If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home,
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Henry Hall & His Orchestra
Excessive harvest continues to be the most immediate threat to the persistence of Hokkaido brown bears.
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, Tsutomu Mano and Joseph Moll, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia
“What does the sign say?” asked the illiterate Dr. T.
One of the pleasures of botanizing with Dr. T is that when two roads diverge, we take the one less traveled, which on this occasion led us, in the rental Prius with me at the helm, at the proper and stately botanizing speed of fifteen kays, up a winding, hill-chiseled, single-track logging road, Route 607, on the Oshima Peninsula at the very southernmost tip of Hokkaido. We hadn’t encountered another human being for at least an hour, no small feat in this crowded land.
“It says, ‘Beware of the bears.’”
“Are there any bears here?”
“Nah,” I replied with the faith of the ignorant, the city-slicker guide masquerading as Mowgli, “We’re too far south. They’re all up in the far northeast.”
Ten minutes later, we rounded a corner. There was a bear in the middle of the road.
“Holy fucking crap! It’s a bear!”
Legion are the species of flora and fauna that are devilishly tough to identify in the field on first glance. Bears are not among them. This was Ursus arctos (so good they named it twice), the Brown Bear, aka the grizzly bear, or in its northeast Asian subspecies incarnation, Ursus arctos lasiotus, the Ussuri brown bear—in Japanese, the higuma.
Memories of what happened next differ. I’m told that I moved with uncharacteristic physical swiftness to close the driver’s side window of the Prius. My recollection is that I coolly asked, with the curiosity of the natural scientist, whether it was an adult.
“Of course it is!” exclaimed Dr. T, scrambling around on the back seat for his Nikon. He had about thirty fumbling seconds before the bear, rightly more wary of us than we were of it (how much I would love to know if “it” were a boar or a sow), lumbered up the hillside and into the beeches and maples, which is why even the best photo looks as if it were taken with a Box Brownie by a leprous dipsomaniac with delirium tremens. No Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for Dr. T, then.
I’d naïvely asked whether it was an adult because, not well versed in matters ursine and reared on wildlife documentaries about the salmon-fat Kodiak bears of Alaska and Hokkaido brown bears of the Shiretoko Peninsula, our bear seemed, well, a tad diminutive. Later, Dr. T, quizzed on how big it had been, replied with typical drunken eloquence, “As big as a really fucking big Alsatian!” On reviewing his photo, that seems about right.
Not that—in this case—size mattered: for both of us, it was our first encounter with a bear in the wild, a moment made so much the more magical for being wholly unexpected and unscripted. Globe-gallivanting Dr. T, one of whose friends is an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes, holds out hope of one day tracking down the inspiration for Paddington Bear in deepest, darkest Peru, but for sedentary city-bound me, this was almost certainly the only bear with whom I will ever cross paths.
The following evening, we watch an item on the evening news: an Asian Black Bear, categorized on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction, has been driven down into residential districts in the central Japan city of Nagano by a poor season for seeds, nuts, and berries, the dearth of which has been so exasperating Dr. T.
“These narratives,” I warn Dr. T, “invariably end in the death of the bear.”
Twenty seconds later, the bear is dead, shot by a local hunter.
“Isn’t there anyone to speak up on behalf of the bear?”
“Well,” I reply, gesturing at the screen, “This guy’s from WWF Japan, but he’s just explaining how there are likely to be more bear incursions this autumn, so your answer is no.”
