In the Bear’s House is a collection of poems and stories and essays that explore various aspects of the central and iconic role that Bear plays in Momaday’s culture, a culture that is shared to a considerable degree by all who love and value wilderness. Among these latter would be not only Aldo Leopold but even his cowboys, people for whom, however present the bear was in their physical world, it was far more so in their psychic one. While Momaday’s Bear, who ponders his own nature and discusses it with his creator, represents more of that culture than his real life counterpart can, that nature is built on creeks full of fish and sleeping under the snow and the lusty enjoyment of berries. The composite that gradually emerges, of real and imagined traits, reveals much about both that culture and the creature that looms so large within it; the braid that is the culture would be fundamentally different without the strand that is the Bear.
Momaday’s and Leopold’s bear is the grizzly, the North American version of the brown bear. Easily distinguished from the smaller black bear by its size (up to eight feet and 800 pounds) and the hump over its shoulders, the grizzly was once distributed throughout the western U.S. and onto the Plains in numbers that may have reached 100,000 in the lower 48 states. A century later they had been eliminated from 98% of that land, their numbers down to 1000 or fewer, though much larger numbers persist in parts of Canada and Alaska.
Their rivals are easy to guess: logging and mining interests, roads and rails, the sprouting of towns, trapping and hunting (much of it illegal). Some grizzlies are mistaken for black bears, which can be legally hunted. Some wander into residential areas, attracted by garbage dumps, pet food, bird feeders; human safety concerns tend to hold sway. Leopold’s Bigfoot was taken out by a government agent concerned about that one cow per year. As he wrote, “The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.”1
By 1975 the grizzly’s numbers had dropped to the point where concern became widespread, and it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. There it remained and received certain protections until 2007 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided it had recovered. But by then a new threat was looming, one that would eliminate a major food source for the bears.
In areas such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where there is no salmon and few berries, the major late summer and fall food for grizzlies has long been the whitebark pine nut. This high calorie food has enabled grizzlies to bulk up before heading into hibernation, often making the difference in whether they survive the winter and whether the females bear cubs. Bears and pine nuts have evolved as part of a unique community that also includes the Clark’s nutcracker and the red squirrel. Whitebark pine cones do not open to release their seeds like other cones, and must be torn apart by the nutcrackers, who then store the seeds in underground caches, effectively planting new trees. Squirrels also harvest the cones, which they store in piles under the trees, which grizzlies then raid. Thus has it been for many thousands of years.
The whitebark pine forest was first attacked by blister rust, a disease caused by a fungus that kills branches and stops cone production. It spreads slowly but inexorably, and by 2010 the infection rates in many forests were as high as 100% (the enormous Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, for instance, was 83% infected2), leaving nothing but gray “ghost forests” in some areas.
Then came the pine beetles. Pine beetles have been in the forests for many years, but until very recently did not pose a serious threat to the whitebark because this tree lives at such high elevations that the climate was too harsh for the beetles to thrive there. But the warming climate, whose effects are exaggerated at high altitudes, has enabled all stages of the beetle’s life cycle to survive the winter; and while this cycle previously took two years to complete, it now can be completed in only one. The result has been a plague of beetles, with no likely decline. And given that blister rust favors smaller trees and beetles favor larger ones, entire whitebark forests are facing ecological collapse.
The remote location of the pine nut crop has been a boon to grizzlies in another way: It has kept them far from human populations and out of the human-bear conflicts that are so deadly to the bears. But without their usual source of high-elevation food, bears are forced to seek out other sources, which more often than not bring them into increased contact with humans. They have gone after dead livestock, road kill, piles of entrails left by hunters, parked cars containing food. This has inevitably led in recent years to higher numbers of bear deaths, and in a few cases human deaths.
There is a strong link as well between the size of the pine seed crop and the number of cubs born during the following winter. Female bears consume roughly twice as many seeds as males, and in good crop years they reproduce at an earlier age and more frequently, and have more 3-cub litters.3 In poor crop years, grizzly mortality increases roughly threefold.4
In 2009 a federal court reversed the decision to remove grizzlies’ status as a threatened species, rejecting the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regulatory plans for the bears as well as their claim that the loss of the whitebarks would not impede their survival. This decision is being challenged by the pro-hunting Safari Club. Fish and Wildlife in July 2010 announced that they would begin a 12-month study to determine whether the whitebark pine should be added to the Endangered Species List.
Attempts by some non-governmental scientists to locate forests that are less affected by pine beetles have focused on the Wind River Range in Wyoming, where the climate is still ferocious enough to fend off the insects. It has been proposed that this region be protected as a refuge for displaced grizzlies.5 So far official interest has been lacking, and Fremont County, one of the counties in the region, has declared grizzlies an “unacceptable species.”6 Federal agencies continue to focus much of their recovery effort on forests that will most likely soon be gone.
A true understanding of the likely impact of the pine beetle/blister rust combination on the fate of the grizzly seems to be slow in coming, far slower than the progress of the foe. In the meantime we are coming ever closer to the point where the ghosts in the ghost forests may be those of the bear.
1 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 136
2 Federal Register, 75(138): July 20, 2010. Proposed Rules.
3 Reinhart DP, Haroldson MA, Mattson DJ, & Gunther KA. "Effects of exotic species on Yellowstone's grizzly bears." Western North American Naturalist, 2001: 61(3) pp. 277-288.
4 Logan JA, Macfarlane WW, & Willcox L. "Whitebark pine vulnerability to climate-driven mountain pine beetle disturbance in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." Ecological Applications, June 2010: 20(4), pp. 895-902.
5 Petit, C. "In the Rockies,
and bears feel it." New York Times, 30 Jan 2007,
Science, p. 1. Online.