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Bears of the Last Frontier: Interview with Chris Morgan (Ecologist, Author, TV Host)

 “Ecologist Chris Morgan is no stranger to adventure. Over the last 20 years he has worked as a wildlife researcher, wilderness guide, and environmental educator on every continent where bears exist. From icy polar bear country at 81° North to tropical Andean bear forests on the equator, Chris has sought adventure among the focus animals of his life – the bears of the world. Carnivore work has also taken him to the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Scotland, the Pakistani Himalayas, northern Spain, Turkey, and Alaska – destinations where his infectious enthusiasm for wild places and people has rubbed off on others.

Chris is the featured character, host and narrator in the PBS NATURE special that he helped to create, ‘Bears of the Last Frontier’. This major three-hour mini-series follows his epic journey across Alaska by motorcycle in search of black, grizzly, and polar bears, documenting a year-long immersion into their world, and the beauty of Alaska’s rugged wilderness. He is also the author of the accompanying book of the same title – a large format publication that describes the experience, the bears, and even behind-the-scenes insight from the production of the film. (Bears of the Last Frontier: The Adventure of a Lifetime among Alaska’s Black, Grizzly, and Polar Bears, By Chris Morgan; Stewart, Tabori & Chang; U.S.$35)

More recently Chris has become a narrator for the NATURE series produced by THIRTEEN/WNET.ORG for PBS. Narrations have included films that draw audiences into stories of the Himalayas, an elephant herd in Kenya, Australia’s outback pelicans, and Elsa, the world’s most famous lion cub.

He is the Executive Director of Wildlife Media – a non-profit conservation organization that oversees BEARTREK, a global campaign and independent feature documentary for bear conservation. This epic, big-screen film about a global natural history adventure brings untold stories of bears and colorful cultures in Borneo, Peru, Alaska, and the Arctic. In addition to documenting Chris’s motorcycle conservation quest across four continents, BEARTREK is a giant experiment that brings a new approach to raising awareness and funding for conservation through a high end theatrical film, a campaign, and a social media movement.

Chris owns an ecology and environmental education organization in Bellingham, Washington State and is the co-founder of the acclaimed Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (GBOP). GBOP has been praised as a model for effective education outreach in the North Cascades and Selkirk mountains and has taken great steps to engage rural communities in grizzly bear information dissemination since 2002. The approach has recently been expanded to also include cougar and wolf education needs.

Chris has also been a frequent lecturer at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of Environmental Science in Bellingham. He has a B.S. in Applied Ecology (East London, UK) and an M.S. in Advanced Ecology (Durham, UK). In 2003, the Environmental Education Association of Washington honored Chris as Outstanding Environmental Educator of the year. In 2008 his contributions to grizzly bear conservation in the USA were honored with an award from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a government panel responsible for recovery of the great bear.

Chris knows that conservation depends on people and if people don’t see the connection between their own well being and wildlife, then nothing will change. “What’s good for bears is good for people,” you will often hear Chris say at one of his many public events. Chris also has an acute sense of the power of media to bring hearts, minds, and resources towards conservation. As one of the most gregarious, personable, and good hearted larger-than-life scientists you’ll ever meet, the response to his on-camera appearances has brought him incredible opportunities to promote the value of conservation for us all.

Chris spends much of his work, and play time in the North Cascade Mountains one hour from his home. Despite his varied activities within the realm of wildlife conservation, Chris says that he is never happier than when immersed in bear country – “the real world” as he calls it.”

 
 
 
 
 

 


 

Jordan Schaul: I’m fortunate to meet a lot of distinguished scientists, including many large carnivore biologists, and among them many who work with bears. They range  from molecular geneticists DNA fingerprinting grizzly bear metapopulations to experimental psychologists conducting behavioral assays on captive giant pandas. I’ve also learned from the traditional field biologists radio tracking bears from helicopters for a living. With that said, I feel most fortunate to meet scientists whose stories alone are so compelling, impactful and shared with such humility. Chris Morgan is one of those.

Chris Morgan’s Bears of the Last Frontier is a study of the bears of Alaska — the bears of a rustic and remote wild land.  His first-hand knowledge of nearly all the extant species of bears helps him convey the story of Alaska’s polar, grizzly, and black bears in a context unique among the great stewards of these iconic carnivores.  In this film, and book, Chris provides great insight into the lives of all bear species and their plight for survival, with some on the verge of extinction.  Through conversations with indigenous people, recreational hunters, biologists and others Chris explores how well-adapted these bears are to a diversity of unforgiving habitats. He explores just how closely bears are tied to the land that is so vast and rugged– the land we know as Alaska.

