Ethan Linck

El Oso Plateado


In the saddest photo I can think of, it’s 1960 in Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico, and there’s a dead bear on the roof of the pick-up driving slowly through a silent and curious crowd. It’s a great, tawny bear, its fur streaked with silver, and its forearms are tacked out in front of it, ostensibly to secure it to the vehicle, but also to display its formidable claws and hint at both its own rapaciousness and the prowess of its killers.

The last known Mexican Grizzly, Ciudad Chihuahua, 1957

Despite the indignity of its bonds and undiscerning repose of death, its bulk possesses a sad majesty, the bruin’s high, humped shoulders seeming to loom over the assembled crowd and say that its day may have come and gone, but beyond the veil there is a meadow high in the mountains where a brisk wind is whistling through tall pines.

At least, that’s what I see in it. The photo is an historical artifact, depicting the last known Mexican Grizzly, the subspecies of brown bear (Ursus arctos nelsoni; known for its silver highlights as El Oso Plateado in Spanish) formerly restricted to Mexico and the US states of Arizona and New Mexico. The crowd in the photograph is gathered to witness something of an historical artifact themselves: long before that point, the bears had been poisoned, shot, and otherwise extirpated to the point that they had become more myth than reality in the public imagination. By the time the bear in the photo had made its ultimate journey through the streets of the provincial capital, its race had seen its range reduced from the entirety of the mountains of northern Mexico and Baja California to just three small pockets in the borderlands, its population well under 100 individuals.

Today, the southernmost confirmed population of grizzly bear is in Yellowstone, some thousand miles north. Which, I’ll argue, is something to regret.

* * *

The bear’s former home, the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, stretches from the volcanic highlands cradling Mexico City nearly to the US border. There, it shatters into numerous isolated ranges thrusting up from a sea of desert, collectively and poetically known as the Sky Islands. The region is exceedingly remote. It was the last stronghold of the feared Apache (see: Blood Meridian), and one of the last frontiers for Hispanic settlement, which remains sparse to this day. The beautiful names of these mountain shards reflect this shared cultural heritage: Chiricahua, Peloncillo, Huachuca, Pinaleño, Tumacacori, del Nido, Baboquivari.

Biologically, the region is where the neotropics meet the nearctic, where the departed grizzlies and just-barely-persisting jaguars mingled, where wolves and ocelots, bald eagles and parrots cohabitate a rich mix of habitats. As the rhetorical hiker climbs from the lowlands she passes through desert scrub, pine and oak woodland, soaring old growth pine forest, and finally a belt of spruce and fir scraping a purple sky. It’s a beautiful landscape, but subtly so, lacking the usual visual cues of sharp lines, snowy peaks, and bright colors. The topography is rugged, but infinitely complex, almost wizened, with few points that grab the eye; earth and stone and plant seem to have been washed in sepia. Beyond the odd news report of drug cartel violence, it’s a middle of nowhere beyond our mainstream consciousness.

As with the Apache, the Sky Islands were the final stronghold of the Mexican Grizzly. By 1930, the bear had been extirpated from all but three small areas in the Cerro Campana, Sierra Santa Clara, and Sierra del Nido. Persecution by ranchers — mostly by leaving poisoned carcasses in prime habitat — continued, and by 1964 the bear was considered extinct, blinking out of existence as one last sow or cub or aging boar lay down by an oak-shaded brook meandering through a mountain meadow, and expired.

* * *

If a bear dies in the woods, why should we care? Conservation biology is predicated on this question, and provides a particular set of answers by looking at an organism or population’s genetic uniqueness and ecological role.

The taxonomic rank of “subspecies” is an arbitrary one, denoting a population of some genetic, morphologic, and / or geographic distinctiveness that can nonetheless interbreed with any other population of its overarching species. Most of the time, geography is the primary arbiter of divisions between groups that would otherwise bleed into one another imperceptibly as judged by genes or appearance. As a subspecies of brown bear, U. a. nelsoni, the Mexican Grizzly was not vastly different from northern grizzlies in its genetic makeup, and could theoretically breed with grizzlies in Alaska, should they chance to meet. Of course, suggesting equivalency by virtue of limited variation in its genes is a fallacy along the lines of suggesting the cultural equivalency of Swedes and Nigerians: regardless of absolute difference, its genome was a reservoir of unique adaptations and evolutionary history.

Ecologically, the tragedy gains weight. The Mexican Grizzly was the largest predator in Mexico and, as such, occupied a unique role, both of carrion-disposer and slayer of ungulates. Along with the also-extinct1 Mexican Gray Wolf and the Jaguar, the bear was a keystone atop the trophic pyramid of the Sierra Madre. The cascading results of predator loss are well documented: large meat-eating beasts play a disproportionate role in determining everything from deer populations to aspen propagation. It is certain the ecology Mexican high country has been irreversibly changed with the loss of El Oso Plateado.

But there is also a strong argument to be made that such metrics are meaningless and insulting, as the bear had no need to justify its existence to anyone. This claim draws on the philosophy of deep ecology, as originally proposed by Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Arne Næss. At its most basic, deep ecology argues that living beings have an intrinsic right to existence, regardless of utilitarian benefit to humanity. Næss himself rooted much of his writing in the works of influential American conservationist Aldo Leopold. This is particularly interesting to us, as Leopold is one of the very few writers to deal with El Oso Plateado.

