Room for grizzlies in paradise?

When I arrived on a crew of seasonal laborers to pack salmon in South Naknek, Alaska, one recent, early spring, we were told about the grizzly bears. They were hungry at that time of year, but more important, they had cubs. One bear and her cubs had been spotted by the road just a few days before our arrival. The mother looked like she was limping - wounded perhaps - not a good sign. Bears kill people here, we were told.

So we walked the few miles of empty dirt road to the local eating establishment in nervous, self- consciously loud banter, our ears searching for a sound. In the darkness, the bear was as tall as any nightmare sasquatch, as wild as the cougar's cry, as dangerous as the rattlesnake. I'd grown up walking the woods wary of these things, but this was different.

I don't remember anyone mentioning grizzly bears in Eden.

It is much easier to talk about the restoration of nature when it's the bald eagle or the buffalo; easier to think about saving endangered species when it was just an owl, whale, or some other nonthreatening thing that didn't remind us of our own vulnerability. And even with all the economic complications, restoring salmon to every creek and stream possible is a foregone conclusion.

But what about the restoration of grizzly bears?

It's a harder sell, and a lot more complex.

We banned a few chemicals to help the eagle, return, we tried to draw circles around the spotted owl.

But to save salmon, we were forced to look at much more than mere protection - we had to look at the landscape as a complicated ecological system, a natural machine that needs all its parts restored to function.

And this is where the bear comes in.

The grizzly was once a part of the watershed ecosystem that supports the salmon. Each piece of the system - right down to the fog and fungus - contributes to the overall health of the watershed.

Salmon bring nutrients back from the oceans to feed the bugs, the trees, and the whole citizenship of the watershed. Returning salmon make the watershed healthy, and a healthy watershed supports more salmon.

Bears in Washington and Idaho once lived almost exclusively off salmon, and in return, each salmon-eating bear produced fertilizer for the trees - 400 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus a year - in a form the trees were more adapted to use than commercial fertilizers now available. The proof is in Alaska where the ecosystem is still intact - salmon feed the grizzlies, which in turn, fertilize the forest - and salmon accounts for 20 percent of the metabolism of a tree, says Washington State University researcher Charlie Robbins.

So to restore the Eden we found - the cathedral forests that once grew along Northwestern streams teaming with salmon - we need the grizzly, and for the grizzly to return, we need the salmon.

It's easy to want the salmon to return. It's not so easy to talk about the restoration of grizzlies, still the stuff of campfire stories and hunters' nightmares.

Our habitat was once theirs, and they are the wild things we no longer want in our garden. They are the face of nature as enemy, as a foe fought and conquered. Although more people are killed by falling trees and avalanches every year, bears are symbolically more deadly, and that trips a trigger all too primal within us.

We want no reminders of our vulnerability - better they live in zoos and in untamed places like Alaska.

Those of us who live in the Northwest love the wild and natural. We want it protected and restored as a living thing, so we can take our children hunting, hiking and fishing, so we can teach them the beauty of wild places.

Will there be room for grizzlies in our restoration of Eden?

We know that humans and grizzlies - and other predators - can live together. They do live together in some places, and they did live together for centuries before most of us came to this place.

Can they do so again? In the graceful curve of nature's handwriting - which we're only now learning to read - the truth, it seems, is that it wouldn't be Eden without them.

*Ed Hunt is a natural-resources writer and editor of the Tidepool.org news service. He works from his home in Grays River, Wash.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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