It wasn’t until Whitefish author Doug Chadwick spotted his first Gobi grizzly bear that it occurred to him how spoiled his hometown bruins had grown living in the well-endowed wilds of Glacier National Park.
The contrast between the wind-scoured, sun-scorched, food-scarce moonscape that defines the Gobi Desert and the wildlife-rich reserve in Chadwick’s backyard couldn’t be starker, and yet each ecosystem supports individual populations of grizzlies.
Chadwick learned of the mythic Gobi grizzly bear while reporting a story about snow leopards for National Geographic, which has been publishing his conservation writing for nearly four decades. The mere mention of bears persisting on a desert landscape stoked Chadwick’s curiosity, but when he learned of their extreme rarity and the Mongolian government’s burgeoning effort to save them, his background as a trained wildlife biologist and dedicated conservationist was invigorated.
It didn’t take long for him to become a devoted Gobi groupie.
A week after Chadwick spied his first Gobi grizzly — a shaggy, torpid old male that had paused to drink and rest at a desert oasis on the other side of the world from Glacier Park — the writer learned that the creature had died, having succumbed to an inhospitable environment that sustains a tiny population of the rarefied bear.
The experience drove home the notion that the beleaguered bear needed help.
“I knew then that I couldn’t turn my back on these bears,” Chadwick, who recently published a book drawing attention to the species, said in a recent interview.
Fewer than three-dozen Gobi bears survive in one of the harshest expanses on the planet, the Gobi Desert, a sprawling, mountain-bound landscape spread over half-a-million square miles of southern Mongolia and northern China. A “rain shadow” desert, the Gobi receives negligible moisture because the Himalayan mountain range blocks rain-carrying clouds, while temperatures fluctuate between extremes of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 120 degrees in the summer.
With little water, the requirements for wildlife to survive there are stiff, and particularly so for charismatic mega-fauna like the grizzly bear, which shares intimate quarters with Montanans, but largely keeps its own counsel in the sparsely populated region of Mongolia.
Today, the Gobi bear’s sole refuge lies within the Greater Gobi Strictly Protected Area, a nature preserve established in 1976 and declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1990.
In 2011, Chadwick joined the Gobi Bear Initiative, providing financial support for the project through his role as a board trustee for Vital Ground, a nonprofit environmental land trust dedicated to restoring grizzly bear populations.
The program raises funds to supplement food for the bears, as well as provide fuel for rangers to patrol the refuge, monitor wildlife and distribute grain pellets to desert oases. The Gobi Bear Fund also provides money for research and monitoring using GPS satellite collars.
Since the Gobi Bear Initiative began in 2005, the bears have held their own, Chadwick said, and evidence of breeding emerged when researchers documented the addition of five bears to the population.
“It is a tribute to the species that they can eke out a living in this extreme, remote place that looks like the surface of Mars to the uninitiated,” Chadwick said. “It is just way cool to discover that a bear can successfully survive in an environment like this. Anyone with that kind of crazy determination to live has my attention.”
Since his first encounter with a Gobi grizzly five years ago, Chadwick has made annual expeditions to Mongolia to help draw attention to the beleaguered animal’s plight, which is exacerbated by the pressures of silver and gold mining and a legacy of overgrazing by livestock.
Now, with the publication of his latest book, “Tracking Gobi Grizzlies,” Chadwick shines the brightest light yet on a bear that wasn’t even known to exist prior to 1943.
“That was the first time the world even knew that Gobi bears existed — that is how remote and how big and unknown the Gobi Desert is,” Chadwick said.
Having teamed up with photographer Joe Riis to document the tenacious bears in their natural environment, Chadwick offers the first definitive account of the bear’s past, present and uncertain future.
Part adventure memoir and part environmental parable, the book, published by Patagonia, offers a portrait of a mysterious but critical species living in a seemingly desolate but actually widely diverse and threatened ecosystem.
For advocates working to protect the grizzlies of the Gobi, they represent an umbrella species — what’s good for the bear is good for wide swaths of habitat, as well as for wild species pushed to the fringes, such as wild asses and double-humped Bactrian camels.
“Our challenge is to keep one of the great wild places on the Earth. If you can save a bear this rare in a place this tough, it’s sort of a symbol,” Chadwick said. “Maybe we can pull off all kinds of things.”
Whitefish Review will host Chadwick at Casey’s on Friday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. for the premiere of “Tracking Gobi Grizzlies,” which will include a reading and slideshow featuring Chadwick’s adventures in the land of the world’s rarest bears.
The book is available at www.patagonia.com. To learn more, visit www.vitalground.org.