The Brown Bear is one of only two of the eight species of bear listed by the IUCN as Least Concern—five are listed as Vulnerable and one, the Giant Panda, is listed as Endangered—and while it is safe for now in its strongholds of Russia, Alaska, and Canada, it is long gone from many parts (Mexico, California, the Atlas Mountains, South Korea, the UK, and Germany) of its immense historical range and under intense pressure in many other parts (India, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and most of Europe) of the rest. The Japanese population may be the fifth largest in the world, after that of Romania. But how large is it? I thought, from previous dabbles in ursid research, that I knew the answer—around 2,000-3,000 individuals—but the truth turns out to be more elusive, as this October 6, 2012, article from the online Nikkei newspaper, which I translate in its disturbing entirety, suggests:
How many brown bears on Hokkaido? First survey in 12 years
Survey to be used in trouble countermeasures
How many brown bears are there on Hokkaido? The first population survey in 12 years is to be conducted on Hokkaido, where bear intrusions into forest villages and residential districts are frequent. The previous census, in 2000, estimated the population at 1,771-3,628, but current opinion is divided, with some claiming there are over 10,000 and others that they have been over-harvested. Hokkaido wants to get a precise grasp of the population and use the data in measures to prevent trouble. Between April and September this year, there were 963 sightings and 416 bears were harvested. Reports were made of more than 100 sightings in Sapporo City alone. In the year to March 2012, 825 bears were harvested and researchers are saying that bears are being over-culled in comparison with the estimated population count. How many bears are there really out there? We need a more precise grasp of the number. In September, the prefectural government mailed a questionnaire to some 5,800 hunters within the prefecture asking them to estimate the number of bears in their municipality and whether the number was rising or falling. The results of the survey are to be put together before next March. Discussions have also begun about bringing in the “hair-trap method”, whereby bear fur is collected and DNA analyzed to distinguish individuals, so as to enhance the precision of the survey. The Hokkaido Research Organization’s Environmental Science Research Center is pursuing research into how to cut costs. The generally accepted theory is that up to 10% of a bear population can be harvested annually without impacting the ecosystem. A survey on the Oshima Peninsula in the south of the prefecture using the hair-trap method put the bear population at 800, plus or minus 400. Plans are being drawn up to protect the bears there by putting an upper limit on the harvest at 120 individuals (40 sows).
So noone has a damned clue what is going on and the bear census is to be done shoddily and on the cheap. Assuming the Nikkei numbers are accurate, even at the upper population limit of the 2000 census the recent Hokkaido-wide cull rate (“harvest” is a noxious euphemism widely used around the world) is over 20% a year; at the lower limit it is close to 50%. On the Oshima Peninsula, the cull averaged about 80 bears a year between 1990 and 2008, the vast majority in controlled kills of “nuisance bears” (some, using the Ainu language, talk of kimun kamuy, “good bears” and uen kamuy, “bad bears”) rather than in recreational hunting, and a cull cap at 120 would have only saved bear lives one year in the last two decades. If the peninsula’s bear population is only 400, the low end of the survey estimate, the cull-rate cap would be 30% a year and the average cull rate 20% a year.
This goes some of the way to explaining why the odds were strongly stacked that our bear would seem, well, a tad diminutive: brown bears reach reproductive age at around five to seven years and live, unmolested, for 20-30 years, but at a cull rate of even 10% a year, Hokkaido brown bears have only a roughly even chance of making it to adulthood, even setting aside normal mortality rates. To put this in human terms, a cull rate of 10% equates to a homicide rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the 2011 homicide rate in Honduras, reckoned to be the most murderous country in the world, at 91.6 per 100,000, more than a hundred times lower.
What of the other side of the ledger of death? Between 1980 and 2009, a total of 14 people (five of them hunters) were killed by bears on Hokkaido—fewer than 0.5 fatalities a year—while in the last dozen years, no more than three people a year have been injured annually. On the raw, unadjusted-for-stupidity data (all 18 of the bear fatalities between 1970 and 2000 were male and a minority of victims are solitary nocturnal salmon poachers), you’re approximately 400 times more likely to be killed in a Hokkaido traffic accident (190 fatalities in 2011) and 7,000 times more likely to be injured in one (19,705 injuries in 2011). You’re also approximately 3,000 times more likely to die by your own sweet hand than at the paws of a bear (1,533 Hokkaido suicides in 2010). With people outnumbering bears by about a thousand to one (and I would guess “Beware of the bear” signs outnumbering flesh-and-blood bears by fifty to one), it’s a massively, massively lop-sided conflict between these two apex omnivores. There’s damage to crops and forests to be taken into account, too, but this could be overcome with a well designed compensation scheme—the damage amounts to a paltry million dollars or so a year.
The human population of the eight towns that make up the remote southern end of the Oshima peninsula, where the bears are densest, is collapsing—from 89,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010 and a projected 27,000 in 2035—and across Hokkaido the hunter population is likewise collapsing, down by more than half since the 1978 peak to 9,400 of late, with 44% of them over 60, but it would be premature to declare victory for the bear on these grounds, as the Oshima bear population has been falling these past four decades, too. As long as bears are seen as a pestilent and lethal enemy to be subdued—a view kept alive by folk memories of episodes from the early settler era such as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident—as long as there are people around, and as long as some have guns, the conflict will run and run.
We pressed on along Route 607, which turned into a deeply, rockily rutted track.
“You know, there are very few roads down which you can’t take a two-wheel drive car,” airily opined Dr. T, whose steed of choice is a Land Rover Defender, who believes all lesser mounts must be—or should be, in a righteous world—just as rugged, and who has previous global convictions as long as a brachiating gibbon’s arm for grievous rental car abuse—if rent-a-car agencies had an Interpol most wanted list, he would be on it.
