One of Us

Barrie K. Gilbert / FriesenPress / 264 pages

When I began my faculty position at Utah State University, one of my new colleagues was behavioral ecologist Barrie Gilbert. Because we shared an interest in how humans and wildlife interact with each other, we networked on a regular basis for the next two decades. Practically everything I know about these bears comes from Barrie and his students.

In 1977, Barrie experienced the quintessential nightmare for a bear biologist. He surprised a female grizzly bear and was attacked while conducting some of his first work with bears in Yellowstone National Park. He survived grievous injuries to his upper body, particularly the left side of his face. After recovery, he not only resumed his work with bears, but also became a fierce champion of grizzlies. One of Us: A Biologist’s Walk Among Bears reviews his many experiences working with grizzly bears, and discusses the politics of grizzly bear management.

While societal attitudes toward great white sharks, gray wolves, and killer whales have changed in recent years, the author argues that grizzlies “still carry the stigma of timeworn folklore: an unpredictable rogue, always ready to charge and dismember a person.” In 1983, Barrie got the opportunity to study bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska, the beginning of a multi-year project. There, the densest population of bears in North America commingle with human visitors and salmon. While a very real element of danger exists, these bears don’t seem to treat humans as a threat. Too many visitors, lodges built in the wrong place, or a reduction in salmon populations, however, mean bears can’t get to the food they need, and both individual bears and populations suffer. 

And then there is the ethical issue of how bear research is conducted. Barrie recognized that bears who had not been trapped, collared, or shot at behaved differently from those who had. Bears evolved as behaviorally complex animals, and their behavior derives from their experiences. Painful experiences, remembered, affect how they behave around people. “Let the wild ones keep their wildness,” Barrie writes, arguing that invasive bear research needs to be replaced with non-intrusive techniques, such as trail cameras, DNA from hair traps, and direct observations. 

Barrie’s career revolved around a “bear first” ethos. Throughout, he remained outspoken in his concern about the impact of hunting and invasive bear research on bear behavior. He clashed with politicians championing tourism over bears, and his research funding suffered from this decision. Nevertheless, Barrie remained dedicated to protected landscapes with thriving grizzly bear populations. One of Us details his unique journey.

—Robert Schmidt, PhD, AWI Scientific Committee