us. Both men are excellent fishermen with different styles; Doug is predatory, scanning, searching, while Jesse stands motionless as a crane and throws darts. We connect with cutthroat trout and whitefish on every run. A competition develops to see who will be crowned King of the Whitefish.

We stop at a good little beach by a deep fast current and get out and fish again. Haifa dozen whitefish are pulled, gleaming and summer-bellied to the surface. Grasshoppers clack When die men are fishing, they're lost in die an and act, but now and again—as if raiding some interior currents—they set their rods carefully in the willows or cottonwoods and walk over to where Tm sitting with my feet in the water watching the crags of the Absarokas saw their way slowly against the blue sky.

There are things they want to tell me about grizzlies and a staple of the bear's Yellowstone diet—the nut of the fast receding whitebark pine. Their story is not finished, ft is a tale we're becoming increasingly and quickly familiar with: an earth out of balance, ecosystems stretched and stressed beyond their historical norms. A growing refutation of science. The collapse of nuance and reason.

We were just supposed to have a nice drift, catch some fish, bounce around in some waves, grab a meal, shoot some pool, and later watch the day wind down with some fine thunderstorms, remnants of the day's towering heat. The green good scent of just rained upon fresh-cut alfalfa, then lied, "There were not supposed to be any troubles. One fine slow day was all.

Then Doug hops out to pull the boat into shore just as he has done thousands of times before. But this time his artificial hip goes a little cattywampus, and the section of thighbone they inserted where they had to excavate some of the Vietnam shrapnel goes numb—number than usual. At this strange angle, his mind can't fire the muscles that make the metal hip work.

"I'm okay," he says through gritted teeth. Broad of shoulder, thick of chest, his back at age 70 still cabled with sinew and ropey muscle, he clutches the side of the boat, bobbing in the waves. There is no terror in his eyes, only brightness, awareness of the situation, the calm resignation of waiting. You can see his mind working ahead to the solution, that I am going to get out of the boat and help him.

The boat is drifting a little downstream now and away from shore. In Doug-speak, it's an awkward shitbadi. His tine leg, p kin ted firmly in the sediment but essentially useless without feeling, is being stretched wider, while his powerful amis clutch the side of the boat like a Comanche on a war pony. His good leg is hooked up over die gunwale.

I jump out. We're waist-deep, then chest-deep, no damn life preservers. If I have to choose die boat or Doug, I choose Doug. If I have to choose the shore or Doug, I choose Doug. I grab his arms and try to help him back in, but it's like, well, trying to lift a bear He's dense as iron. Through it all there's no panic, he's only waiting patiently for what comes next.

He's holding on.

I first met Doug outside of Moab, on the occasion of Ed Abbey's memorial, and shortly after that he and I and Terry Tempest Williams and the biologist Dennis Sizemore, along with the artist Trent Alvey, founded Round River Conservation Studies, a nonprofit college-credit field research program.

Doug's first Round River project was to investigate rumors of remnant grizzlies in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. I spent a lot of miles, on and off-trail, with him in great wild country, eating mushrooms and trout and collecting bear scat for DNA analyses, and learning about the woods, seeing them through his eyes and other senses. I've never known so gentle and large a spirit in a man. There's a disparity between the ferocity of his passion for wild country and his inherent gentleness that seems almost too much to stand.

The short notes for his incredibly complex life would almost certainly mention that he was die model for die character of George Washington Hayduke in Abbey's novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, but might leave out the shrapnel and surgeries from Vietnam. They might mention his expertise with grizzlies and their habitats, one of die most astute and persistently curious observers of the natural world, but likely wouldn't mention him as a doting and engaged lather and husband (his children call him Bappy), nor the loyalty of his friendships, the ridiculous inability to say "No" to a good cause. Or that, returning from Vietnam, wounded psychically as well as physically, he sought and found solace in the North American backcountry.