Aldo Leopold’s canonical work A Sand County Almanac contains an essay entitled “Escudilla,” in which he describes the life and death of the last Mexican Grizzly in Arizona. The bear, Bigfoot, a “robber baron,” lorded over Escudilla Mountain in eastern Arizona. He’d bash in the skull of one cow a year and was never seen, but his personality pervaded the country. A cow a year seems like a small sacrifice, but it’s things like this that impede progress, the narrative extension of manifest destiny goes, and so in the essay’s central tragedy a bureaucrat orders Bigfoot killed. The bear walks into a wire-triggered shotgun and becomes a useless pelt, “foul, patchy, and worthless,” weighing down a mule. To Leopold, it was a small act that forever changed the landscape.

The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together…Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bear. It’s only a mountain now.

The emphasis of the impact of the bear’s ultimate loss on human perception is fascinating to me. It hints at a more lyrical dimension to the sadness of extinction, and offers to explain to me why the photo of that last dead bear on the truck in Chihuahua is so crushing.

We understand neither animals nor places in a vacuum. Because what no scientific tests of significance convey is the uniqueness of a landscape where grizzlies forage astride fan palms and parrots. Place is an emergent property, the product of countless unique interactions and cross interactions and the sum total of the mere existence its inhabitants. Extinctions weaken this emergent layer, leaving the essence of place less easily noticed, less keenly felt. Since 1900 the Sierra Madre and the Sky Islands have seen a parade of extinctions and extirpations of their most distinctive fauna. As a result, it’s hard for me not to feel they have become a poorer version of themselves.

They are poorer in the sense that (for lack of more elegant phrasing) predators are the soul of a landscape, contributing something of great spiritual significance to forests and purple mountains and fruited plains. Consider the US National Park system’s crown jewel, Yellowstone, known as much for its grizzlies and wolves as for its vistas. I also think of my own days hiking in the North Cascades, a colder, wetter equivalent to the Sierra del Nido circa 1950. Perhaps 30 grizzlies roam the tangled, precipitous, cirque-ridden and alder-choked wilds of northern Washington State. Typically, ten years pass between sightings. But there is something, inexpressible, ineffable, impossible to a put a finger on, but something, that makes the North Cascades feel infinitely wilder than otherwise similar ranges south through Oregon, California.

I believe it is the bears. Specifically, the presence of something that can eat you2, that reminds us of our fundamental smallness in a world intent on rewriting itself safer and smaller by the day. The mechanism for this is both the ongoing destruction of “wilderness” (a place fundamentally unmediated by man, and therefore, intrinsically threatening) and the corresponding marginalization of animals to human experience.

The critic John Berger, in his essay Why Look at Animals?, conceives of a cultural trajectory in which animals have gone from holding fundamental importance to humanity to being to utterly peripheral, trapped as pets, cartoons, and zoo exhibits. In the beginning, they were likely our first metaphors; the rhetorical “other” theorized to have to have spurred us to more sophisticated levels of social organization and perhaps language. They were both utilitarian and sacred, sources of food and worthy of veneration. And through their mere existence, they characterized what we failed to put to language: “Everywhere animals offered explanations, or more precisely, lent their name or character to a quality, which like all qualities, was, in its essence, mysterious.” This “quality” is the emergent property of place, the wild and wordless something that the Mexican Grizzly imparted to its home. The predator as the soul of a landscape.

Today, through the forces of industrialization, animals occupy a dramatically different niche in our collective psyche than they have for most of our prehistory, one in which their ability to observe us, their externality and autonomy, is irrelevant. They are pets, cartoons, and zoo-exhibits, and are either useful or are banal objects our imagination. But empty spaces and big, dangerous bears fly in the face of this logic, which is why they are so crucial, and why their loss resonates so painfully. The mountains of the borderlands are smaller now, without El Oso. The final rest of the bear on the truck marked the end of something greater.

* * *

In the saddest scientific paper I can think of3, authors Jose C. Trevino and Charles Jonkel detail the methods and results of a 1979 survey of the Sierra del Nido in search of a remnant population of Mexican grizzlies.

We hired 2 guides, Sabino Martinez Camarillo and the Indian “Crucito,” both of whom live alone in the northern part of Sierra del Nido and have extensive experience with grizzly bears. We surveyed the areas of Ojo del Alamo, Canon de los Prietos, and Arroyo Hondo on horseback and on foot.

They see no bears in the flesh, but in the paper’s haunting coda, Tevino and Jonkel sum indirect evidence to conclude “grizzly bears may still exist in Mexico.” They recommend further surveys and immediate habitat protection, but their suggestions were never acted on, and 30-odd years later, the possibility that El Oso Plateado persists—ambling out through mesquite and Montezuma pine, under a sky of blue and gold—is almost certainly nil.

As Leopold would say: they are just mountains now.

1 Well, sort of: around 75 wolves exist in the Gila region of New Mexico, following federal reintroduction efforts in the late 1990s. From this stock, a handful have been reintroduced into Northern Mexico, though far below the minimum number necessary to maintain a viable population.

2 For an excellent discussion of the ethics of man-eating animals in the modern world, see David Quammen’s 2003 book Monster of God.

3Trevino, J.C., Jonkel, C. 1986. “Do grizzly bears still live in Mexico?” International Conference on Bear Research and Management 6: 11-13.

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