BOOKS: In Bear Country
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2011:
In Bear Country by Jake McDonald
(Originally published as Grizzlyville: Adventures In Bear Country,
HarperCollins Canada, 2009.)
Lyons Press (246 Goose Lane, Guilford, CT 06437), 2010.
272 pages, paperback. $19.99.
Winnipeg journalist Jake McDonald shines in his eighth book,
In Bear Country.
His story begins on the night of August 13, 1967. Grizzly
bears, in two separate and apparently unrelated attacks, miles
apart, killed Glacier National Park employees Julie Helgeson and
Michele Koons as they camped with friends.
Camping on a “cold, windy night in the heart of grizzly
country,” McDonald thinks about the grizzly bears who killed
Helgeson and Koons, who were the first grizzly bear fatalities in
the history of Glacier National Park, and wants to know more.
McDonald doubts that they are just savage killers. McDonald and his
friend Dave drive for two weeks through the backwoods in search of
grizzlies. A villager suggests the Bella Coola Valley in British
Columbia, renowned for grizzlies, but they found none. A few more
years slipped by before McDonald finally met an elusive grizzly.
In Bear Country is part adventure and part bear essentials.
Chapter two covers grizzly bear history from the ice ages to the
present. Grizzly bears were abundant when Europeans explorers
arrived in North America, but slowly dwindled. Spaniards roped
grizzly bears for use in bull-and-bear fights. Miners, loggers,
and ranchers not only killed grizzlies but destroyed their habitat.
One major grizzly subspecies, the California golden bear, was
driven entirely to extinction. The last known living example,
Monarch, was the first animal captured for the Golden Gate Park
menagerie, which evolved more than 30 years later into the San
Grizzly bears received U.S. Endangered Species Act protection
in 1975. Grizzly bears remain an officially endangered species in
the U.S. outside Alaska, with only about 1,000 to 1,200 found
mostly in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but are hunted in Alaska,
where there are about 30,000, and in western Canada.
In Bear Country introduces a few lively characters such as
Sarah Fairfield, the longtime animal control officer in Kenora,
Ontario. Fairfield contends with black bears rather than grizzlies,
who do not live that far east of the Rocky Mountains. A single
mother of three, Fairfield tells McDonald that she “doesn’t so much
have bear problems as people problems.” Residents are repeatedly
warned not to feed bears. Many shrug off warnings and demand action
if attacked. Fairfield refuses to use leghold traps because “they’re
inhumane pieces of crap.” Instead, she tranquilizes bears with dart
guns, unless they are up a tree and might be injured by falling.
Then she drives the bear about two hours away for release. Rounding
up stray dogs and cats is also part of her job. If not reclaimed,
they are killed. Kenora does not have an adoption program. That’s
another hard part of the job, she says. Research supports
Fairfield’s claim that humans cause most nuisance bear problems by
feeding them. Further, suburbs spill into wilderness, encroaching
on wildlife habitat, destroying some natural food sources and adding
temptations to bears such as bird feeders, fruit trees in yards,
and ornamental ponds.
For a city gal like me who has never seen a bear except at
the Phoenix Zoo, In Bear Country is a treat. –Debra J.