Saturday, 18 June 2016

REVIEW: "Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature" by Jordan Fisher Smith

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature
by Jordan Fisher Smith
ISBN: 978-0307454263
Copyright June 2016
Hardcover, 384 Pages

Engineering Eden is an exceptional work examining the science of wildlife management, its narrative adeptly framed against the Martin v. United States case on Harry Walker's death at the hands of a grizzly. The book extraordinarily weaved together and expounded on various complexities and dichotomies of perspective within the discipline of wildlife management, and is supplemented with incredible research, comprehensiveness, and detail.

Most outstanding is the lucid presentation of the diverse polarities of arguments on various pertinent aspects of the governance of wildlife. The concept of Clementsian succession, “the balance of nature,” and the notion that ecosystems tend toward “homeostatic balance,” for example, was contrasted against ideas in favor of “purposeful restoration” of nature, “active intervention based on sound science,” and the “scientific manipulation” of ecosystems.

Elk management is one of the many subject matters garnering aggressive debates from two opposing schools of thought. On one hand, the “unchecked population growth” of elk has mandated herd reductions by mass shootings. On the other hand, a “natural regulation” hypothesis proposed that elk herds are “self-regulating units,” and indicated that natural phenomena like “winter weather and starvation” are adapted to regulating the herds. Elk overgrazing is viewed by some as a “problem,” and by others as normal“Who said that chewed-down vegetation was a sign that something was wrong?”

When it came to fire in wild ecosystems, those championing for prescribed, or controlled burning, fought against those who believe ardently in fire suppression. Those recognizing the importance of predators in regulating prey populations conflicted with those advocating for predator control programs to exterminate “wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and grizzlies.” With regard to human's relationship to the wilderness, there are the philosophically intriguing, and antithetical viewpoints of the necessity to be “guardians not gardeners,” versus “to be a guardian, you must be a gardener.”

Probably most contentious—and most interesting to the general reader—is the exploration of the management, or rather mismanagement, of Yellowstone's grizzlies, otherwise known as “America's largest and most charismatic carnivore.” Spotlighted is one very dire and perilous problem; The habituation of bears to “human food” disconcertingly corresponded to the animals' loss of fear, and increasing display of aggressiveness, toward human beings.

The national park was intent on bringing about a change; A trash separation program was implemented, followed by an excessively rapid dump closure. The author however highlighted the near impossibility to “restore a food-conditioned black bear to shyness around people,” and the fact that authorities cannot realistically expect bears to return immediately to “an all-natural diet.” Coupled with the failure to execute certain prescribed measures such as enacting “carrion bait stations,” or continuing radio tracking and intensive study of the bears, grave consequences await.

Whilst the book is mostly intellectually-centered, it does contain the occasional suspenseful and graphic narratives of bear attacks. There was the gruesome assault of Harry Eugene Walker by bear 1792. And there was the petrifying case where a sow with cubs mauled Smitty Parratt, a 10-year-old boy. Parratt survived the attack, but suffered “lacerations, puncture wounds to the chest, a collapsed lung, multiple fractured ribs, shattered bones in his face and arm, and neurological damage;” he underwent more than 30 procedures including “bone grafts, cosmetic surgery, implantation of a prosthetic eye, reconstruction of a tear duct, and treatment for a life-threatening bone infection.”

In another notorious instance of bear attacks was the eerily coincidental 1967 attacks at Glacier National Park, which killed both Julie Helgeson, and Michele Koons, a 19-year-old college student. Helgeson was dragged 342 feet from her campsite, and “the flesh of one of her forearms was eaten off, leaving bare bones.” Koons met an awfully brutal fate—“so much of her had been eaten that it was no longer possible to tell the body was female.”

The author excellently highlighted prominent figures pertinent to the narrative. He wrote extensively about Starker Leopold, and his father, Aldo Leopold. Starker was noted as America's most prominent public-policy expert on wildlife and public lands, and the author of the Leopold Report. His father, on the other hand, was hired as the world's first “professor of game management,” and was the author of the world's first college textbook on wildlife management, Game Management.

The Craighead brothers—“predator biologists,” “modern population ecologists,” and “at that time America's most famous wildlife scientists”—were lauded for their work and research on Yellowstone grizzlies. Amongst the myriad other figures introduced in the book, the author also covered for example, the Old Faithful subdistrict ranger, Jim Brady, employed at the time of Walker's fateful incident; David Graber, one whom subsequently invented a type of bear-proof food storage box, and who raised the suggestion of installing bear-resistant heavy steel lockers for secure food storage.

The legal case of Harry Walker, presided over by Judge Andrew Hauk, was decently addressed, albeit with seemingly inadequate coverage. Stephen Zetterberg—“a good lawyer with a small trade in suing the National Park Service”—represented the plaintiffs, and William Spivak spoke for the defense. One of the Craighead brothers appeared on the stands as one of the plaintiff expert witnesses, whilst Starker Leopold testified for the defendant. It was most intriguing however to learn the role Martha Shell played in instigating and facilitating the Walker family's filing of their lawsuit against the National Park Service; Shell insensitively mailed a copy of Jack Olsen's Night of the Grizzlieswhich contained extraordinarily “graphic” and “gruesome” descriptions of bear victims—to Walker's bereaved mother. The mother later wrote a note, “Me in the hospital with heart pain after my son Harry had his heart EATEN by a bear.”

The book comprises a range of other immensely interesting material. The author wrote about the controversial discovery of a “macabre scene,” a black bear body dump, found at mile marker B-1 on Highway 120 at Yosemite Valley, and the mystery of a human, or non-human “scalp,” found on a blanket at a campsite. It was illuminating to learn for example, the significance of the “time of hyperphagia” on food-conditioned bears encroaching farther upon human territory, and the exceptional historical and geographical details, in addition to the failed and improved legislations, pertaining to Yellowstone National Park.

The book could have been tremendously more enjoyable should more details of the Harry Walker legal trial be included, for example, on the direct and cross-examination of witnesses, and expert witnesses. Especially in the case of the entire narrative of the book appearing to be anchored by and structured to lead to the ultimate culmination of the Walker case and its resolution, coverage of the trial appeared to be rather disproportionately scant as compared to content in the book addressing “the fight over controlling nature.”

The reader would have potentially expected the extensive coverage of the multitudinous aspects of wildlife management in the book to be a build-up to the verdict of the trial disclosed at the end of the book, the subtle connection of the substantial information laid out in the earlier chapters in the context of the lawsuit however was not aptly established. The appeal of the initial verdict was also dealt with very cursorily and abruptly, and without any redirection nor warning, the author suddenly flitted to other subject matters.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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