Moments later, to a banshee wail of stone against steel, the Prius grounded out.
“Fuck this for a lark, I’m turning round.”
We headed up around the coast to the other end of Route 607, but could only get a few kilometers into the interior before being thwarted by a forbidding barrier declaring that the road ahead had been washed away.
Even Dr. T in his Land Rover couldn’t have maneuvered past this—although I bet he would have given it the old college try. Unlike other barrier-blocked roads we had run up against in our travels, this one offered no schedule for reopening. Beside the barrier stood a wooden house, its frail, skeletal rib-cage of a roof staved in as if by a giant, vengeful fist. It’s the same all over rural Hokkaido: the homesteads on the most marginal land, furthest from civilization, are as a rule the first to go. Perhaps, I later mused, just perhaps this is where bear salvation lies, in the withdrawal from the extremities of Homo sapiens sapiens (so good—and so immodest—we named ourselves twice) and the closure of logging roads rendered redundant by the demise of the timber trade.
Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. Thanks to the selfish genetic success of the human cockroach, the 21st century is destined by many a reckoning to see the extirpation of half of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet, in what may come to be known as the Anthropocene extinction, the greatest and swiftest extinction event since at least the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Barring nuclear holocaust, utterly catastrophic climate change, or asteroid impact, the Brown Bear might make it through to the dawn of the 22nd century, along with the American Black Bear and, courtesy of the crudely nationalist and blinkered efforts of the Chinese state, the Giant Panda, already conservation dependent and ecologically extinct. It has to be touch and go for the other five bears. In the follies of my Greenpeace youth, I used to care passionately about these things, until I came to appreciate the enormity of humanity’s indifference.
As Brion Gysin said, man is a bad animal.
Select sources (in no particular order):
The World Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only)
Hokkaido suicide rates (J)
Hokkaido road traffic death and accident rates (J)
Japan Bear Network report on bear-caused deaths and injuries in Japan (J, pdf)
Bear-caused deaths and injuries on Hokkaido, 1970-2000 (J)
Bear-caused injuries in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)
Bears culled in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)
Bears, forests, and bear culls in Japan, 1923-2006 (J, pdf)
Aging hunters on Hokkaido (J)
Interpreting the recent increase of brown bear conflicts in Hokkaido, Japan, from the 20th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, 2011 (E, pdf)
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia (E, pdf)
Population Characteristics of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula, Hokkaido (E, ppt)
Management and Research of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula (E, ppt)
IUCN Red List data for the Brown Bear (E)
Bear Conservation and Biodiversity, Japan Bear Network (E, pdf)
The status of brown bears in Japan, in Understanding Asian bears to secure their future (E, pdf)
Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia (E, pdf)
State has way too many deer and we are “culling” wolves that help keep the deer population in check because a few wolves found that hunting cattle is way easier.
Homo sapiens “outcompeted” Neanderthals. Europeans weren’t “nice” to indigenous folks all over the world. Japanese were not “nice” to Ainu or to Chinese or to POWs. And we are not “nice” to any animals or plants that get in the way of our growing food or more mundane things.
I am just sorry that when Homo sapiens finally go extinct we won’t leave Earth a better place than when we found it.
A belated thanks for the links. As you say, Minnesota’s wolf “management” program does seem at first blush to be very short-sighted, almost schizophrenic–classify wolves in the lower 48 as endangered, stop hunting them, populations increase, move them to vulnerable from endangered and start hunting them again… Also, I wonder whether you or anyone else can explain what this hideous piece of bureaucratese (from the DNR website) means:
“Public opinion surveys and attitudes demonstrated during development of the state’s wolf management plan show people view the animal as ecologically important, scientifically fascinating, aesthetically attractive, recreationally appealing and significant for future generations.”
Predator-prey populations often go from boom to bust and back again; lots of rabbits results in lots of foxes which means fewer rabbits which leads to fewer foxes, then the rabbit population increases again due to less predation. There’s also disease involved when populations get dense, it’s easier for infection to get passed on from one animal to another if their ranges are compressed. Regulated hunting is one way to keep populations in check and hopefully prevent disease becoming the apex killer of a given species. Some diseases like tick-borne hemorrhagic fever, endemic in dense deer populations can easily be passed to livestock and humans which is another factor to be considered.
