Book Review: The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus

4 01 2012

The Grizzly Manifesto: In Defence of the Great Bear
A Rocky Mountain Books Manifesto
by Jeff Gailus
168 pages, hardcover

A spectre is haunting North America’s grizzlies–the spectre of knuckleheads (as well as reckless industrialization, urban sprawl, highways, railroads, inert bureaucracies, and public apathy). Fortunately for grizzlies and their supporters, journalist and long-time wilderness advocate Jeff Gailus has written The Grizzly Manifesto (Rocky Mountain Books, $16.95 hardcover) to expose the crimes against grizzlies committed by this unholy alliance.

The Grizzly Manifesto is a welcome addition to Rocky Mountain Books’ timely “Manifesto Series” of concise, provocative hardcover essays about pressing environmental concerns. Where other authors might have adopted an orderly, systematic structure when confronted by the series’ confined format (maximum 25,000 words), Gailus has instead crafted a meandering essay that traces the authors’ own education in grizzly conservation interspersed with frequent insights about grizzly biology, politics, and popular culture.

A single chapter can wander from the grizzly’s diet (voracious and varied, but mostly plants), to their reproductive processes (slow, with some curious surprises), through their post-glacial migrations (often millennia ahead of humans), to their supreme roles in the spiritual lives of indigenous peoples across North America and Eurasia. This last bit even leads into a sustained consideration of the theory that the grizzly’s annual hibernation might have inspired the ancient human mythology of resurrection.

Such a literary scenic route contributes far more in terms of readability than it sacrifices in coherence. The effect is an enthralling narrative that navigates the intricacies of grizzly-conservation politics as purposefully as a well-worn game trail through a dark, overgrown forest, with hidden wonders sign-posted along the way.

The book confronts Canadians and their long-cherished wilderness values with the provocative challenge: like it or not, the fate of these archetypal wild beasts presents an unavoidable test-case as to whether or not we actually give a damn about preserving this nation’s natural heritage. Right now it doesn’t look good.

For many readers, Grizzly Manifesto will destroy the same illusions about Canada’s pre-eminence in all things environmental that Gailus has been forced to abandon through his decades-long efforts to improve Canadian conservation policies. While corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists, “knucklehead” recreationalists, and popular indifference all feel Gailus’ scorn, nobody comes away from The Grizzly Manifesto more abused than Parks Canada.

A firm believer in the Parks Branch’s primary responsibility to protect and preserve national park’s ecological integrity, Gailus scathingly details how the iconic institution is failing its sacred mandate. In perhaps his scathing climax, after outlining several severe and undeniable threats to Banff’s bruins, Gailus condemns the conservation objectives crafted by our park’s custodians with the damning assessment that “Parks Canada has set the bar so low that even a snake could slither over it.”

For any literary advocacy to be as moving as Gailus’ it must be aimed steadfastly at manifest injustice, but it must also be sustained by at least a modicum of genuine hope. In this regard Gailus’ efforts are nourished by the small, imperiled, but undeniable victory south of the border at Yellowstone National Park. Here, thanks to adaptive (and downright courageous) leadership and beefier environmental laws than our own, the region’s once-doomed grizzly population has tripled in recent decades. Canadians should take note.

In such a condensed form there are bound to be omissions, some glaring. While the imperiled fate of Alberta’s 700-odd grizzlies receives full treatment, only a few sentences go to the 25,000 that live in B.C. and the Territories. The word Alaska does not enter the text. Gailus does well to stick to his area of expertise, and the general terms of Banff’s grizzly battle may be largely universal, but a brief survey of other fronts would have made this book more immediately relevant to a larger audience.

Still, Gailus should be commended for crafting an argument on behalf of the great bear that is at once measured and passionate. The Grizzly Manifesto is an attractively packaged book that makes excellent work of the Manifestos‘ refreshing, punchy format. Anyone concerned about the continuing (accelerating!) loss of North America’s wild spaces and species will feel informed, disheartened, enraged, inspired, and, before Gailus is through, even a little empowered.

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