Dave Garshelis, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Consider the old adage about the chicken and the egg: how can a chicken appear in the absence of an egg, and how can a chicken egg be laid with no chicken to lay it? The enigma is basically that a species cannot arise instantaneously from nothingness. The same could be said of organizations. For example, the IBA and BSG did not simply spring into existence from Nothing.
The “egg” of the IBA was an ad hoc “gathering” (later dubbed a workshop) of 49 North American biologists, organized by Art Pearson in the Canadian Yukon in 1968. That egg matured and eventually hatched the idea of a professional society of bear biologists.
What was the “egg” of the BSG? That question was discussed at the recent BSG business meeting at the conference in Ljubljana, where BSG and IBA members described the 2 organizations as “close”, “broadly overlapping”, “sister organizations”, “Siamese twins”, or “parent–offspring”. Given some confusion as to the present relationship between these 2 organizations, it seems useful to look back in the history and try to uncover how and why the BSG got started.
Unfortunately, several details of that history have become hazy with time. The following is reconstructed from some written accounts (especially LeCount 1999, and some old newsletters), and discussions with several key people with (faded) memories of what transpired.
1968: This was a breakthrough year for bears. Not only was this the year of the first gathering/workshop on brown/grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and American black bears (Ursus americanus), but it also marked the establishment of the Polar Bear Specialist Group (which celebrated its 50 year anniversary this year). The PBSG was formed under the IUCN/Species Survival Commission (SSC) –– it stemmed from an initial meeting of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) biologists in 1965, whereupon it was decided that the IUCN would act as the “coordinating agency for international exchange of information”, and that the IUCN would organize future polar bear meetings every 2 years.
1970: The “Second International Conference on Bear Research and Management” was organized by Steve Herrero, and held at the University of Calgary. Steve edited the papers and made connections with the IUCN to publish the proceedings in 1972 (it can still be downloaded in full as an IUCN publication: https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/NS-023.pdf). The proceedings were mainly focused on North American brown bears and black bears, but also included papers on polar bears, 2 papers on brown bears in Europe, and an abstract on brown bears in Japan. It also included a seminal paper on “The status and conservation of bears (Ursidae) of the world –– 1970”, the first review of the conservation status of the world’s 8 bear species, which was presented at the banquet by Ian McTaggart Cowan. Ian was a professor at the University of British Columbia, and PhD advisor (during the 1960s) of Chuck Jonkel (a vital player in this story, see below); Ian’s synopsis, which lamented the threats to and also lack of information about the bear species outside North America likely impacted Chuck’s thinking.
1973: An historic “Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears” (still in effect today) was signed by representatives of the 5 polar bear range states (Canada, the United States, Denmark [Greenland], Norway, and Russia), mainly as an effort to reduce over-hunting, which was the major threat at the time, and also to enhance coordinated research, monitoring, and management. This agreement was facilitated by the IUCN (in politically neutral Switzerland) in consultation with these governments, and expedited by information on population status and threats provided by the PBSG; both of these organizations helped draft terms of the eventual agreement (Larson and Stirling 2009). Chuck Jonkel, working for the Canadian Wildlife Service on polar bears, was deeply involved in the IUCN/PBSG efforts, witnessing the effectiveness of these still fledgling organizations in leveraging significant governmental actions to aid bear conservation.
1974: The proceedings of the Third International Bear Conference was actually a collection of papers given at 2 separate meetings, 1 in New York and 1 in Moscow, increasing the geographical breadth of papers, yet it still only covered the same 3 species (brown, American black, polar). It was again published (in 1976) as part of an IUCN series (https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/NS-040.pdf). At the close of the meeting in New York, Mike Pelton, one of the co-conveners, called for a vote on forming an official organization; the vote was unanimous in favor. A small group was formed to write bylaws for this new organization of professional bear biologists, and began publication of a once-a-year newsletter.
1977: The Fourth International Conference was held in Kalispell Montana, and for the first time, the proceedings was published (in 1980) under the banner of the “Bear Biology Association Conference Series” (instead of the IUCN). At this conference the BBA (former name of the IBA) officially came into existence: membership fees were established, Chuck Jonkel (who chaired the bylaws committee) was elected as the first president, and the first Council meeting was held.