“Recreationally appealing” means that city folks will pay big bucks to vacation in wilderness areas and hopefully see animals like wolves in their carefully-managed natural environment, like whale-spotters who go looking for orca pods. The problem is that wolves tend to avoid humans if they can so wolf-spotting is likely to be less lucrative than whale-spotting unless the wolf packs are semi-tamed and can be lured out into chosen areas of open ground by baiting.
“estimated the population at 1,771-3,628”
These “estimates” always kill me. Back in the 1990s, a survey of black bears in Nagano Prefecture conjured up the “estimate” of 1,362 as if all the bears had trooped down to their local town halls to register. You’re dead right about cheap and shoddy bear censuses. I think Nagano’s economy was twice the scale of Minnesota’s in the year I went to Minnesota to film one of the state’s four bear biologists. Nagano had zero (probably still the case), and that survey was done by a private consultant.
Nevertheless, with the way the countryside is emptying out (of people, that is) and hunting population dropping, I reckon things are looking up for Japanese wildlife. In fact, more and more people are just giving up farming in my neighborhood due to the predations of burgeoning populations of deer, wild boar and monkeys.
That’s very interesting (and in your comment about bears trooping down to town halls, funny).
The IUCN Red Data Book page for the Asian Black Bear (here) says that:
“No rigorous population estimates exist for this species. Japan formerly posed estimates of 8–14,000 bears on Honshu Island, but these are no longer considered valid.”
No explanation of why that estimate is no longer considered valid, nor who is doing the considering, sadly.
I’m not a bear census expert, of course, and I know from leafing through the literature on-line that bear censuses are very tricky, but I do know that mailing a questionnaire out to hunters is not going to produce anything like an accurate response, and if you don’t know how many bears you have, you cannot know how many you can safely cull.
Given the threats that the Asian Black Bear faces in the rest of its range, Japan could become one of its last refuges, and I would hazard a guess that Nagano is one of its biggest bastions in Japan. It’s disgraceful that somewhere as wealthy (as you say) as Japan cannot get a grip on the size of its bear populations, and also disgraceful that “nuisance bears” that intrude into urban districts are shot rather than tranquilized and released deep in the mountains.
“More and more people are just giving up farming in my neighborhood”
Whereabouts are you in Nagano? I used to live down in Iida.
The idea of tranking and relocating wildlife is one of those things “natural history” TV programs like to puff up but they don’t tend to cover the number of times the tranked animal doesn’t survive the experience or ends up with neurological damage from a drug overdose. Imagine if hospital anaesthologists used a dart gun to knock you out after estimating your approximate body weight through binoculars from fifty metres away rather than continuously monitoring your vital signs and managing the drugs and gasses used to keep you unconscious on the operating table while the surgeon does his work.
Dropping a tranked bear off in another bear’s territory “deep in the mountains” is not necessarily a good idea either. Most wildlife like bears stay away from urban areas except under population pressure or during migrations so the fact they’re turning up in towns indicates there are probably plenty of them in the wild. What predators do they have, other than hunters, disease and age (and pickup trucks)? The Japanese wolf was made extinct a couple of centuries ago and I don’t think there are feral dog packs which might impact the bear breeding population.
Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking comment. I contacted the only bear expert I know, who is referred to in the original post as “an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes”. His name is Rob Williams and he is the Scientific Director of the Chappari Reserve in northern Peru. Here’s what he had to say:
Concerning Bear Census Methodologies – this is a complex topic that gets bear biologists in fits of rage as they discuss the different methods etc. Basically to do it well you need to spend a lot of money. The hair trap DNA method is probably the best available in the type of habitat you seem to have there and it just depends on the number and spread of sample points and number of analyses they do on how good the result is – I would say 800 +/- 400 means quite a superficial survey. I do not know much about Brown Bear ecology but agree that the harvest rates suggested do seem high given the long-time to maturity. I guess it will all depend on what other causes of mortality they face etc. but you do not paint an optimistic picture.
Problem bears are also something I do not know much about – our diminutive and wary Andean Bear has never been recorded to kill anyone and is rarely and only locally a problem. We tend to find that the extent of the problem is always vastly exaggerated when one actually studies the impacts. However, I am sure the problems with Brown Bears in a highly seasonal habitat could be much more tricky. Tranquilization and relocation, sometimes combined with negative conditioning seem to work well in some parts of the US and Canada from what I have read, but are again costly and require the right people who have the training and equipment to be readily on hand. Unfortunately humans and large wildlife almost always “conflict” in a very one sided way.
So we might tentatively conclude that tranquilizing and transportation could work, if there are sufficient funds available, in at least some cases—and a 25% survival rate is better than a 0% survival rate under current practices.
