Monday, May 11, 2009

Ghost Grizzlies revisited in 3rd edition of San Juan Country classic

No one is really sure if Grizzlies will make a comeback in the San Juan Mountains -- but a fine book about the possibility is back.

David Petersen's classic Ghost Grizzlies: Does the great bear still haunt Colorado, first released in 1995 and recently fallen out of print, has just been re-released by Raven's Eye Press in a revised third edition that includes 15 new photographs.

Petersen has updated the story to bring it into the 21st century, but the real value of this book is timeless: Petersen's vivid images of and unabashed love for the San Juan Mountains and the people who inhabit them -- and for the bears that once, and may still, also call them home.

Here's a review I wrote when Ghost Grizzlies was first released. It's still every bit as relevant now as it was then -- as is the book itself.

Colorado is a land of wilderness with the "wild" removed, argues Durango-based author David Petersen, where the back country has been sanitized by the systematic elimination of the wolf and the grizzly bear. Still, he muses, the San Juan Mountains are "another Yellowstone waiting for permission to happen." And what might give the San Juans that permission is the discovery of a surviving population of native grizzlies.

The search for those wild stragglers is the story at the heart of Petersen's latest book, Ghost Grizzlies, which also offers an affectionate and educational look at the San Juans and the distinct and persistent species of bear it spawned and may still support.

>Still, the search is for more than just animals. "The grizzly is a universal metaphor for wilderness," says a member of the team searching for the great bear in Colorado. "The ultimate question we're raising is: How wild do we want the San Juans to be?"

It is this question that underlies the journalistic look at the issue of whether grizzlies exist and should be allowed to survive in the San Juan Mountains. And for Petersen, the probing of this question is also a personal journey, one that through his evocative and deeply personal writing he takes us along on, both on the ground and through his thoughts. It is a journey well worth taking.

Since 1951, the official line from the Colorado Division of Wildlife has been that the San Juan Mountains are inhabited by "lots of black bears but no grizzlies."

This line continues despite the 1979 killing of an adult grizzly sow (who had at some point in her life nursed cubs) in the South San Juans and a continuing trickle of reports of grizzly sightings. Since the land management agencies refuse to act on those reports, the private San Juan Grizzly Project has for several years now studied and compiled evidence -- yet no live bears -- that indicates that at least some grizzlies survive in the San Juans. But "evidence is not proof," the agencies counter.

Petersen offers up this evidence but goes on to examine some tough questions: Even if it is proven that grizzlies survive in the San Juans, is extinction of what may be a distinct subspecies inevitable? To prevent that, should bears from other regions be introduced? To what degree should human uses of the land be limited? Or an even tougher question: Would it be best for the grizzlies themselves to not prove they exist since they have gotten by so far without special treatment?

Petersen doesn't answer those haunting questions, but that is not his goal anyway; his goal is to inform the public that will have to, and he believes should, decide the fate of the grizzly bear -- either native or introduced -- in Colorado. He does this by letting the major players from all sides discuss those questions, plus he offers what information is known and some personal reflection, and then presents this full picture.

All in all, this is a lot of good work resulting in a hell of a good book. Petersen is not objective about the issue -- he openly states that he hopes grizzlies are out there in our extended back yard -- but he has been commendably fair, accurate, and thorough. This is honest journalism, the toughest to write.

But Ghost Grizzlies is more than mere reporting. It is many things -- investigative journalism, history, natural history, social commentary, personal narrative and an essay on the value of wilderness -- but these mesh to form a whole bigger than the parts. They combine to become story, the story of the late-20th century San Juan Mountains.

This is also a human story. Petersen brings to life the people, both historical and alive now, enmeshed in the grizzly history, and it is these characters that make the San Juans real as a place where people were and continue to be molded by the landscape. Included in these tales is a humorous venture with the last man to legally kill a grizzly in the San Juans, a long talk with the outfitter who was mauled by, and then killed, a supposedly-extinct San Juan grizzly in 1979, and several walks with a South San Juans rancher who believes there are still grizzlies on his property. "I hope we're right," he says. "The grizzly is welcome here."

These in-depth and honest characterizations and personal revealings -- like the fact Petersen admits to very much liking the former government trapper who shows no remorse over killing grizzlies -- shows Petersen is mature enough a thinker and person not to resort to easy stereotypes or simple battle lines in this issue he is so deeply involved in.

And these encounters also make the author himself a character as he muses on the fate and significance of the San Juan Grizz. Like the other grizzly defenders he finds -- mostly ranchers and outfitters and hunters -- we see that Petersen is no New Age, dreamy-eyed, posy-sniffing nature mystic. He is a Vietnam veteran, a hunter, and backcountry walker who likes his fireside shots of bourbon.

It is through this woodsman's sense and naturalist's knowledge, spiced with a good sense of humor and an unabashed love for this place, that Petersen's book enters the realm of the finest nature writing, for he manages to make us feel the value of the real wild San Juans. Which is what this book is really about, with the Griz as spiritual symbol, as historic linkage, and as biological litmus test.

As Petersen himself says: "by working to save the bear and its tiny wilderness enclaves, we are working to save ourselves."

Learn more about the third edition of Ghost Grizzlies here.

Visit David Petersen's website and order his books here.
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