Letting Bears Roam: Q&A with Ecologist Chris Morgan
British-born ecologist, educator, and filmmaker Chris Morgan is often described as "the bear guy.” For the past 25 years Morgan has traveled to every continent where bears live as a researcher, wildlife guide and educator. He founded Western Wildlife Outreach, an organization working to educate and engage rural communities in discussions about bears and the environment. Currently, Morgan is creating a feature-length documentary titled BEARTREK that highlights the urgent need for bear conservation around the world. We talked with Morgan about why he thinks bears are so important and how they can help preserve open spaces.
I am asked so often, ‘why bears?’ Bears are charismatic and appealing, cute as cubs and impressive as adults, strong and spiritual, and intelligent and motivated. All these qualities we, as humans, really respect in each other or in creatures. I think that bears offer the opportunity for so many big-picture solutions to some of the problems that our planet faces. Protecting bears gives us the chance to protect clean air, fresh water, and intact forests — all the things we need as a species. I think they are just a great symbol for so many of those needs, and they inspire people in the right directions.
You have worked with bears around the world. What makes bears in the Pacific Northwest special?
We have a tiny number of grizzly bears walking the knife edge of potential extinction in Washington State and the Cascade Mountains. There is just enough wilderness for the bears, and just enough time for us to shake ourselves awake. If we protect those bears and what they need, we will be protecting giant areas of land. What bears need, countless other species need, making them an “umbrella species” — all encompassing. We can use bears as the icons. We’ve still got them in the Pacific Northwest… let’s make sure that’s the case years from now.
Images courtesy of COASTtoCASCADES.org
What are wildlife corridors and how are they important?
We live in a habitat jigsaw puzzle world that has been taken apart. Reconnecting the pieces of the puzzle is critical for all of us. A “wildlife corridor” is the concept of enabling a bear to move from one portion of an ecosystem to another. In the Canadian Rockies they have used wildlife overpasses and underpasses. These overpasses look like a forested bridge that crosses the Alaska/Canada highway. Bears, wolves, moose, and cougars use them actively and increasingly over time. So how does the grizzly bear get across the road? It uses overpasses and underpasses!
If we could create a wildlife corridor that connected North Cascades grizzly bears to bears in Canada, then the Cascades population would be doubled, possibly tripled. Bears are perfect representatives of what can benefit from wildlife corridors.
How else can we help bears?
Some of it is physical. Overpasses, underpasses, and wildlife corridors combined with protected areas protect these forests so they can remain an intact habitat.
There’s also the psychological element, our relationship with nature. How do people in grizzly bear country come to terms with having bears in their backyard? How dangerous are they? How can they bring positive things to these struggling rural economies? Getting people’s heads around what a grizzly bear is, what bears need, and how that relates to habitat connectivity is just as important as setting up reserves and corridors. There are all kinds of things that we can do to help bears. Starting small but dreaming big. Unfortunately, time is not often on our side when it comes to tiny numbers of bears, but there are definitely things you can do [to move] in the right direction.
If you were a bear, what kind of bear would you be?
One of my best friends in England, every time I give him a hug and say goodbye his passing words are, “Chris, remember, if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” He knows me well. I would want to be a grizzly for sure. They’re my favorite.
There are eight bear species and all of them are fascinating — like pandas in Asia, spectacle bears in South America, or sun bears in Borneo. Each of them has their own habitat and their own specialties. They’re a family of cousins, but they’re all completely individualistic. But I’m a wilderness man, I love the wilderness. There’s nothing more wild to me than grizzlies.This film is for teachers, scientists, non-profits and people interested in bears and preserving wild spaces. This film was made possible by an anonymous donation and was produced in partnership with Wildlife Media. What's good for bears is good for people and the planet. WHY BEARS? from Trifilm, Inc. on Vimeo.