The bear charging out of the cover photo of Douglas Chadwick's new book, "Tracking Gobi Grizzlies" looks like Paddington gone feral on Mars.
The ground it gallops across doesn't support a blade of grass. The bear's claws stick out big as pencils, seen from the stubby eraser end rather than the sharp tip. And the fur: frizzy as a Steiff teddy bear run through the dryer on high for an hour.
The world's rarest bear inhabits a corner of Mongolia 18 times as big as Glacier National Park, and counts perhaps 40 individuals in its entire population. Mongolians call them "mazaalai." Whitefish-based Chadwick recounts its story with a combination of awe for the sheer cussed chutzpah of its survival and angst for an encounter with something so wonderful perched on the edge of extinction.
"I wanted to know how it’s possible for a grizzly bear to make living in such an arid stonescape," Chadwick said in an interview days after the book came off the press. "They’ve got this wild, thick bed-hair, which serves as a substitute for layers of fat for insulation. Right now, they're hibernating in caves exposed to the air, and it will get 40 below."
The Gobi Desert of Mongolia lurks just beyond the reach of the Indian Ocean storms that water the Himalayas to the west, and Pacific weather that supports the forests of China, Korea and Japan to the east. Its geologically ancient mountains never knew glaciers, shaped instead by shattering freezes and unending winds.
Yet if Mongolia seems otherworldly, consider this. Montanan fishing guides already lead trips to Mongolian trout streams. Montana University System crews have led expeditions for both modern wildlife and fossil dinosaur research. A quarter of the desert dust in the Earth’s atmosphere blows off the Gobi and adjacent Taklamakan deserts of Mongolia and China. The phosphorus, nitrogen, calcium and iron components of that Gobi dust can be detected enriching forest soils in Montana’s Rocky Mountains.
Chadwick confesses his professional naturalist career really gives respectability to his inner “11-year-old on a treasure hunt” wondering what the heck is that? He combines that with a willingness to spend multiple springs in the Gobi, enduring camel spiders that are sort of scorpions, and camel ticks that occasionally dig into places unmentionable in a family newspaper. Also, Bactrian double-humped camels that are almost as endangered as the bears.
That sense of scientific abandon has led to books like “The Wolverine Way” chronicling Glacier National Park’s fiercest inhabitants, “The Grandest of Lives” about great whales around the world, and nearly 50 articles for National Geographic Magazine.
As small as the Gobi grizzly population is, the gang of people who fight for them seems smaller. The book paints a family tree linking generations of naturalists. Harry Reynolds, the bear biologist who organized the Gobi research project, got his start as a 15-year-old assistant to Frank and John Craighead during their groundbreaking Yellowstone National Park grizzly research in 1959. John Craighead was Chadwick’s academic adviser when the author was doing his graduate work at the University of Montana.
They all depended on baseline research completed by biologist George Schaller in the 1970s. That was about the same time author Peter Matthiessen wrote his classic “The Snow Leopard” account of pursuing Himalayan blue sheep, all-but-invisible felines and Buddhist understanding with equal frustration in the footsteps of Schaller.
It was while Chadwick was doing his own snow leopard reporting in Mongolia that he met Tserennadmid Mijiddorj, a translator/naturalist who off-handedly alerted Chadwick to the existence of Gobi grizzlies, which weren't even known to science before 1943.
“And now I’m on the board of the Liz Claiborne-Art Ortenberg Foundation with seven other scientists, one of whom is George Schaller,” Chadwick said. “I grew up reading about his studies of gorillas and lions of Africa, and now twice a year I’m sitting there discussing how to allocate significant amounts of money to research projects all around the world.”
In true Chadwick fashion, the search for Gobi grizzlies rambles from the comic to the surreal. Just getting to the bears' desert involves cranky Russian-built vans loaded with "full gas drums that leaked a little and burlap bags full of fresh goat and sheep parts, making our caravan a sort of combination of a rolling slaughterhouse and incendiary bomb."
Project photographer Joe Riis sacrificed at least five Nikons to drug-addled grizzlies that consistently attacked the first thing making a noise as they came out of their research stupor – the automatic camera he'd set up to photograph their departure.
The bears themselves behave like the vegans of the predator class: Undisputedly the strongest critter in the desert, they apparently never hunt anything bigger than a gerbil. They disdain bacon in the trap bait and even avoid the dog food kibbles mixed in with grain pellets in the government-supplied feed bins, put off by the meat byproducts.
The dietary restrictions extend to people as well. Local herders had no reports of bears attacking livestock, although they would raid food pellets.
"There were no rip-snorting grizzly stories we have over here," Chadwick said. "And not because they’re weenies – they’re full-on grizzly. They'll charge an 8-foot-tall van loaded with big Mongolians. They don’t back off. They have the grizzly attitude."