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The New West: Barrie Gilbert shares his journey from griz attack survivor to advocate

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Bear mauling victim turned grizzly advocate Barrie Gilbert. PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRIE GILBERT
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

For a time, a span that to him still seems like an eternity, Barrie K. Gilbert was the most prominent survivor of a grizzly bear mauling in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The story of his grim encounter, which happened in 1977 as he and a colleague were hiking through the rugged Gallatin Mountains in Yellowstone Park’s northwest corner, made news around the world. Ironically, the incident only energized Gilbert’s ongoing work as a wildlife researcher studying the ways bears respond to the presence of people.

Now, four decades after a few minutes on Crowfoot Ridge changed his life, Gilbert has written a memoir, a long-awaited tome titled “One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.” It’s the first time he has made sense of the attack in his own words but most importantly, it’s the introspection he offers today as an 82-year-old that is worth our attention.

Gilbert’s scientific background, him enduring a near-fatal attack and his thoughts on bears in the 21st century give him a kind of unparalleled street cred.

His mauling happened just two years after grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, estimates were that only 136 individuals, and possibly fewer, remained in the ecosystem, with the vast, vast majority finding refuge inside Yellowstone Park.

Gilbert praises the progress that has been made in slowing habitat destruction and reducing the number of lethal conflicts that resulted a lot of dead bears. Yes, he says, there are many more on the landscape today but bear abundance compared to what?

In light of human population pressures pushing to the very edge of public lands, climate change already affecting key foods and more people recreating in bear habitat, the future for grizzlies is at best uncertain, he says.

Every day Gilbert carries the scars of disfigurement and he lost an eye, the result of the protective mother bear biting into his face. (You can read an excerpt of his book, in which he recounts details of the mauling at Mountain Journal). 

Amid the decades of the 1970s and 1980s when rural Westerners questioned the rationale for recovering grizzlies, Gilbert was invoked as prima facie evidence. He laments how the media and the carnivore-loathing public cited his case to claim that grizzlies wander around as unpredictable bloodthirsty killers and serve no useful purpose, except to become trophies for sport hunters.

Far from holding a grudge against the female grizzly mother that easily could have taken his life, Gilbert is a fierce advocate for bear conservation. As he was being evacuated to Lake Hospital in Yellowstone, he pleaded with park managers not to destroy the bruin.

“One of Us” also covers the years Gilbert spent in Yosemite studying black bears and in Alaska along the Brooks River, observing the annual convergence of brown bears drawn to spawning salmon in Katmai National Park where hordes of people show up to photograph them.

“Shoot a bear, and only one person takes a skin home,” he writes. “Protect that bear, and a thousand people can enjoy it alive, learn something, and have an experience and photographs to last a lifetime.” 

Still, warning about affixing a price to wildlife in order to justify its protection, he provides a critical analysis of how the federal government proposed building a massive bear-watching platform in Katmai that changed bear behavior.

In his chapter, “Hunting the Great Bear,” Gilbert discusses the pros and cons of killing “surplus” grizzlies for sport and he references the decision to halt grizzly hunting in the Canadian province of British Columbia which has roughly 14 times more grizzlies than exist in the entire Lower 48.  The hunt was extremely controversial.

“Bloodlust and appeals to the mythic ‘ancient hunter’ in our DNA have given way to the need to halt the global extinction of top carnivores and highly social mammals,” he says.

Gilbert notes that chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, elephants, wolves and sharks were also sport hunted but research that has revealed their intelligence and complex social behavior has led to public attitudes shifting from demonization to empathy and appreciation. 

If attitudes are ever going to change in the West, he says, it must start with shedding the frontier mentality that looked upon nature as only being there for the plundering.

“First, we should confront wrong-headed language like ‘natural resources,’ which labels and treats remaining wildlife and natural forests as economic commodities instead of reservoirs of beauty, solitude, and quiet values,” Gilbert writes.

 “Wildlife management has become game farming, while national parks policy gurus have acquiesced to intrusive recreation, such as commercial rafting and mountain biking, and failed to protect wildness and wildlife,” he adds. “‘Resources’ is a vague, outdated concept flowing from another mind swindler, ‘multiple use,’ a term that subsumes and satisfies our addiction for giving a little something of economic value to everyone.”

Gilbert says when everyone is encouraged to take a piece of the natural world for themselves, nothing in the end is sustainable, not least of which, a grizzly. Bears aren’t a part of rare remaining landscapes, he adds; they’re extensions of it.

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