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Talking Ursus arctos, from Glacier to Gobi, with Whitefish biologist Doug Chadwick


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It's easy to get the impression that only young daredevils with snowboards and climbing gear are having real adventures these days. A look at Whitefish resident Doug Chadwick's resume will challenge that notion. For several decades, the 68-year-old biologist has traveled to the world's most remote nooks and crannies to study elusive wildlife. He's traversed the sub-Antarctic Ocean, the Himalayas, Africa and our own Rocky Mountains in search of snow leopards, whales, mountain goats, bears and wolverines. Along the way he's written more than 50 articles for National Geographic magazine and 13 books. Chadwick's latest book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond, finds him in the vast emptiness of Mongolia, chasing bears that few people know exist. For his upcoming readings in Missoula, he took some time to talk with the Indy about the significance of these creatures.

What, exactly, is a Gobi grizzly? Are they the same bear we have here?

Doug Chadwick: Genetically they are a subspecies ... but, you know, taxonomists like to argue over whatever category you can make up. You could also ask how similar the grizzlies in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge are to the ones in Glacier Park. Size-wise [Gobi bears] are more similar to the ones in the Arctic, or some other minimal resource kind of place—it's tough to make a living there in the Gobi. They are a bit smaller and rangier, but they're every bit Ursus arctos. We have Ursus arctos horribilis; they are Ursus arctos gobiensis. The question for scientists is how closely related they are to the Himalayan grizzly bears and the Tibetan grizzly bears.

Doug Chadwick’s journey through the Mongolian desert led to his recent book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies. - PHOTO COURTESY JOE RIIS
  • photo courtesy Joe Riis
  • Doug Chadwick’s journey through the Mongolian desert led to his recent book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies.

How did you get involved in studying them?

DC: I heard about Mongolian bears when I was looking for snow leopards in Mongolia. There are brown bears that are the same as grizzlies—European brown bears—in the very northern part of Mongolia up near the Russian border. We went looking for those but we couldn't find any. I figured they're probably being poached a lot. Someone finally said, "Well, we have other bears in another part of Mongolia," and I said, "Oh, what kind?" and they said, "You know, the same, brown bears, grizzly bears," and I said, "Where?" and they said, "Down in the Gobi Desert." It made no sense at all to me. You can understand bears [living] in the northern part of Mongolia because it's mountainous and looks a lot like what you'd see here out on a hike in Glacier or something. With the Gobi bears, my first reaction was that this was something I had to see.

There are grizzly bears in all these places that I think most people would be shocked to know about, because here in North America, it's like we seem to think we own the grizzly bear, right?

DC: Yes, we do, and you and I could talk about this classification stuff all day. It's why scientists don't use the term "grizzly bear" and call it the brown bear instead, because it was first classified in Europe, a European brown bear. But the species arose in Central Asia. I was in the right place! And it spread from there into North America, so we can't claim Ursus arctos as ours. What we can do, and we did, is name the ones on our continent "grizzlies," because they have the silver-tipped, grizzled fur, right? But then it gets horribly confusing again, because I've seen bears at 17,000 feet in the Himalayas that looked exactly like a grizzly bear up in Alaska. And it was a grizzly bear from Syria, or a brown bear, whatever we want to call them today, that was in a television show—and we're getting into old guy stuff here—called Grizzly Adams.


DC: That's right. Ben was a brown bear from Syria. They used to be in the Middle East, they're in northern India, they're on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

I happen to think that brown bears—Ursus arctos—were probably part of humankind's earliest religion. There is evidence of painted bear skulls, things like that, in stone age archaeological and paleontological sites, and it looks as though people had a special relationship with bears. And that they may have worshiped it, because it's enough like us. It's like us but it's bigger, it's more powerful. It's a god-like figure. The last remnants of that Clan-of-the-Cave-Bear kind of worship of the bear were found, intact, on the northern island of Hokkaido.


Even today, grizzly bears tend to fire the imagination, good or bad, like few other animals do.

DC: Exactly. Which is part of why we want to save bears. We call it conservation, but then we divide up into camps and go around and around about how to handle them like we do all the time here in Montana. But why do guys like me get up early in the morning, before dawn, and creep out somewhere where I can watch them in a spring meadow? I don't know why, I'm just drawn to them. I'm not thinking about biodiversity or anything like that, I'm not even sure what "biodiversity" really even is. I just know that anywhere I see them I have a pretty good idea that that ecosystem is still pretty intact, and still pretty wild. And I like that.

Vital Ground presents an evening with Douglas Chadwick at Fort Missoula's Heritage Hall Thu., Feb. 16, at 7 PM. Fact & Fiction hosts a presentation Fri., Feb. 17, at 7 PM.


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