“Dropping a tranked bear off in another bear’s territory “deep in the mountains” is not necessarily a good idea either.”
I do take your point, but do not know enough about the territoriality of bears in general and the Brown Bear in particular to come to any definite conclusion.
“Most wildlife like bears stay away from urban areas except under population pressure or during migrations so the fact they’re turning up in towns indicates there are probably plenty of them in the wild.”
Have to disagree with your analysis here. Bears in Japan mostly irrupt into urban areas in poor years for mast (i.e., beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, etc.) If there has been an irruption uptrend in recent years (and I’m not 100% sure there has), then it is probably because the intermediate buffer zone between areas of high human population density, namely montane paddies and fields, are increasingly reverting to semi-wilderness as farmers age and farming villages depopulate. This semi-wilderness of bracken and bushes is not natural bear territory (yet) and this does not argue for an increase in bear populations, but the reduction in human activity in these areas does narrow the “no-man’s land” between people and bears. Indeed, this was more-or-less the conclusion of a 30-minute special on the “Black Bear Problem” on NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, last Friday night. And your blithe conclusion, “probably plenty of them in the wild”, doesn’t cut it for my inner scientist, I’m afraid.
“The Japanese wolf was made extinct a couple of centuries ago”
1905, to be precise, although undoubtedly wolves were under serious pressure for centuries before. See Brett Walker’s book, The Lost Wolves of Japan, for more gory details.
I live in the corner of Fujimi-machi (in Suwa-gun) nearest to Yamanashi-ken and Hokuto-shi. Kiyosato is not far away, and I much enjoyed your account of that now forlorn venture. When we first moved here 20 years ago, there were no monkeys on this side of the Koshu Kaido (National Route 20) that runs through the town, but now they’re everywhere, spreading inexorably up Yatsugatake’s slopes. Monkey’s were no problem in the past when people were full-time farmers who spent most of the day in their fields. And deer and wild boar were apparently kept at bay by village dogs that were unleashed at night to roam the neighborhood as packs that chased any marauders back up the mountains. .
“The enormity of humanity’s indifference.”
It’s fine thing when someone can use the word ‘enormity’ accurately, and also can have it read the way most think it means.
The only consolation that makes living among the enormity of the “human cockroach” possible for me is to realize that we can’t destroy the biosphere, though we will destroy the biosphere we know.
Fascinating and wistful. Bear sightings are a regular feature of a slow news day for the Japanese mass media but your story makes me wonder for how long. The evolved trait of general somnolence of humans leavened by instances of panic and mindless action are why we have achieved dominance over all things visible. Of course what has brought us this far may not provide us with the ability to make the difficult choices necessary to survive what is coming.
Thank you again.
Typo quibbling: The Word Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only) I assume that you mean “World Wildlife Fund Japan”.
Though I like the idea of a “The Word Wildlife Fund Japan” as an organization opposing Japanese version of a pilkunnussija.
Corrected, thank you. And thank you even more for pilkunnussija, a “comma fucker” (is that really, truly, Finnish?) I was thinking of writing something on the pedantry of David Foster Wallace (while being wholly and hypocritically pedantic myself), and pilkunnussija could come in very handy indeed.
Asking the hunters, the guys who want to keep killing bears, to estimate how many bears they think there are?
That sounds more than a little stupid to me. These hunters aren’t fools (well, except for those five the bears got to, go bears go!), they know fine well that their estimates will dictate the amount of hunting they’re allowed to do.
Well, erm, yes, agreed… Although I don’t think the hunters, in this case, are particularly motivated by blood-lust or by money, they seem to genuinely believe that they are protecting their communities from the “menace” of the Brown Bear. They are perhaps more likely to put their bear population estimates on the high side because of a deeply ingrained “What You See Is All There Is” (thank you Daniel Kahnemann, for enlightening my year) tendency.
Suburban man and nature have been bumping up against each other in the U.S. more and more over the last two decades.
We live in a suburb of Seattle three blocks above a busy thoroughfare. Since moving into this house two years ago, we have seen coyotes twice and come home twice to the same four deer browsing in our front yard, which is enclosed by a four-foot high fence, an easy leap even for young white tail. While there is a park and green belt nearby, this is an area that was built out some 40 years ago.
I think you will find this book review from the WSJ interesting.
Oh, here’s the link.
