Chadwick will talk griz in Jackson

CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Douglas Chadwick was trekking through the Himalayas in search of snow leopards then 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 the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, Chadwick will deliver a public presentation on what he found in the vicinity of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area. If you happen to be down there, I suggest you attend.

For people riveted by grizzlies—I’ve met few who aren’t—Chadwick’s program promises to be a thrilling 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 I had a chat with Chadwick, who makes his home near Glacier National Park. 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 [like] a parched The Great Basin.”

A century ago, the 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 minus 40 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 single bear counts.

Researchers have resorted to some desperate measures to boost the 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.

The good news is it appears to not be necesarry—yet—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 protected area set aside for snow leopards, argali sheep, Siberian ibex and bearded vultures that could also be a sanctuary for grizzlies. The trick is protecting the corridor between the Great Gobi Strictly Protected A

rea and the preserve to its east, the Gobi Gurvan Sayhan Uul National Park.

The region is changing fast from industrial development. The world’s largest coal mine could open soon nearby 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 says. “Our grizzly bears have no goddamn idea of how good they got it for the time being.”

Chadwick praises 40 years of vigilant U.S. 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.”

Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He writes his New West column every week, and it’s published on explorebigsky.com on EBS off weeks. Wilkinson authored the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. His new article on climate change, “2067: The Clock Struck Thirteen,” appears in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. The New West also appears every week at thebullseye.media.