Beckie Elgin reviews The Spine of the Continent, by Mary Ellen Hannibal
Since 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that made Yellowstone our first national park, our country has been proud of its public lands. But these islands of safe spaces aren’t enough for the species that inhabit them; nature must have the ability to move and connect in order to survive. Mary Ellen Hannibal’s book, The Spine of the Continent, illuminates the initiative that is determined to protect key landscapes along the expanse of the Rocky Mountains, from the Yukon to Mexico. She shows us that the Rocky Mountains provide an essential roadway for animal and plant migration and dispersal, especially as climate change forces species into higher elevations. If safe routes don’t exist, populations such as grizzly bear, wolves, pika, and bighorn sheep become isolated entities that will eventually cease to exist.
Currently, when animals embark on trips outside their protected area, they tend to either be shot or become menu items for the local Road Kill Café. Hannibal tells the story of Highway 3 in British Columbia, a 700-mile road that slices directly across the spine. Over 300 wildlife fatalities, including elk, deer, and bighorn sheep, occur there each year. Besides the cost and trauma of vehicular accidents, busy BC 3 segregates grizzly populations, preventing the bears on one side of the highway from mixing with the gene pool of bears on the other side.
Hannibal explains why grizzlies are worth fighting for and that protecting safe corridors for them is the right approach. “Lose the grizzly and that’s likely not all you lose,” she writes. These big bears are an “umbrella species,” meaning their presence is essential to others. They hunt hoofed stock, keeping prey fit. Grizzlies eat tons of berries, performing a vital function in spreading seeds with their scat. Besides the scientific stuff, these bruins play a role in the cultural history of humankind. Native Americans revered the bear; some cultures considered them God-like. She provides, then, a rich mix of cultural and natural history. For example, did you know grizzly bears got their name because of their kinked hair? And that hibernating bears live off their fat and simultaneously create bile that prevents their arteries from hardening?
The Spine of the Continent is also an often humorous report of the author’s own discovery. Hannibal doesn’t sit behind her desk, using the Internet to fill her pages–although she must have spent countless hours conducting research to so seamlessly add breadth and depth. Instead, she’s in the field looking for jaguar and bear and other creatures, or shadowing a pair of young biologists researching pikas. She writes of this venture, “It is not such fun, for me, to hike up the talus slope. . . . They are braver about their footing, but they both fall, and the thing about youth is, they don’t care. I am rather obsessed with the distinct possibility of breaking my leg.”
When not risking life or limb, Hannibal attends conclaves with powerful people and sits in the backyards of scientists asking questions to help explain the complexities of ecosystems and what, if any, chance we have of saving them. Is there hope? Michael Soule, the father of conservation biology (as well Zen Buddhist and major character in Hannibal’s book) was the primary originator of the Spine of the Continent (SOC) movement. Soule doesn’t offer much to Hannibal in the way of hope. “We can’t do it,” he tells her. “We’re too flawed. We can’t escape ourselves.”
Despite this dismal prognosis, it’s difficult not to believe that the intelligence and tenacity of the characters Hannibal weaves into her narrative won’t come up with a solution. There’s the gathering at High Lonesome Ranch near Grand Junction, Colorado. Ranch owner Paul Vahldiek has called in the experts to help heal the disastrous effects of long-term cattle grazing on his land. Cows, according to the book, linger on the edge of waterways, exerting pressure on the banks as they consume native plants whose roots normally hold the banks in place. After the native plants are gone, shallow-rooted vegetation steps in and erosion occurs. Eventually, overgrazing kills off willow and aspen, ruining waterways for beaver and other species.
Back at the ranch, Hannibal gathers with the team of experts, including Soule and Cristina Eisenberg of trophic cascades fame. But the gathering isn’t all work, no play. Most of the group goes elk hunting, a setup arranged by Eisenberg because, according to Hannibal, “[u]nderstanding the perspective of hunters is extremely important in the quest to conserve habitat and species in the West.” Hannibal herself doesn’t go hunting, however; she’s there to study the hunters who are scientists who arguably shouldn’t be out hunting. But the scientists visiting the High Lonesome aren’t your typical Field & Stream types. They agonize over the ethics surrounding the sport and belabor the dissection of the dead elk. One performs a ceremony over the body of the animal. Another offers it a drink from his water bottle. This chapter initiates a lot of contemplation, in which Hannibal excels. How do humans figure into the connectivity of nature? Our primary effect has been to screw it up. But the image of Soule and other scientists interacting with the environment in a way that includes consumption shows that we haven’t ruined it all, that perhaps nature is not so fragile, that we can still step into the wild without fear of crushing an endangered species of clover beneath our feet.
It’s not only Ph.D.s out there doing their part in The Spine of the Continent. When not cutting hair, Sherri Tippie rescues beavers, capturing them and transferring the oversized rodents from where they aren’t wanted to where they are. In the 25 years since she undertook this pastime, Tippie has relocated over 1,000 beavers, saving them from certain death while helping to support wetland habitats.
Indeed, the orange-toothed, dam-building beaver is an essential character in The Spine of the Continent. In fact, Hannibal presents the beaver as a poster child for the importance of connectivity in our ecosystems. Perhaps 60 million beavers populated North America before 1600, when their fur became a commodity, one that had a huge influence on the development of our nation. But decimating beaver populations is not without repercussion. Their dams store vast amounts of water. They control erosion and evaporation. And their intricate influence on streams and rivers has a significant affect on fish and bird populations.
Hannibal’s book is an important one. It illuminates the concept of the SOC and the need to protect wildlife corridors in order to maintain the integrity of our natural world. Her book is also an exacting synthesis of the history behind this vast subject. Hannibal is a teacher, and an entertaining and relatable one. Her words on Darwin and Mendel, on aspen trees and the wolves of Yellowstone encourage understanding and deepen concern. She has delivered to us a rich and complex environment. She has made the connection. Now we need to do the work.