Fascinating stuff, thank you. Hope I don’t come across as too much of a bear “species partisan”. The clear and abiding difference between being a Brown Bear species partisan, and a partisan for, say, the Canada Goose, is that the latter has become a congener of humanity and the former emphatically not. We musn’t lose sight of the fact that the IUCN lists only 57% of all mammals as “Least Concern”. Don’t forget the Lesser Bilby!
You do not come across as a species partisan in the least, and I’d be the first one to sign-off on a goose cull locally as they are very much a nuisance species.
This is just one more ironic example of the Japanese and their “special understanding of nature (the weather, eating utensils, clocks or whatever).”
Your innocent comment about the Canada Goose attracted a torrent of spam behind the scenes at the blog from these people:
But I find myself strangely attracted to their overpriced products…
I’ve heard reports that the bear population in Hokkaido correlates with rises in the deer population (makes sense), thanks largely to the extinction of the wolf, which kept the deer population in check. Of course, these don’t take into account suburbs invading the countryside…
I also hear that registered hunters can claim a bounty on bears, not just in Hokkaido, but all over the country.
“I’ve heard reports that the bear population in Hokkaido correlates with rises in the deer population (makes sense), thanks largely to the extinction of the wolf, which kept the deer population in check.”
I’m sorry, but why does the purported correlation betweeen the Hokkaido bear and deer population “make sense”? Is this a straight correlation, in that more deer means more bears? Or an inverse correlation? What is the relation between the two populations (if any)? Bears don’t eat deer, the last time I looked, and I’ve not heard of deer eating bears… The wolf was extirpated from Hokkaido by the turn of the last century (see Brett Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan), so it’s hard to see what impact wolves could have had on bear or deer populations in the last 50 years. Can you clarify?
Sorry, I implied that as deer are in fact a food source of the bears, and that reports said that an increase of that food source correlated with an increase in the bear population.
Of course, this wasn’t in a biological paper, and I am willing to believe these would be local rather than overall increases.
Allow me to understand the context, which you seemed to head toward at the end, yet, amazingly, sail right on under. Context of the brown bear plight: of all species that have ever existed, at least 95% to 99% exist no longer, and shall exist nevermore. This rather impressive trend would seem to apply to all remaining species, no? In other words, we haven’t exactly a signed lease on the place, have we. Nor did they. Nor do the brown bears. Now, I think you are talking about something different though, something like “soul” or spiritual wealth, that thing which indicates good stewardship of all of the lord’s domain and for which we ought to feel good about ourselves. Because it isn’t the existence of bears that bothers you, it is the bear’s existence in relation to our own. Iow, our responsibility to do something about the bears. Responsibility. (How do you feel about rats? About vegetation? About insects? Viruses and bacteria? Why do self-professed protectors of the hearth always embrace the specie that adapt well to a Walt Disney(fication) Joint? Ah, disney-fication. Why, bears are our friends! Here is a thought puzzle: in 200 years time, or in 200 years following the extinction of the brown bears, do you think it will matter? All those extinct species on display in national history museums, do you think it matters they are extinct? Does it matter the Anglo were conquered by the French, by the Dutch? Will it matter, 200 years from now, who won WWII? So we are back to the soul thing, the good stewardship. Ah, the ridiculous “human cockroach”, deigning spirituality. But I digress (but don’t we all)).
Responsibility was the point. Ah yes. Humanity! – damned humanity! – is responsible for, well, today it’s bears. Such hubris. When the planet pulls the pins we all go “Ker-Plunk!”. This planet has ended most of everything that ever will exist. Yet, should another species slip closer to that swirling centre, well, the “human cockroach” is responsible. Inconsolable, untreatable hubris.
Well, the future obviously isn’t in nature, is it? Yet, it is likely beyond this species to act accordingly – which would be to conquer nature with technology. Keep the gardens, the parks, the conservations. But use nature itself for fuel, for space. Of course, we won’t even manage that. Because the only thing human society has concerned itself over is human society. In other words, It is, and likely always shall be, about political economy, sir. The “plight of the bears” exists for others to scribble their misanthropy.
Pardon me that, in my passing, I displace a bear /sarcasm. And what is said for the one is said for the whole.
For the longest time, I was at a loss as to how to—or whether to—reply to your inchoate screed, but thanks be to biologist E. O. Wilson, who, in the latter pages of his effort to unite all branches of knowledge, Consilience, attains the status of art, as defined by Alexander Pope—what was oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
“Allow me to understand the context, which you seemed to head toward at the end, yet, amazingly, sail right on under. Context of the brown bear plight: of all species that have ever existed, at least 95% to 99% exist no longer, and shall exist nevermore. This rather impressive trend would seem to apply to all remaining species, no? In other words, we haven’t exactly a signed lease on the place, have we. Nor did they. Nor do the brown bears.”