If I were to list some of the things I love about grizzly bears and the wild country to which they are wedded, it would contain many of Doug's qualities and characteristics. The almost-subsonic communications, a groan of approval pulling berries from a bush in August; the affinity they have for the richest, wildest landscapes; their extreme shyness, which has so often seemed to me to be commensurate with good manners; the physical prowess and endurance, the sheer power; their acute senses, particularly scent and hearing. They're tough to tool.

Despite a lifetime in the West, Doug retains at times the idioms and mannerisms of his northern Michigan childhood. He refers to ketchup as "the sauce of my people," brushes his teeth a dozen times a day or more to relax, prefaces indictments with a terse "Listen," and dispenses absolutions or forgiveness with a less-gruff prefatory "Lookit..." (As in "Lookit...The guy's not that bad, there are worse things than being an asshole.") The Doug of today has softened, widened—his great soul has expanded. It would be nice if after a lifetime of activism, countless bushwhacks, and thousands of nights spent, Antaeus-like, in direct contact with the earth, camping out, usually without a tent, just stars and snow and wind, he could rest a bit, lake some stress-free hikes, write, be with friends and family. Instead, the biggest battle of his life looms.

The U.S. government is intent upon taking the Yellowstone grizzly population off the threatened and endangered species list, even diough the best available science the government claims to possess is flawed, utterly incomplete, skewed, and biased.

So Doug fights on, now with the help of Jesse's science behind him.

This is a story about the going away of things, not so much about grizzly biology, but science and facts are not die enemy. A few of the basics, things we have known for decades: Female grizzlies in Wyoming typically need 50 to 300-square-mile home ranges, which possibly are increasing due to the seasonal abnormalities wrought by global warming. They need food—ecosystems are becoming less productive, in that regard—but they also need safe places to den (high on northeast cirques where snow remains deep late into the spring) and to raise their cubs. The culture of grizzlies is largely a maternal one, with the mother keeping her cubs for two or three years, leaching them where to find berries in a poor year, how to avoid humans, where die springs still seep in a dry year; not just the ancient specifics of blood and place, but how to think.

In Yellowstone, tine grizzlies depend upon a large, oil-rich seed found in die cone of the whitebark pine. It's hard to write exciting prose about a tree. But die way it works is elegant, timeless, fitted, and sophisticated. The whitebark pine invests its resources in producing the most nutritious seeds possible in order to attract seed dispersers in a harsh environment Clark's nutcrackers make small caches, dispersing the cones all over the mountains as they fly from ridge to ridge and valley to valley. Red squirrels gather still more cones like the treasure they arc, cache them in large piles, eat a few, then forget where they left them and start anew. And the grizzlies, for which securing an individual pine nut would be too much work, root out the caches and sit down to banquets as if feted.

Whitebark pine was already in double from a pathogen known as blister rust. But in only the last few years, Jesse, 58, forest entomologist and a leading expert on mountain pine beetles, and other scientists, have witnessed a phenomenon they had only imagined might one day happen. As it runs out of food to eat, the mountain pine beetle, previously specializing on lodgepole and, less frequently, Ponderosa pine, is moving into new habitats. Life, seething, ravenous, consuming, moving on. But in this case, out of historical norms thanks to a warming climate that's pushed the beetle to pandemic numbers—you can see their handiwork from Santa Fe north to Calgary.

The breath of global warming has suddenly put the whitebark pine at the edge of extinction; not even Jesse imagined it could get here this fast In die past, the two extremes—fire and ice—have kept the waves and sporadic epidemics of beetles contained to intense but localized infestations. Beedes were part of a healthy cycle Wildfires fueled by beetle-killed lodgepole and Ponderosa pines provide a rich soil for new growth (the release of seeds from the cones is also mechanically facilitated by the fire) and hard winter kills the beetles, even in their galleries beneath the bark. It takes about three straight nights of 40 below to kill beetles. We used to get that kind of weather one or two times a year, in the West. We don't get it anymore.

