THE NEW WEST: From the Gobi to Greater Yellowstone

By on February 7, 2017

What endangered grizzlies in Mongolia can teach us about bruins in the West.

The elusive Gobi grizzly lives on the fringe of normalcy. (Photo: Joe Riis)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Douglas Chadwick was trekking through the Himalayas in search of snow leopards when he unexpectedly spied a grizzly grazing on a mountain slope, just as he had witnessed bears umpteen occasions in his own Northern Rockies.

A conversation with his hosts ensued. Chadwick learned that a legendary cluster of grizzlies existed at lower elevation—in the bone-dry and hardscrabble Gobi Desert, a place where it’s hard for even a lizard to make a living.  Being the naturalist he is, a writing scientist who has trailed bruins, wolverines and other elusive creatures, Chadwick was hooked.

Now he has a new book out, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond with photographs by Joe Riis, the brilliant National Geographic shooter.

On Sunday night at Center for the Arts, Chadwick will deliver a public presentation on what he found in the vicinity of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area.

For people riveted by grizzlies—I’ve met few who aren’t—Chadwick’s program promises to be a riveting evening, for he will share insights about what the tenuous existence of the Gobi bears might portend for grizzlies in our corner of the American West. Chadwick will be joined by Mongolian bear geneticist Odko Tumendemberel and Ryan Lutey of Vital Ground Foundation.

A few days ago Chadwick and I had a chat. The Gobi covers a sweep of southern Mongolia and northern China. A lot of it looks like eastern Montana or Wyoming without the fences. “But when you get into the true desert, the terrain goes from steppe and turns into a stonescape, as if the western edge of the great American prairie turned to gravel and dust. It’s more parched than the Great Basin.”

A century ago, Gobi grizzlies, considered near-mystical creatures known as mazaalai, were so rare and elusive that the tracks they left behind in the sands of southwestern Mongolia fueled the legend of Yeti.

Chadwick mentioned some startling bits of natural history. In the winter, temps fall to 40-below and during summertime, when temperatures reach a broiling 120 degrees, bears sleep during the day and are primarily nocturnal.

“It’s the smallest bear population in the world. It exists at the outer edge of the outer edge of normal possibility for a bear,” he said. “These grizzlies are, in a way, counterparts to what’s going on with polar bears and climate change. One is running out of ice and the other is running out of water.”

The author is not out only to pitch his book but also to raise money for critical monitoring, conservation support and habitat protection. When you get down to around three dozen animals, every bear counts in large amounts.

Researchers have resorted to some desperate measures to boost the bears’ likelihood of survivability, including supplementing their diet with artificial rations. And there’s been talk about having to round up bears and move them into the safety of a captive breeding program. But this step is not yet necessary because neither low densities of grizzlies nor genetic inbreeding are problems for reproduction.

Chadwick has hope. If the bears can hold on, there’s a preserve located just to the east, a protected area set aside for snow leopards, argali sheep, Siberian ibex and bearded vultures, Gobi Gurvan Sayhan Uul National Park, that could also be a sanctuary for grizzlies. The trick is protecting the corridor between.

The region is changing fast from industrial development. Opening soon nearby could be the world’s largest coal mine to fuel power plants in China that, not long ago, were opening at a pace of about one per week.

“Connectivity—it’s not all that different of a story from what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “Our grizzly bears have no goddamn idea of how good they got it for the time being.

Chadwick praises 40 years of vigilant US efforts to reverse the decline of grizzlies in the West and there were times, he says, where he thought they were destined to disappear from the Lower 48. Grizzlies today are found in more places than when they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, but Chadwick the scientist believes they are still a fair ways from biological recovery.

Amid climate change and the region being inundated by more people, the best hope of ensuring persistence is to establish a metapopulation, which means interlinking Greater Yellowstone with the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem along the U.S.-Canada border, via the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and public land wilderness in central Idaho.

I asked him about the commonality of the species he’s written about over the years. “The most captivating and inspiring animals are more likely than not rare in this age of the Anthropocene and becoming a whole lot rarer every year,” he said. “This is especially true of iconic species that capture your attention as umbrella species or as indicators of what’s happening to the whole ecosystem. That’s what you have with the grizzlies of Gobi and the Greater Yellowstone.” PJH

Todd Wilkinson writes his award-winning column, The New West, every week, as he has done for 28 years. He is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Jackson Hole grizzly 399, only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly

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About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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