The ongoing loss of biodiversity is the greatest since the end of the Mesozoic Era sixty-five million ago. At that time, by current scientific consensus, the impact of one or more giant meteorites darkened the atmosphere, altered much of Earth’s climate, and extinguished the dinosaurs. Thus began the next stage of evolution, the Cenozoic Era or Age of Mammals. The extinction spasm we are now inflicting can be moderated if we so choose. Otherwise, the next century will see the closing of the Cenzoic Era and a new one characterized not by new life forms but by biological impoverishment. It might be appropriately called the “Eremozoic Era,” the Age of Loneliness.
I have found, during many years of studying biological diversity, that people commonly respond to evidence of species extinction by entering three stages of denial. The first is simply, ‘Why worry? Extinction is natural. Species have been dying out through more than three billion years of life’s history without permanent harm to the biosphere. Evolution has always replaced extinct species with new ones.
All these statements are true, but with a terrible twist. Following the Mesozoic spasm, and after each of the four greatest previous spasms spaced over the earlier 350 million years, evolution required about 10 million years to restore the predisaster leveIs of diversity. Faced with a waiting time that long, and aware that we inflicted so much damage in a single lifetime, our descendants are going to be – how best to say it? – peeved.
I didn’t “sail right on under” anything at all—humanity, right here, right now, is heading for the most rapid loss of biodiversity in 65mn years. The total number of species lost (and created) in the 3.5bn or so years since abiogenesis is a complete irrelevance.
“Now, I think you are talking about something different though, something like “soul” or spiritual wealth, that thing which indicates good stewardship of all of the lord’s domain and for which we ought to feel good about ourselves. Because it isn’t the existence of bears that bothers you, it is the bear’s existence in relation to our own. Iow, our responsibility to do something about the bears. Responsibility. (How do you feel about rats? About vegetation? About insects? Viruses and bacteria?”
Much the same way, I like to think, that I do about bears.
“Why do self-professed protectors of the hearth always embrace the specie that adapt well to a Walt Disney(fication) Joint? Ah, disney-fication.”
We don’t, always. But we do understand that noone else is in the slightest bit interested in the fate of fungi or termites or foraminifera, so we select the species that someone might just care about, the apex predators (or omnivores, in the case of bears).
“Why, bears are our friends! Here is a thought puzzle: in 200 years time, or in 200 years following the extinction of the brown bears, do you think it will matter? All those extinct species on display in national history museums, do you think it matters they are extinct?”
Entering the second stage of denial, people commonly ask, Why do we need so many species anyway? Why care, especially since the vast majority are bugs, weeds, and fungi? It is easy to dismiss the creepy-crawlies of the world, forgetting that less than a century ago, before the rise of the modern conservation movement, native birds and mammals around the world were treated with the same callow indifference. Now the value of the little things in the natural world has become compellingly clear. Recent experimental studies on whole ecosystems support what ecologists have long suspected: The more species that live in an ecosystem, the higher its productivity and the greater its ability to withstand drought and other kinds of environmental stress. Since we depend on functioning ecosystems to cleanse our water, enrich our soil, and create the very air we breathe, biodiversity is clearly not something to discard carelessly.
Each species is a masterpiece of evolution, offering a vast source of useful scientific knowledge because it is so thoroughly adapted to the environment in which it lives. Species alive today are thousands to millions of years old. Their genes, having been tested by adversity over so many generations, engineer a staggeringly complex array of biochemical devices to aid the survival and reproduction of the organisms carrying them.
“Does it matter the Anglo were conquered by the French, by the Dutch? Will it matter, 200 years from now, who won WWII?”
No. As for the rest of your scribblings, well, I confess I didn’t understand them well enough to respond.
The part that baffled you is where it gets interesting. I will simply say that humanity will be better served as soon as it figures out that nature is not an ally, that it can be harnessed, dominated and controlled as much as possible. If you think allying yourself with the natural way of things is going to harmonize the bear population then by all means. So far you’ve accomplished getting the luckless an on-the-house, stupor-ed lift to an eventual mauling. My idea of a conservation area is still too imperialist, I suppose. And before man-made greenhouse gases nature was the embodiment of purposeful harmony, I am to suppose.
I find nothing wonderful about nature beyond the aesthetic appeal, the sensual. The reality of nature I avoid or mitigate or control as much as very possible. Nature is grotesque, a bloody, squirming asylum of stupid violence for its own sake. Past cultures tried to harmonize with it, but only because they had to; they simply did not have the means to rise beyond its pointless cycles and stupid leash.