This book is about a great adventurer and a bear biologist on a great expedition. Bears of the Last Frontier speaks to Chris’s contagious passion for bears and a place where they still live relatively free of human encroachment.  As Chris writes, “bear country makes you humble,” and this film (and book) makes us appreciate just why that is.

I long thought there were many ways to make a difference for wildlife and bears in particular. As an ambassador for bears, Chris points out that these monarchs of the wilderness are both an “indicator and keystone species,” and consequently their future affects that of so many other species that share the diverse ecosystems bears inhabit.

Chris’s risk, determination and great vision illustrate how resourceful a biologist he is. He is reaching a demographic in a way that defies convention– in a way that really compels people to embrace wildlife as stewards of the natural world.  As important as scholarly work is to the conservation movement, it’s critical that we reach a larger audience though the outreach of skilled and inspirational ambassadors for wildlife.

I’m glad to see this project come to fruition in two media outlets.  Through his keen understanding of bear biology and a deep appreciation for the plight of the world’s bear species, Chris will inspire audiences to live a more harmonious life with some of Earth’s most intelligent and fascinating animals. The book also serves as a detailed account of some of Alaska’s most revered landscapes along with profiles of other polar and circumpolar species that share the last frontier with Alaska’s bears.

Jordan Schaul: Several media outlets have attempted to elucidate the lives of these most charismatic megavertebrates of North America. What is it about your journey through Alaska where black, grizzly (brown) and polar bears can all be viewed that you really want share. Is it something that is “uniquely bear,” if you will, or perhaps something that distinguishes the three extant North American species from each other?

News Watch Contributing Editor, Jordan Schaul, interviews his colleague, Chris Morgan, co-creator of the soon-to-be-released film ‘Bears of the Last Frontier’ and author of the book by the same title.: There are many great films about bears, but I think that ours delve deeper than most, and that was the idea when we came up with the concept of a real, immersive experience that spans an entire year in the life of Alaskan bears. By being out there for as long as we were – sometimes for many weeks in a single location, we really switched off the rest of the world and sank ourselves into bear habitat. That why, for me, it was the most incredible experience of my life – it was a real opportunity to learn more about all three species of Alaskan bear. Bears of the Last Frontier really is a grand adventure and a series of epic proportions – like the giant state of Alaska itself.

I’ve worked with bears for over 20 years now – on research and education projects, also guiding people to view bears in Alaska and the Arctic, and my end goal has always been conservation. On countless occasions I’ve seen the wide-eyed wonder on people’s faces when they experience bears in bear habitat – they are truly fascinating creatures – not only because they are large, powerful, and potentially dangerous, but that because they stir primeval instincts in us. But what many people don’t realize is that, because of this high intelligence, bears have the ability to exhibit widely varying behaviors, much of it born of experience, and a memory that is extraordinary. It means that bears are individuals – they really can have quite different personalities and I think that ‘Bears of the Last Frontier’ really brings that across well. Some of the brown bears we spent time filming on the Alaska Peninsula were very playful and light, while others were far more serious. The urban black bears we filmed in Anchorage were a street-wise bunch – to the point where you become convinced that they would hightail it back to town if dropped off in the real Alaskan wilderness. And polar bears are always a surprise. Although they are the most carnivorous of the three Alaskan bear species, and always on the search for a meal, even they come across as individuals when you are lucky enough to spend time observing them. No matter how hard I try, it really is difficult not to compare them to humans – two bears are as different as any two people you might encounter.  So there is the wonder of knowing that bears are quite individualistic at one end of the scale, and then at the other, bears at the population level allow us to pinpoint areas of wilderness for conservation – they make great barometers for ecosystem health. As a conservationist and ecologist, it’s why I focus on bears. The bears of Alaska, and the other 5 remaining bear species around the world, are the best umbrella species available to us. If we monitor and protect their needs, then we coincidentally protect the habitat needs of countless other species too. Including our own. As I like to say, “what’s good for bears is good for people”. What do I really want to share? The world of the bear and all of the wildness that it represents – it is a wildness that we all need.


Jordan Schaul:
Despite the fact that grizzlies are opportunistic omnivores they continue to receive great attention in popular media as apex predators and continue to rival polar bears as monarchs of their respective biomes. Do the book and film challenge this perception of theses bears? Can you talk generally about what you hope to convey about the three species native to the US and North America.