Now those beedes are devastating whitebark pines. In other habitats flush with spawning salmon or other high protein, high fat snacks, die loss of cached pine nuts might not be debilitating to such a well-evolved omnivore. But the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the only place in North America where grizzlies utilize pine nuts as a staple. (Worldwide, Siberian brown |?ears are the other exception.)

If science and conservation existed outside of politics, the story would end here. Yellowstone grizzlies—the survival of which has been a collective success of our National Park Service, unyielding scientific research, and our collective willingness to co-exist with an apex species big enough to knock a human head off here and there—are, like many species, threatened by global warming "Good thing they're protected," we'd all say 'They're going to need it"

But the decline of whitebark pines is actually a hinging point for public policy, and like all public policy in this millennium, it's subject to polarization. Here's the tangled web: In 21x7, die U.S. Fish and Wildlife service (under die Interior Department) successfully removed or "delisted" the Yellowstone grizzly population from the Endangered or Threatened Species list. Then, a 2009 decision by a U.S. District Count overturned that delisting citing a lack of scientific evidence. The Interior Department, in turn, appealed that decision in 2011. It would have succeeded in delisting die bear—if not for the court's opinion that the government had "failed to establish that the decline in whitebark pine in the Yellowstone ecosystem was not a continuing threat to the grizzly hear."

The unspoken reasoning for this push to delist goes as follows. Because die bears need big wild country without roads to survive—no hunting, mines, clearcuts—their status as an endangered species means extractive industry interests are largely precluded from their habitat outside die National Park. Naturally, those same business interests (and their government backers) were incentivized to say that grizzly bears are not only no longer in trouble, but are in fact flourishing. So, as secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar explained to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead in a letter dated July 19, 2012, die government has since recruited "numerous outside experts in hear biology and statistics" to make their case the next time.

At first, Doug contends, the government scientists said the Yellowstone whitebark pine wasn't dying out, but when Jesse proved otherwise, the government biologists shifted tack to say, "Well, whitebark pine isn't that important after all." The die seems cast, far ahead of any incoming science.

There is perhaps only one person that can be said to lie in the middle on this subject. Jesse is so deeply rooted in science that he lacks an agenda, other than the accuracy of the science.

He's not even looking to fight the feds—The Truth Vs. All Comers, Jesse Smackdown Logan versus the Department of Interior It was his science, after all, dial prevailed upon the court's last decision. Instead, he's asking only for an independent review of the science used by the government. Was the best available research used, or was it a political decision, one in which the answer was long ago predecidcd? In their last appeal the feds cherry' picked a study sample to show that only 16 percent of whitebark pine populations are compromised. Ongoing and more precise work that Jesse is involved with showed that up to 95 percent of whitebark stands are experiencing morality, Is 16 percent the same thing as 95 percent? Jesse's confident in the apolitical arithmetic.

Jesse's brain teems with scientific curiosity and die rich diversity of looking at thousands of trees and pine beetles within them. Thirty-six years ago I was an undergraduate at Utah State University, studying wildlife science, and even then Jesse was legendary for his scientific purity. At the time, he was applying principles of chaos theory to the dynamics of lodgepole forests and forest insect epidemics. He became famous- in die tiny world of forest entomology anyway— when die scientific community first begin to notice die waves of pine beetles sweeping through the West's forests in amplitudes unlike any previously experienced. When global warming was still an abstract theory, Jesse was modeling out how mountain pine beetle populations would respond to climate change.

In his science-based worldview Jesse sees life as collapse and birth; stirrings and stillness; the earth's great inhalations and exhalations. To a scientist familiar with landscape time there is the vigor of youth, die stability of maturity, and then, perhaps most fascinating of all, the glorious dissolution and disassembly of senescence—old age barely understandable in human terms. A die-off that prepares for the return of vigor, passion, the green flame of life.

But that renewal of infestation, death, fire, rebirth doesn't hold true for the whitebark pine, which lives at higher elevations traditionally out of reach of beetles. As warming temperatures move up mountainsides, beetles too are migrating to the stormy peaks, where there were once brief springs, summer blinks, and long sleeping winters. It is as if the whitebark pine alone has been denied the gift of cyclical immortality. Jesse estimates the nee could become functionally extinct in the Rocky Mountain West in the next five to 10 years.

