From the bookshelf

Bear biologist praises, explains bruins

Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2005


  "Into Brown Bear Country," by Will Troyer

"Into Brown Bear Country," by Will Troyer

Into Brown Bear Country

By Will Troyer

Published by University of Alaska Press

152 pages


$24.95 (softcover)

The recent deaths of two campers in the Brooks Range serves as a sad reminder that Alaska's unpredictable bears can be dangerous. The image of the big brownie, rearing up on its hind legs with fangs and claws poised for attack, is perpetuated by taxidermy, photographs and popular accounts of lurid maulings.

Will Troyer, who has spent a lifetime studying bears in the wild, is out to balance that image by showing bears in a more detailed and benign light.

"Into Brown Bear Country" describes the natural history and behavior of Alaska's coastal brown bears in combination with personal anecdotes about individual animals and Troyer's experiences in the often-adventurous field of wildlife biology.

The book's major goal, he states in the introduction, is to convey modern findings without science jargon. He also intends to show how fascinating bears are, and to document conflicts he observed between bears and humans. Last but not least, friends have urged him to share his yarns for years, he says.

Troyer knows his subject well. He started his career as a young field biologist in Southeast in the early 1950s. In 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appointed him manager of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, set up primarily for brown bears.

After an 11-year hiatus working on other species in other areas, he returned to bear studies in 1974 working for the National Park Service in Katmai National Park. After retiring, he became involved during the 1990s in guiding bear-watching tourists and photographers in the Katmai area.

This wealth of experience shines through the book. No dry text, it talks about bears' nature in vivid terms, even on the most personal of topics:

"Bears having sex are comical to watch," he writes. "Males may try all kinds of antics to bring females into the breeding mood. They are often mismatched in physical proportions, and when a boar's full weight comes down on a sow, she may be squashed to the ground."

The descriptions of bear biology, although they overlap with material published elsewhere, are told with color and clarity.

The book really comes to life, however, in the later chapters where Troyer writes about his own encounters and experiences.

Trapping bears for measurements prior to the days of tranquilizer darts was a frenzied experience of lassoing, hogtying and drugging the critters by sticking buckets containing etherized rags over their heads. One challenge was keeping the biologists from passing out from the fumes. He attributes the limited early success to luck and grit.

Troyer also describes conflicts with cattle farmers on Kodiak who claimed bears were destroying their struggling industry. He cites one flagrant fraud where an absentee rancher wrote to the Secretary of Interior demanding bear extermination. When Troyer investigated the case, he discovered the man's cattle were on an outlying island void of any bear population, but were dying of a contagion.

He concludes the book with a plea for people to allow these bears to share Alaska with us for coming generations. He points out that habitat degradation is often a larger and more subtle threat than hunting, noting that the brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula — where he now lives — have been flagged as a population of concern with frequent unfortunate interactions with residents.

Speaking of Alaska's remain-ing wilderness areas, he writes, "We must enact a comprehensive management plan, encompassing the entire geographic area, in which the major goal will be the protection of wildlife and wilderness values for the long-term future. We must not permit economic developments that will seriously impact the ecosystem. Just as managers try to train bears to stay out of critical human zones around lodges and campgrounds, we must make some critical bear zones off-limits to people."

The author makes a point of stressing respectful coexistence with bears. This book will be of particular value as a primer for anyone interested in serious bear watching or backcountry hiking, for it contains specific tips on avoiding trouble in bear country.

The numerous photographs are not as crisp as the top-line wildlife photography now being published. However, they include some images remarkable for their subject matter, such as a sow suckling her cubs and a big, blond bear digging clams.

Troyer's book begs comparison with Victor Van Vallenberghe's book "In the Company of Moose," published last year. Readers who enjoyed that volume may want to add "Into Brown Bear Country" to their collections. It is refreshing to see retired biologists, with such knowledge and passion about their subject, share their insights with readers.

"Into Brown Bear Country" goes well beyond the superficial gee-whiz of guidebooks and the one-sided shock tales of bear attacks, while stopping short of the heavy slogging of biological treatises.

The book lives up to its name, taking readers on an arm-chair trip into the fascinating world of Alaska's top terrestrial predators.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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