“Watch the Bear: A Half Century with the Brown Bears of Alaska”
By Derek Stonorov; University of Nebraska Press, 2023; 224 pages; $21.95
In retrospect, Derek Stonorov could have just as easily become a big game hunter, and thus a killer of bears, rather than a biologist who observes bears. After all, he came from a family of big game hunters. So we’re lucky he chose the latter path, as one of the rewards is his book “Watch the Bear,” which gathers stories from a lifetime of bear watching in Alaska.
Stonorov, who lives in Homer, can count many ancestors who traversed the globe during the early 20th century, collecting trophies from some of the most coveted large animals on earth. His mother would recount her days spent tiger hunting in India while rocking him to sleep when he was an infant (something she later came to regret, telling him years later, “Times were different then. We thought the world would never run out of wild animals.”). Yet what stood out in these tales was not the kill shot itself, but the time spent on the land.
Perhaps this is why, when he went to college, Stonorov chose biology as a major. And perhaps because his father counted two pioneering psychoanalysts among his closest friends, Stonorov was drawn to understanding animal behavior. He attended Goddard, a liberal arts college in Vermont, where he was required to submit a thesis, “and in a life-determining moment of genius,” he writes, “I picked the behavior of bears to investigate and write about.”
This was in 1966, and in order to gather the data he needed, Stonorov, his soon-to-be wife Molly, and the legendary Alaskan Howie Bass took up summer residence along the shores of Lake Becharof, west of Egegik, on Bristol Bay. They spent the next three seasons there recording observations, filming bear activity, and living a life far removed from the comforts of the city.
This is where Stonorov fell in love with bears. The specific topic of his study was how dominance hierarchies function among them during heavy feeding times when salmon are dashing up streams while bears seek to gorge themselves ahead of winter. Stonorov believed that understanding how the social stratification is worked out among the bears is key to understanding how bears think and act. It’s a question that still occupies his mind over a half-century later, and that drives the narrative of this book.
To be clear, Stonorov has not spent his entire life studying bears. He had to feed his family, so he also built custom furniture and ran a construction business. But his time at Becharof, his two stints at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary (the first before the viewing center’s surge in popularity, the second after), and the last two decades, when he’s run his own private viewing service, have given him plenty of time in the field to take notes and gather data.
It’s a perfect balance for lay readers. Stonorov, who went on to do graduate work, has the scientific background to attempt, to the best of his abilities, to observe bears as objectively as possible in order to understand them on their terms. Yet at the same time, he knows they’re entertaining and cute. Especially when they’re little.
What we get as a result is a book that combines plenty of factual information with countless anecdotes from his more than half-century of watching the animals, along with his own thoughts on what specific behaviors might imply (in true scientist style, he never states his views as facts, just conclusions drawn from observations). He arrived in Alaska with a lot of ideas to explore, but little first-hand knowledge. “What I learned in those years at Becharof became the foundation of what I know about bears today,” Stonorov tells us early on. “I have to laugh at how long it took and how much time I wasted divesting myself of the emotional baggage and preconceived notions I took to the field.”
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Stonorov’s observations led him to believe that bears are not simply complex, but also nowhere near as solitary as popularly believed. At one point he spent ten consecutive years working at McNeil and was able to watch bears emerging from dens as spring cubs, then yearlings, before passing through young adulthood and into full maturity. One of the things he paid close attention to was interaction, and he found that, once bears at the river establish their social ladder, they actually interact quite a bit.
Stonorov explores why this might be. One thing he observed was siblings that, even after they break away from their mother, will often remain close by each other for some time, and for more than a single season, operating in tandem if not as a team. And it would seem that mothers remember their grown progeny. Watching the activities of family units over a sustained period allowed him to see relationships develop and evolve.
Life for bears is certainly rugged, and fights do occur, although rarely to the death. Usually a tense standoff ends with the submissive bear retreating, but not always, and this is why many bears in the wild have brutal scars on their bodies. Yet frequently, Stonorov explains, what appears as a fight is in actuality play, something cubs specialize in but are known to persist at into adulthood. It’s widely believed that this play is practice for actual fighting, but Stonorov speculates that it happens for separate reasons. He isn’t sure what those reasons are, but there appears to be a social element.
What he is sure of is that bears have their own way of encountering the world, and that only by removing our human thoughts and simply watching them can we fully appreciate this. “Watch the Bear” is the title of this book, and it’s what Stonorov does on nearly every page. Through a series of interesting, sometimes funny, and occasionally hair-raising stories, he encourages readers to do likewise. Be cautious and respectful, he advises, but not fearful. Watch the bears. They have a lot to tell us.
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