It's no surprise to me that Doug has found Jesse. The grizzly needs die whitebark pine. When it's gone, what will become of the grizzlies? The truth is that we don't know The real science hasn't been done. One official government document, though, theorizes the bears will turn to eating truffles if whitebark disappears Why aren't they eating truffles now7, a peer might ask? Another federal paper theorizes the bears will eat more winter-killed animals—despite the dearth of severe winters. Besides, as Doug can tell you, for he's seen the dynamic firsthand, the big male grizzlies claim most bison and elk carrion. No mother grizzly with cubs or .sub-adult bear can run a 600-pound boar grizzly off a carcass—the risk to reward ratio is too great.

You know those dreams where you try to cry out some warning, but in the dream you can make neither utterance nor sound? I don't know why those dreams fade as you get older, or where they settle—if they fall, sifting and sinking slowly, glittering like dark mica, to die bottom of a lake, where they are absorbed into the sediment that Incomes stone. Those dreams are returning now, to Doug, the veteran bear activist. Something large moves down in that mire, something dark and unseen. The sediments stir, glitter, rise again in plumes.

If our lives' riches are measured in any way by the physical world, then if the whitebark pines fall, and the bears fall, then we fall, flour life is mental, emotional, spiritual—however one chooses to talk and think about such things—the loss of whitebark pine and the politically-driven delisting of grizzlies represents what is called in the legal world a taking, and one of great significance.

Doug is not naive, but he still can't get over the way no one in government is sounding the alarm about the collapse of whitebark pine, and its implications for grizzlies. He knows talk about climate change is censored—Jesse encountered this back when he worked for the Forest Service, with the directives coming straight from Washington, DC, If you speak but on a certain issue, your job is in peril, "But this has never before stopped heroic people in government from doing the right thing" Doug says. It's simple. 'The whitebark pine collapse limits the carrying capacity of grizzlies in Yellowstone," he says. The consequences of whitebark pine mortality should not be delisting, but instead, more wild country protected for bears that will need to roam farther abroad for food. 'The bears have to have more territory to expand into," says Doug. "They're not going to find more food in Yellowstone. They're going to come into the haunts of man [The government] willfully misrepresented die case." He uses the word delusional. Regardless of the evidence, die answer the feds are seeking is delisting. It's been decided.

Back in the Stream, Doug is holding on. He's got one foot planted in the soft sediment near shore but the other leg is still up in the boat, and the current's pulling him apart like a wishbone, while 1 continue to try to lift him. The current is taking us downstream. Doug's one foot tries to hold us in place while the great river tries to take everything else. I'm not being much help, just splashing around. Worse, Doug's boat-leg is now tangled in a rope. Jesse's trying to row back upstream. We are bathing in shit. Things will either get better or worse, and very quickly now, Other than his one leg, the rebuilt, de-shrapneled one, everything is going downstream fast. Then Doug exhales, and just in time, pulls his boat-leg loose of the rope He's free.

Out in the so-called real world, science is still being ignored or twisted, little garden-populations of grizzly bears remain isolated, cut off from one another, the government refuses to fund a proper DNA study in Yellowstone, a vital food source is disappearing, but Doug has both feet planted again Now he's striding through the waist-deep water, a Colossus once more, pulling the boat and me and Jesse to shore, where we will all rest for a time, with die day growing late.

The last drift. The biggest rapids, Doug's in his wheelhouse, center stream, rowing vigorously, pulling the heavy oars upstream, Jesse is in die bow calling out rocks. Doug's broad back is flared and his muscles tensed, he's rowing like a ?o year-old, not a 70-year-old, slipping the boat down through all of die dangers without a bump or a hitch, you can feel the heat coming off him as die cold water splashes over die sides of the boat like water spitting onto a blacksmith's forge. A little hiss and wisp of steam, then nothing.