Chris Morgan:
People have some interesting perspectives of bears, and yes, I think that popular media has a way of portraying bears in an aggressive light – people love drama, and there is nothing that gets our heckles up like the fear of an ancient mammalian rival. Now that’s not to say that bears are harmless – they can inflict great damage when they choose to, but during the many years I’ve spent among bears, and during filming for our series, I have always been fascinated with the level of intelligence that bears have. They really do avoid conflict whenever they can. And they are very good at gauging circumstances. It’s in their nature. For example, it is to no-one’s advantage when two big brown bear males get physically combative with each other – everyone comes away hurt. That’s why they have a whole suite of body language tricks to avoid a confrontation with each other – body posture, ear position, salivation, vocalizing. Our films show great examples of all of these because we were able to spend so much time situated in bear country. But yes, there is also a lot of innocuous grazing involved too. The brown bears on the Alaska Peninsula, and also those in Denali National Park spend a good deal of their time grazing on plants – upto 90% of a brown bear’s diet is vegetation. I’ve seen disappointment in the faces of those who would rather keep the myths alive when I tell them that!

What Joe and I try to convey in these films, and what I have expressed in the book, is that the three species of Alaskan bears really do represent a wildness that exists in fewer and fewer places in the world. I’m originally from Europe where large mammals are relegated to often tiny pockets of “wilderness”. Britain hasn’t been wild enough for bears for 1000 years. Spain has a few dozen brown bears, and Italy too, but not until you reach parts of Eastern Europe in countries like Romania do bear numbers increase. With Alaska, we have the opportunity to plan a future that accommodates both people and wildlife – on a huge scale. We filmed in the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska (NPRA) for example. You could fit 10 Yellowstone’s in that area alone, and it is a tiny portion of this giant state. In Alaska, there are some 30,000 brown bears, 180,000 black bears, and 3000-4000 polar bears shared with Canada and Russia. That’s a lot of bears, but we can’t become complacent. Polar bears on the north slope where we filmed are at particular risk due to climate change – in several decades the population there will be in severe decline. In fact the polar bears of the future may only occur in the most isolated reaches of the circumpolar north around northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland as ice retreat will draw bears there.  I hope that people will immerse themselves in the world of the bear through Bears of the Last Frontier – the films and the book have been created with that goal in mind for sure.

Jordan Schaul: Were you at all surprised by the existing perception of bears in Alaska by indigenous people or Alaskan citizens? Is perception relevant to their conservation needs? What overarching conservation message do you hope to convey in the film?

Chris Morgan:
I think that our perception of bears is 90% of the conservation key. My career working with bears and people has spanned many years in various parts of the world. I take a pretty pragmatic position when it comes to conservation. After all, it makes sense for all species. During the time I’ve spent in Alaska – for the show, and on many other occasions, I’ve always been impressed at the pride of people in their wild heritage. Most of the individuals that Joe and I encountered were very open-minded about living in bear country. There’s a live and let live mentality in Alaska that works well for wildlife and people. During our Anchorage shoot we filmed “urban” bears in and around the city – this dot of civilization in a sea of wilderness. We found a lot of people who were eager to share their enthusiasm about wildlife – the bears, moose, lynx, wolves, and other species that share habitat with humans. Unfortunately, this shared use of wild areas can lead to conflict when bears access human sources of food, and more often than not the bears lose out. A bear can smell garbage or sunflower seeds from a mile away, and shaking the junk-food habit is difficult for an animal that is direct wired to obtain the maximum number of calories for the minimal amount of effort. As the smarter species, it is up to us to make sure bears don’t find themselves in this predicament.

In polar bear country we were privileged to spend time among the Inupiat Eskimos in towns like Kaktovik and Barrow. It’s an experience that will stay with me forever, and I know it had a profound impact on Joe too. Like the polar bear, the lives of native people are tied to the ocean and it’s ice. “It’s our garden out there” as one elder explained to me one day. They look to the sea for sustenance in a very real way. We learned a lot while filming Inupiat during a subsistence whale hunt – an ancient tradition that brings essential food to entire communities. The Inupiat are on the frontline of protecting the offshore ecosystem that is so important to them, and to polar bears, whales, and migratory birds.

The relationship with wilderness and it’s wildlife is something quite Alaskan in many ways. I think the isolation, and wide open spaces are what draw many people there in the first place, and I can easily understand it. The experiences Joe and I shared really come through in the emotion of the film. Joe is a master film maker – a creative genius, and someone who seeks real stories, and there were no shortage of them over the course of thousands of miles of adventure across Alaska.

