All Our Relations
We are walking downslope on the undulating Alberta prairie on the Rocky Mountain Front, looking for a good lunch spot, when the first two bears pop up on an eskerine ridge 100 yards behind and to the east of my field crew and me—a young mother cinnamon black bear and her yearling cub. They graze on the buttery yellow blossoms of balsamroot, which have opened a full six weeks ahead of usual. The bears amble amid these sunflowers in their loose-limbed, pigeon-toed gait, nosing the leafy greens, popping blossoms bigger than an outspread human hand into their mouths whole. Her body language relaxed, the mother bear acknowledges us by flicking her ears in our direction and keeps eating. We note their presence and continue heading downslope.
Fifteen minutes later, the next bear emerges from an aspen copse 200 yards north of us. This enormous bruin has the classic dished-in face and humped back of a grizzly—likely a male due to its size and the fact that it doesn’t have a cub at its side. Cow parsnip leaves dangling from his mouth, he chews his food contentedly and casually looks our way. We keep moving west across the prairie.
Twenty minutes later the next two bears come out from behind a fir tree, 300 yards directly in front of us—a large, tawny-brown, silver-tipped female grizzly bear and her tiny, coal-black cub of the year. We stop and glass them with binoculars. Only slightly bigger than a loaf of bread, the cub gambols around, curious about everything. Like mothers in many species, the adult female bear is multitasking: simultaneously mowing down the thickly sprouting shrubs that have come up at the site of the 2,300 hectare prescribed fire in Waterton Lakes National Park that we’re studying and keeping an eye on her cub. After a few minutes, she stops eating, glances our way for a few heart-stopping seconds, and then with one smooth flick of a massive front paw, flips over a large rock and proceeds to lick up exposed insects.
Half an hour later the next bear crosses a patch of prairie, 400 yards northwest of us. A young adult black bear, he’s digging up glacier lilies, munching on their nutrient-packed, bulbous roots. We keep walking until we find a lunch spot that enables us to keep an eye on all of these bears (for safety) as they feast on the spring bounty that’s sprung up two years after the fire.
We’ve been measuring wildlife use of the area in response to fire, using track transects—
a noninvasive survey method that systematically applies traditional wildlife-tracking techniques and which leaves no trace. Our overarching objective is to determine whether the large fires the park has been setting, combined with a policy that calls for conserving all large carnivores— from wolves to bears to cougars—is helping create a healthier, more resilient ecosystem. Answering this question is particularly important because this is one of the last remaining patches of shortgrass prairie left in North America. This relatively intact system contains all the wildlife species present 200 years ago, before European settlers arrived—except for free-roaming bison. This place is so precious ecologically as well as culturally to the Kainai (Blackfoot) First Nation, whose ancestral land this is, that several decades ago, the United Nations designated it an International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
Welcome to my office. As an ecologist I study all our relations—or trophic cascades, as we call them in my field. Trophic simply means food. I conduct research on how the presence of an apex predator, such as the wolf, can affect prey such as elk by scaring them as well as by killing them, and how this in turn creates changes in how prey eat and directly and indirectly improves foods for omnivorous creatures such as bears. I also study how returning fire to this fire-adapted landscape benefits the whole ecosystem—the plants, the animals, even the soil.
But it’s lunch, and it’s the height of spring on the prairie, so I’m not thinking about science and after a few minutes even forget about the bears. Instead, I sit cross-legged on the grass and look around at the endless bowl of sky, swell of earth, and the ancient, glacier-sculpted limestone mountains upthrust in a bunchgrass and wildflower sea. Prairie earth. Power rises from the land in waves. Earth below, sky above, us between. Seekers, wanderers. I may have been studying this ecosystem as a scientist for over a decade, yet no matter how much of it I measure, it never fails to make me weak in the knees. Especially in spring, the lupine and fireweed in bloom, clumps of shed wolf hair blowing on the prairie wind and snagging on the wild roses. Over lunch we talk about how landscapes shape us and how they become the landscapes of our dreams. And for the moment it’s more than sufficient to sit among the wildflowers and simply be.
When we get up to resume work, we spot a well-padded brown rump protruding from a snowberry bush in full bloom about 200 yards northeast of us. Seconds later the bear emerges fully—probably another male, judging from his formidable size and girth, and a grizzly at that. I feel a twinge of guilt at having spent the last twenty minutes daydreaming about wildflowers when I have a field crew to keep safe from all these bears. Like the others, it methodically digs roots and flips rocks, his muscles rippling beneath his thick, chocolate-brown fur. Despite his bulk, he moves across the prairie with agility and grace.
That’s when it hits me that we’re literally surrounded by bears. Happy, fat, relaxed bears who aren’t at all concerned about our presence. Seven bears in just under two hours, even though we’ve been doing all we can to avoid seeing them, so as to not disturb them. Obviously they don’t care that we’re here, they’re simply going about their ursine business. Then I realize that the feeling is mutual; we don’t feel afraid or nervous either and are going about our business as well—from data to daydreams, for both are part of what makes us human.
Perhaps this is how it once was between bears and humans. When you return fire to this prairie (which was historically always present), you cause plants to grow more vigorously. And that’s when things start getting really interesting, and animals like bears show up to take in the post-fire bounty. Later a grizzly bear biologist friend who knows this prairie patch intimately tells me that what we’ve observed is unprecedented. He’s never seen so many bears here in such a short period of time in his fifty-year career.
Perhaps this is how it once was before humans came from Europe and decided to play God and “de-wild” the natural world in places like the Alberta, by removing everything they perceived a threat to human prosperity and wellbeing: predators—wolves, grizzly bears, and cougars—fire, even bison. And perhaps this is how it is now that some of us are trying to make amends by restoring these missing forces of nature. First we allowed wolves and the other large carnivores to return, then we restored fire, and now we’re seriously planning to rewild the prairie by returning free-ranging bison here.
Everything is relative, or context-dependent, in scientific parlance. We’re still playing God, but we’re trying to fix things. I wonder whether we can ever really do so. As an ecologist I know that while we certainly can’t ever go back, in moving forward we can do much to heal the wounds we’ve created. At least these bears seem to think so, judging from their feeding habits and vigor.
According to traditional ecological knowledge, the wisdom of returning wolves, fire, and bison is so obvious that it’s mystifying that it’s taken the Western scientific world 100 years to figure this out. My First Nations friends tell me that these bears are our teachers. They suggest that the next time I go into the field, I bring tobacco. When bears turn up, I should put a pinch of it on the ground and thank our ursid kin for their life lessons about how to live well on this earth.
I’ll be back in my office next week. The bears will be waiting for me and my field crew in that prairie, along with the wolves and the other four-legged creatures. They’ll have new lessons for us. And we’ll dream bison dreams and work toward honoring and restoring all our relations.
Cristina Eisenberg is the Chief Scientist at Earthwatch Institute. An author and member of the Ecological Society editorial board and the Oregon State University Press board, she writes books about ecology, including The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity and The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators. As a scientist she studies fire and food web relationships involving wolves, elk, and bison in aspen and grassland communities in the northern Rocky Mountains and is a Smithsonian Research Associate. A Black Earth Institute Scholar/Advisor since 2008, she lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and the Swan Valley, Montana.