“I will simply say that humanity will be better served as soon as it figures out that nature is not an ally, that it can be harnessed, dominated and controlled as much as possible.”
Erm, didn’t humanity “figure” that out, for better or worse, about ten millenia ago, with the invention of agriculture? Or even (much) earlier, if you want to take some of the earliest Stone Age flint axes, circa 2.5mn years ago.
“So far you’ve accomplished getting the luckless an on-the-house, stupor-ed lift to an eventual mauling.”
I haven’t “accomplished” anything of the sort!
“Nature is grotesque, a bloody, squirming asylum of stupid violence for its own sake.”
Ah, you are the epitome of the human exceptionalist, the anthropocentrist, who thinks that by some trick of evolution not fully (or even slightly) explained, you have escaped from your chimpanzee and bonobo past by virtue of your Cartesian ability to separate mind and body–or whatever trick you’d like to let the 17th century philosophes pull on you. Bad news coming down the wires from all aspects of modern psychology and evolutionary theory, I’m afraid–you’re just a monkey in shoes. Never ever forget that.
Headlines: “pachiguy rips Cartesian veneer off (yet another!) stupid human-monkey; Hypocrisy Lurked Within”. Another slow news day. I understand my comment is a conversation-stopper because it is merely stating the obvious fact. Like walking into a congregation of apologists and mumbling if there were the slightest evidence for God then the faith it and they are always going on about would be redundant. It takes the life out of the party, or turns it surly. For example, you merely confirm the wit and the soul of that certain breed of tree-hugger (to differentiate from naturalists): you don’t love nature so much as you hate humanity. As cliche as the humorless moralist.
For though I see nature for what it appears as (iow, on its own terms) I wish no pain or suffering to any creature. Fortunately, I do not take nature too serious or would I ever be disappointed. But I am honest enough to admit that. (and just how am I confined to, and denying?, my bonobo et al “roots” (the roots go back further than that, you petridish off-shoot in shoes you!) by stating the obvious? Say the difference between me and cuz Bobo is merely language… quite a startling difference. I mean, look at you, with your blog and all). If returning a bear to the wild frees it from harm then fine. But then returning a creature to the wild so it can be “free” is, I’m sorry to have to say it, really a half-baked, silly misconception of what nature actually is. Don’t you think?
“Memories of what happened next differ.” I enjoyed reading Dr. T’s account of the matter; his sparcity of word a perfect foil. I have a life-long friend with whom I spend many hours debating the details of trips taken together. One of life’s treasures. Best wishes for 2013.
I’m mightily impressed that you managed to track down Dr. T’s account of the matter. For those of you devoted souls that follow the Spike comments section, it’s here:
Memories are tenaciously fallible; I don’t think I would have been remotely able to accurately recollect the two-minute encounter five minutes after it took place. But it reawakened long-dormant green urges in me that I thought I’d triumphantly supressed.
Best wishes to you, too, Adam.
As an infrequent devotee of Spike I was horrified at the misrepresentation of bears in California as a thing of the past. True, we did kill quite handily the species known commonly as the “California Grizzly,” the California Golden Bear. Apparently those things were too sonofabitching because we left brown bears (and apparently as Wikipedia would have me believe) and black bears to do their thing. We did a much better job with the native human population, the last feral example going extinct four years earlier. Heady times, I’m sure.
Bears are quite common here in the North. I live near the Sierras and have spent months in the backcountry: much of it in the territory of rereleased Yosemite bears back before they executed them as a danger to human existence and generally unrelocatable. “Nuisance bears,” they are called. It is not uncommon to see admonishments towards proper sanitation procedures — significant in light of an exceptionally smart, strong animal — as habituation to human byproducts will lead to their deaths at the hands of humans.
A bear’s tenacity for something of interest is not as riveted as a dog’s can be as they tend towards easy picking and laziness. Their physical mass and curiosity makes them a menace. An intelligent animal, they’ll learn bad behaviors and make quick work of cars, homes and largely anything man-enterable.
Around here, human-bear dustups are pretty rare; I think its because we killed all the sumbitching ones (along with wolves) back in Great Grandad’s day. That said an acquaintance of mine has an elegant set of scars as a reminder to be a bit more cautious around unsecured trash as bears do not like to be surprised by humans stepping out onto their supper. That he received this wound while working with nothing but young women his age while we toiled woundless and womanless at the boy’s camp up the road made him all the more superhuman.
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