Jordan Schaul: You have traveled the world in search of the greatest land carnivores some of which are highly adapted to rustic landscapes in climates that challenge the most adventurous of humans. What is it about Alaska’s remote wilderness that makes it synonymous with these iconic species?

Chris Morgan:
Bears conjure up a sense of wild. And for just about everyone, Alaska does the same thing. When it comes to bears, size matters. They can’t persist over the long term without wild, connected habitat, and Alaska has plenty of that to offer. Alaska is the size of Texas, California, and Montana combined – our next three largest states. It is a mind-boggling scale. And not only that, Alaska harbors a range of habitats that support countless other species too – from the giant temperate rainforests of the south east, through the high mountainous terrain of the Alaska and Brooks Ranges, to the tundra and pack ice. Our journey takes almost all of this in and we really hope that people will come away from the series with a deeper understanding of our northern jewel.

In the book I help readers to visualize just how large and free of humans Alaska really is. The human population density here is one per square mile. The same space in New Jersey supports 1000 people, and even the massive state of California has 217 people per square mile. In the lower 48, the closest density to Alaska is Wyoming, at 5.1 people per square mile. Clearly, Alaska is a place where conservation efforts that have become impossible elsewhere are still an option. People are often interested to know that bears occur in some unusual and unexpected places around the world where they also represent some quite astonishing areas of biodiversity and natural wonder. I’m working on another film project as part of a global campaign for bear conservation that’s called BEARTREK, which takes us to locations including Borneo where the smallest bears in the world (sun bears) are found in one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, to Peru, where Andean bears struggle to exist in a harsh mountainous desert. In my home state of Washington I launched a project ten years ago to bring awareness about the highly endangered population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades. Only around 10 bears are thought to exist in this 10,000 square mile wilderness, so local people are largely misinformed about grizzly bears (the much more common black bear is a different matter). By breaking through the layers of myth, folklore, and media portrayal of bears and presenting the scientific truth about these animals, our work replaces fear and concern with a greater, more accurate understanding.

My European background fuels my perception of what wild places are. Grizzlies (brown bears) were once found across most of Europe, but not any longer. The entire western half of North America was grizzly bear country two hundred years ago. Now they are found in just 5 distinct pockets of land in four states that are wild enough to support them. Canada and Alaska hold the future for bears, and we can do right by them if we are sensitive and smart.  Alaska also makes it seem like anything is possible – dreams come alive. My mission is to do what I can to make conservation a social norm. But I try to go about it in a positive, optimistic way. We all know the sky is falling. I like to find ways to prop it up. Part of that process is appealing to younger people. Allowing their minds to wander to the “possible”. Our journey through Alaska provided an opportunity to share an experience that teaches young people that big things are possible, and that there is so much each of us can do to appreciate and wisely steward this incredible globe that we all share as our only home.

Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from The Ohio State University and a MS in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and a wildlife conservation oriented radio program. Jordan is also an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Comments

  1. [...] am currently watching a program on SBS 1 called Bears of the Last Frontier – The Road North, part of a 3 episode saga. Alaska, wow. I went there once. Actually it was only 2 years ago. It [...]

  2. Albert Head
    Victoria, British Columbia
    July 26, 2012, 1:00 am

    “Last Frontier” my arse! Obviously, Chris Morgan hasn’t been to Canada which is six times the size of Alaska and 158000 sq Km bigger than the US. Canada’s Arctic/sub-Arctic (north or 60) is more than twice the size of Alaska. Vancouver Island has the greatest density of black bear anywhere in the world and Manitoba has the largest bears (some as big as griz). The Great Bear Rain Forest has more griz than you could imagine. Canada’s polar bears are numerous! I dont’t know where he got his info from, but he should at least TRY to get his facts right!!

  3. Jessica Dally
    May 6, 2011, 2:57 pm

    Wonderful article! You can find BEARTREK and Chris Morgan on Facebook as well. https://www.facebook.com/BEARTREK

  4. Denali Bear
    Denali Park, Alaska
    May 6, 2011, 12:36 pm

    If you are interested in viewing bears Denali National Park is a great place. Everyone rides a bus in and out which reduces traffic. When bears are seen the people stay on the bus and let the bears be bears. No matter how many times I have seen a bear it is always gives me a really wonderful feeling. The speed and grace of a bear running accross the tundra has to be seen. I have also watched them fish along the coast.