One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears
Barrie Gilbert, FriesenPress, 264 pages, 2019. $20.99
Barrie Gilbert was researching grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park in 1977 when he was attacked, badly mauled and permanently disfigured on a high ridge by a sow that was likely protecting her cubs. It seems reasonable that after such an event even the most dedicated biologist would turn his attention to something a bit less capable of causing harm. Goldfish perhaps. But Gilbert instead redoubled his efforts to understand these animals that we as humans both fear and revere.
We can be thankful he did, and also thankful that he wrote about it. Gilbert’s nearly fatal mauling provides the opening scene for “One of Us,” his memoir of his decades conducting field studies of grizzlies, primarily at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. It’s a gripping moment, but one he only devotes a few pages to. His primary objective is to talk bears, and that’s what he does through 240 pages of personal observations, hard science clearly explained and speculations on the causes of bear behavior that he considers worthy of deeper study.
Gilbert did the majority of his work at Brooks Camp, where thousands of visitors arrive every summer to witness dozens of grizzlies congregated in the Brooks River during the salmon run, feasting on what Gilbert describes as “finny fat packs” that “put a smiley face on obesity.”
The abundance of high-fat, calorie-packed fish swimming to their spawning grounds is why, Gilbert has concluded, the bears that swarm into the Brooks are renowned for being extraordinarily tolerant of the humans who walk among them. Gilbert’s decades of studies have led him to the conclusion that bears are highly intelligent. They adapt to circumstances, he explains, learning new behaviors from personal experience, and — this is key — pass those lessons on to cubs and to other bears.
Bears, Gilbert explains, don’t simply act on instinct. They learn through observations and will adapt to situations quickly. In Yellowstone, where he was attacked, available calories are limited, and perpetually hungry bears search for food during every waking hour. Anything that gets in the way of this pursuit is perceived as a threat. Including people. Worse are bears that learn to associate people with food. It only takes one ham sandwich pilfered from a day hiker to teach a bear that the two legged animals are a nutrition source. And as the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.
At Brooks, however, the food comes freely flowing up the river. The only concern for bears is snagging a prime piece of real estate and gorging. They might have to defend their temporary homestead from another grizzly looking to shoulder in, but the people walking around are of no more concern than magpies flittering about. And sometimes people are allies. Gilbert has seen mother grizzlies park their cubs near gawking tourists for safety and head into the current.
This is extraordinary. In Yellowstone, Gilbert was perceived as a sufficient enough threat to a sow’s cubs that she saw fit to tear into him. In Katmai, there are bears who would entrust their cubs to his care.
This, Gilbert says, is learned behavior, developed over thousands of years. Brooks Camp is located atop a centuries-old Native camp. Bears and people have convened there for generations and have learned to get along while exploiting the same resource.
This gets to the core of his argument in his book. Bears are large-brained animals, and more social than we generally give them credit for, he tells us. They form regional cultures through collective experience. Because Brooks River bears have evolved under far different circumstances than those in Yellowstone or other leaner environments, their behavior is different. There are no hard and fast rules that can be applied to the species across the continent and beyond. How they act, among each other and towards humans, is location specific.
This could change rapidly, however, if there comes a time when the Brooks River salmon run collapses. Bears there have, through processes still not understood, learned over the ages to come to this specific location at this specific time to winterize their bodies before denning up. Suddenly they will be very hungry. And they’ll be surrounded by people. This could prove deadly for both species.
Gilbert has fierce criticisms for how Brooks Camp is managed, drawn from his decades of studies there. It’s too involved to summarize, except to say that endless scientific data has shown that the camp needs to be relocated. But the concessionaire has political connections. Gilbert calls out two Alaska senators by name, the late Ted Stevens, and Lisa Murkowski, for blatantly ignoring what the scientists have warned about for years and pulling strings to keep the camp where it is. If and when tragedy occurs, some of the blood will belong on their reputations.
Gilbert is a scientist more than an author. The narrative is far from linear and he has a tendency to repeat himself. But his book is more of an argument for understanding these animals and taking better steps to protect them than it is personal memoir. He’s drawing on his own lifetime of learning to plead for the future. And he offers many wonderful memories of what he’s witnessed.
And like any good scientist, Gilbert is calling for more research. Numerous times throughout this book he speculates on what might be the reason for certain behaviors by bears, backing his postulates with direct observations and arguments for his interpretations. But every time he stresses that his thoughts are not conclusive, and expresses his wish that others pursue the questions he’s asking.
This is part of why his book is so valuable. It’s rooted in his love for bears and his wish for a deeper understanding of them, and in the process, ourselves. “When this uniquely sentient creature is perceived as responding to us according to how we treat him,” Gilbert writes in his closing paragraph, “a path to survival opens up.”