DON’T MISS: Griz Gumption

By on February 7, 2017

A wildlife biologist delivers the lessons he learned in the Gobi Desert.

(Photo: Joe Riis)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As a young writer and wildlife biologist, Douglas Chadwick’s first impression of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert was that it seemed of another world. It was hard to fathom even the simplest form of life sustaining itself in such a dramatic environment. Lizards perhaps, he thought, but a 300-pound grizzly bear  Impossible.

Ecologists from the Gobi Grizzly Project invited Chadwick to study and document the Gobi grizzly bear in 2010. On Sunday during A Grizzly Gala, Chadwick, who planned to stay in Mongolia no longer than a year, will debut his book Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond that details five years of work.

The Gobi grizzlies’ story is one of survival and mystery. It also teaches important lessons about the human impacts on natural lands and conservationism in the American West.

“This [story] is taking place against the backdrop of a warming, drying climate,” Chadwick explained.

Scientists knew nothing of the Gobi grizzly until 1943. It was once fabled to be Mongolia’s yeti, as sightings were few and seldom documented. Today, only three to four dozen bears still survive.

The bears’ challenges are many, Chadwick said. They survive in one of the harshest climates on earth—temperatures fluctuate from negative 40 in the winter to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Still, the bears often live up to the age of 35, and are “learning the whole time.”

The bears have one of the biggest brains relative to body size of any land-dwelling animal, Chadwick noted. “They’ve figured out a lot.” They know where to find water, even if it’s 20 to 30 miles away. They know when the rhubarb is ripe, where to look for any sprouting food, from beetles to rodents.

“Everything’s on the menu, and they can put it together into a life,” Chadwick said.

That they have made a life in the Gobi Desert is miraculous on its own. On top of that, however, is the additional threat of human interaction with the land.

While few people live in or around the Gobi Desert, it is a popular Mongolian mining site. Mining development, Chadwick said, is an “omnipresent threat” to the bears’ survival. It depletes the already limited resources the bears have to survive, and forces them further away from food and water reserves.

Mongolian farmers also use the more forgiving areas of the desert for livestock. The problem is that the livestock can graze on a “thin, fragile coating of vegetation” for a few years, but eventually that area runs dry. What’s left, Chadwick said, resembles a moonscape.

Working to save these animals and restore their population in such a large and unforgiving habitat is no easy task. Even experts, Chadwick noted, know very little about the bear to this day, and repopulation requires knowledge. What bears still exist live on a reserve in Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park.

What they have learned about the bears’ survival, however, offers an example that can be applied in places like the Rocky Mountain West. Chadwick said that a key to their survival in the desert is connectivity. In other words, these bears cannot live in isolated communities. They thrive when they are able to interact with populations of other animals in the area, as well as other bear families. That lesson, Chadwick said, can be applied to populations of endangered animals around the world, including the grizzly bears native to the Rocky Mountains.

“The old version of conservation is nice, wonderful reserves, but separate from one another,” Chadwick said. “Nature doesn’t work that way.”

Almost 90 percent of the world’s extinct species were island dwellers, Chadwick noted. “There’s a call to think on a larger, more connected, more interactive scale. That’s what the grizzlies are really asking us.”

Chadwick will begin his presentation with a collection of images from another book, The Photo Arc, which he teamed up with National Geographic photographer Joel Satore to produce. The book documents some of the world’s most imperiled creatures. Chadwick will present a handful of examples of endangered species, then narrow in to the Gobi grizzly with Mongolian bear geneticist Odko Tumendemberel, who worked with Chadwick in the field.

Bear expert Louisa Wilcox and executive director of the Vital Ground Foundation Ryan Lutey will also take the stage with Chadwick. After a short intermission, Wilcox will introduce the premiere screening of a documentary she produced, Protecting Grizzly Bears. Wilcox, Chadwick and Lutey will then shift the conversation to illuminate the current situation of the Rocky Mountain grizzly bears and the threats they face.

A Grizzly Gala, doors open at 5 p.m. Sunday, February 12 at Center for the Arts. A book signing and reception begin at 5:30, and the program begins on stage at 6:30. Tickets at jhcenterforthearts.org for $10 plus a $2 processing fee, and all ticketed guests will be entered into a raffle. PJH

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