When first published, Bears received excellent reviews and sold particularly well. The book focuses on an entire year in the lives of the three bear species found in North America -- the brown bear, the black bear and the polar bear. Matthias Breiter shows how these widely feared but rarely encountered animals hunt, feed, play, mate and breed.
Based on the bears' yearly cycle, from when they awaken from hibernation and give birth in February through the return of winter and another hibernation, the book includes:
Bears is lavishly illustrated with more than 125 remarkable color photographs taken in the wild. By shattering myths and revealing unusual facts, this book increases the understanding of these magnificent creatures.
Matthias Breiter is a renowned photographer and cinematographer and the author of nine books. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute, and his award winning photographs appear regularly in magazines, including National Geographic and GEO.
What good is a bear? The question took me by surprise. I had been thumbing a ride out of Glacier National Park in Montana. After a few weeks in the bush working on a study project, I had run low on supplies and was heading into town to restock. Traffic on the road was light, but the second car stopped for me. Within minutes of getting into the vehicle I found myself in a heated debate over wildlife conservation. As a wildlife biologist I was no stranger to such discussions, so I felt prepared and comfortable in presenting conclusive arguments in favor of environmental protection. Yet this simple query stopped me cold. Since I was trained in the subject matter, I surmised that I should be able to provide a concise, persuasive answer. All that I finally came up with was a vague, drawn-out response that lacked conviction.
The driver of the vehicle wanted to attach a monetary value to the existence of bears. My decision to commit to studying the world's flora and fauna had been based on a deeply felt love for wilderness and the environment. I was enamored of the mysteries of the natural world. A desire to understand the intricacies of nature compelled me to devour any book on the subject. My curiosity was directed toward answering questions such as how an animal or plant grows and survives; how its body is structured; how on a molecular level complex chemical processes result in the procreation, growth, continuance and, ultimately, death of an organism. It hadn't occurred to me to question the purpose of life forms from an economic perspective.
In my opinion, the mere fact that a creature exists gives it a right to live, but this belief is not shared by everyone. Business interests, political agendas and conservation issues conflict regularly; a deep gulf separates the objectives and values of those who represent the various sides. With common ground often a preciously small commodity, the arguments are frequently rich in polemic while communication between the parties remains poor. Symptomatic of this phenomenon is a statement by former governor of Alaska Wally Hickel, who noted on the issue of predator control, "You can't just let nature run wild."
Ever since that car ride, the question about the value of bears has haunted me. In the search for an answer I discovered that there are in fact many reasons for their preservation. As our understanding of interdependencies between species has grown, it has become possible to measure the economic significance of intact ecosystems. Recent research has revealed that as much as 70 percent of the nitrogen in trees of the Pacific coast temperate rain forest has its origin in the oceans. It is the salmon that brings the richness of the sea to the land, and it is the bear and the eagle that spread the wealth of its nutrients for miles on either side of streams. The forest industry benefits from this fertilization. And healthy trees stabilize mountainsides and provide conditions for the clear, oxygen-rich waters that become nurseries for the salmon, which in its turn is one of the pillars of commercial fishing along the West Coast.
Bears are carnivores. While in many ways they may not match our image of a typical carnivore (assuming there is such a thing), the three North American bear species do display predatory behavior. Predators, while competing with man for resources, fulfill a very important function in ecosystems by keeping prey populations healthy. In the short term, removal of predators has frequently resulted in a dramatic increase in prey populations, with subsequent economic damage to agriculture and forestry. Unless costly management programs are put in place, the peak in animal numbers is inevitably followed by a population crash.
Tourism in national parks and other protected areas has developed into a major industry, creating billions of dollars in revenue in North America each year. Images of bears have been used widely in promotion of countless ecotourism venues. Today bear viewing is creating more revenue than bear hunting -- from a dollar perspective, a live bear is now worth more than a dead bear. Sad as it may seem, dollar value is a powerful argument in conservation.
Other aspects of bears' existence are more difficult to quantify in monetary terms. Bears have unknowingly saved many lives and have improved the quality of life for people suffering from chronic diseases. Research into bear physiology has had a major impact on human medicine, specifically in the fields of organ transplants, kidney disease and osteoporosis. Recently biologists have expressed much concern over the dramatic loss of biodiversity. Bears are a prime example of how answers to questions that affect all humankind can be found in nature. If all the bears had disappeared, vital information would have been lost to us forever.
We, both as individual beings and as a society, are the product of our surroundings and our past. This past includes, whether we realize it or not, bears. Bears penetrate human culture, from language to science to art, like no other animal. Burial, going berserk, to bear young -- to name but a few -- all have etymological roots in the Indo-Germanic word bher, the bear. Bears are prominent figures in myths, fairy tales and literature, from North American First Nations' oral traditions to the Grimm brothers and J.R.R. Tolkien. Star constellations are named after the animal.
The threads of history interweave the fabric onto which we embroider the patterns of culture. Societies unravel when individual links with the past are severed. Ignoring our own traditions destabilizes the foundation on which we build the present. Without the bear we lose more than simply a magnificent animal -- we irreversibly and irretrievably lose a part of who we are.
In general our society is orphaned from nature. Yet our most creative minds draw inspiration from the natural environment. Cultural diversity is mankind's greatest treasure and asset. Plurality is the spice of life, fostering inspiration and encouraging us to reevaluate old paths and explore new ones. To what degree do we stifle ourselves and our development as people by allowing wilderness to be paved over, tilled into pastures and buried underneath housing developments and malls? By doing so, we rob the great bears of a place to live. To most of us, mountains appear loftier, valleys deeper and forests more mystical in the presence of these majestic creatures. Bears have been called the miner's canary of the wilderness. Because of their large size, they require vast tracts of land on which to live, and are among the first species to disappear if conditions degrade.
Bears have fascinated mankind for millennia. They captivate us today just as they did our ancestors. The good of a bear can be measured in many ways. Yes, a dollar value can be attached to its existence. But while its spiritual and cultural value is much less tangible, it is by no means less significant. In North America we are fortunate to share our country still with these awe-inspiring creatures. Grizzlies, black bears and polar bears have all lost part of their former ranges. Where bears still roam, a fragile truce often prevails between man and beast. Usually it is the people rather than the bear that lack the ability to adapt. Humankind's fears and uneasiness -- which find their expression in intolerance -- are rooted not so much in what the animals do but in our perception of what they might do. Understanding is the first step to conservation and peaceful coexistence. Only through knowledge can we avoid conflict, recognize their needs and learn to fully appreciate these monarchs of the wilderness. Their future is in our hands.
February: A New Life Is Born