“The Golden Bear”: Wilderness and Keystone Species

(I’m reading Laura Cunningham’s incredible A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California one chapter a week, and reflecting on key images and insights from that chapter from a Renewing the Commons perspective.  Initial post in this series here.)

California Grizzlies are, like their close relative the Plains Grizzly, a nearly-forgotten relic of the deeper past.  Extinct for nearly a century, they once roamed the mountains and prairies of central and southern California as an apex predator (hunting both juvenile and adult elk as well as many other species) and opportunist, landscape-altering omnivore a la their brown and black bear cousins.  And as a “keystone omnivore,” their presence required (and no doubt contributed to through trophic cascades) the incredible abundance of the complex, diverse ecosystem of California prior to the Gold Rush.  Huge acorn masts produced in oak woodlands and savannas; huge runs of salmon and steelhead trout in the rivers; huge herds of elk and mule deer; large populations of ground squirrels and voles in the coastal prairie; fruit mast available all 12 months of the year in the mild Mediterranean climate….and on, and on, and on.

The loss of so much of this former abundance due to European-American land use decisions in the last 150 years is a huge ecological tragedy.  And it’s a huge human tragedy too, for the indigenous people who managed and depended on this complex mosaic of richly productive landscapes, in the loss of knowledge and relationship that accompanied those rapid landscape changes, and in how those changes have impacted the lives of all the many people who inhabit those landscapes now.  And of course this is the story of all of North America in different ways at different times, and much of the rest of the world as well in the recent centuries.

What strikes me especially about the story of the California Grizzly, though, is that these are bears of what most modern people now think of as “wilderness.”  And as problematic and inaccurate as the idea of “wilderness” is (more of my thinking on this here and here), there is something unique and important about big, unbroken landscapes with ecological processes and food webs intact.  Whether we call it “wilderness” or not, whether people are active participants in those processes and food webs or not (and I think people should be, and in many cases need to be), those larger-scale natural systems have emergent properties, such as grizzly bears, that smaller fragments of intact cycles and food webs don’t.  And if we take the understanding that, as the late Paula Gunn Allen said, “we are the land,” then there are emergent properties in our own cultures and our own minds and hearts that will arise from (and contribute to) re-establishing healthy ecosystems on a large scale.

So one strategy for modern people, wherever we are, is to support the work that conservation organizations are doing in creating connectivity between existing “wild” lands (such as this in the Southern Rockies and my friend Dr. Mike Jones’s project Beyond Ktaadn in the Northern Appalachians).  But another strategy is to, wherever we are, participate in our local ecosystem to restore and enhance the natural processes, cycles, and food web of that place.  I don’t mean just cleaning up streams and reducing water use and chemical runoff, although those are very important things to do.  I also mean being keystone omnivores ourselves, and doing the harvesting and planting and management to move highly altered landscapes towards the kind of abundance and ecological health that the grizzly-roamed hills knew in the past.

Like Charles Mann says in the concluding lines of 1491, we can’t go “back” even if we want to.  But we can create anew the processes that gave rise to those not-quite-forgotten landscapes, place by place and relationship by relationship.  And who knows where that rabbit hole (ground squirrel hole?) will lead us, ecologically and culturally and personally.  Maybe, for one thing, to a hopeful vision for the future and concrete ways to get there.

I’ll especially be exploring the “concrete ways” part more here as I keep moving through A State of Change.  If you like this series, and/or have suggestions, let me know in the comments!

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2 Responses to “The Golden Bear”: Wilderness and Keystone Species

  1. Jimmy Barbuto says:

    Connor awesome you are enjoying and posting about SOC. Have you seen this recent article in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/16/science/16grizzly.html?pagewanted=all

    Grizzly populations are increasing at a rate of 3 percent in the Northern Rockies. Could they be reintroduced to the Sierra or Cascades in California or in Los Padres National Forest? Certainly the agricultural and densely populated areas (including Cunningham’s East Bay suburbia of El Cerito must be off limits politically for this. When I was back country hiking at Glacier National Park, I saw 6 grizzlies (2 mothers each with two cubs trail side). We had bear bells so they weren’t surprised and we had bear spray just in case. They were completely gentle and just observed us for a few minutes then walked away. If pronghorns could be reintroduced to Modoc County, CA why not grizzlies south of Big Sur?

    California is ecologically unique in the US because much of its colonization was led by modern industrial era man, not distant Puritans . . . The book Ishi: The Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber is an incredible document that describes the last “wild indian in the lower 48” who surrendered to the US 300 years after Jamestown was settled near Oroville. It is haunting that Ishi’s people the Yahi and the California grizzly surrendered just before they might have been saved. What if they held on just a little longer, maybe they would have bounced back like the condor.

  2. grousedrum says:

    Awesome, thanks for sharing Jimmy. Amazing article. I appreciate your thinking about reintroduction in other wilder places too. And of course, what is ecologically ideal is not always socially or politically viable. But these kinds of stories stir up the right kinds of conversations I think.

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