During this first Council meeting it was decided to approach IUCN about the establishment of a Specialist Group for the terrestrial bears. A number of taxa-specific Specialist Groups were being formed at the time. Jonkel had been part of the PBSG’s success with the conservation agreement, and saw merit in forming such a group to aid in the conservation of other bears. Notably, the Fourth Conference, while somewhat broader in scope than the previous ones, still lacked papers on half the bear species (sloth, Melursus ursinus; sun, Helarctos malayanus; Andean, Tremarctos ornatus; and giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca).
Sir Peter Scott, first Chair of the SSC, accepted the proposal to establish a Bear Specialist Group (for the 7 non-polar bear species), and for Jonkel to chair it. In his role as BSG Chair, Jonkel (1985) posed the novel idea that agencies managing American black bears should consider “aiding research and management efforts for other bear species within their black bear programs.” It does not appear that he actually formed a “group” per se, but interacted with the SSC, which only had a few functioning specialist groups at the time. (Interestingly, an ad hoc Spectacled Bear Group, formed in 1982, later petitioned the SSC to become an independent Specialist Group, but this was denied. There remain, though a few single species specialist groups, the PBSG being one.)
1989: New SSC Chair George Rabb appointed new BSG co-chairs, Chris Servheen and Steve Herrero, with the aim of creating a more active group of specialists, focusing particular attention on conservation of bears outside North America. Chris and Steve, both IBA Council members at the time, had credentials that suited them well for this responsibility. Chris was chosen because of his unique knowledge of the status of bears of the world (he published an IBA monograph on the subject in 1990), threats to Asian bears (he was involved in a comprehensive study of the Asian trade in bear parts, published in 1991), as well as work on small populations of bears in Europe. Steve, who had just finished his term as fourth IBA president and also had experience with bears in Europe, was especially well known for his recently-published book on bear attacks (1985).
Chris and Steve searched for people with some knowledge of bears worldwide, and eventually put together a group of 350 “specialists” (in quotes because many did not actually specialize in bears). The group included IBA members as well as many others from outside the IBA. A core group included 2 noted experts on Andean bears, Bernie Peyton and Jorge Orejuela.
1990: The BSG began publishing its own newsletter. (In 1995 the IBA and BSG newsletters merged).
1999: As tasked by the IUCN, the BSG and PBSG together created “Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan”. This publication, which took nearly a decade to produce, was a milestone for the BSG, involving authors worldwide, reports on the global and country-specific status of all 8 species, and global range maps. This document (https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/1999-004.pdf) was one of more than 60 such taxa-specific action plans developed by Specialist Groups under the auspices of IUCN through 2008 (when the process for developing such plans was significantly revised).
The next 20 years will be reviewed at another time, as the purpose here was only to investigate the origins of the BSG. The IBA and BSG arose at the same time, with common ancestors (same key people) as drivers, and many points of interaction.
The “ultimate chicken” in this story might be the desire for improved science-based bear management and conservation that lived in the minds of those early pioneers who we are now so indebted to: notably Chuck Jonkel (who died in 2016), Steve Herrero, and Chris Servheen on the terrestrial bear side, plus those who had the forethought in organizing the PBSG, and of course those who conceptualized, hatched, and grew the IUCN (originally International Union for the Protection of Nature, 1948) and SSC (originally Survival Service, 1949) in an attempt to help governments save vanishing species.
The BSG was designed to bring together biologists across the globe to focus more effort on bears outside North America (where IBA had most of its members), to engage and train more people in other countries, and to focus on alleviating threats in areas where conservation actions were lacking (often nonexistent).
It is useful to trace back roots and credit those who had the bold ideas that led to the organizations we rely on today for our professional communication (the original concept behind the 1968 workshop) and for fostering science and conservation of bears. Documenting these events from the past may help in thinking about how the 2 organizations should partner to move forward and tackle the issues of the present and future.
I thank the following people (listed alphabetically) who provided information, comments, or useful edits on an earlier draft: Steve Herrero, Djuro Huber, Al LeCount, Bruce McLellan, Mike Pelton, Michael Proctor, Harry Reynolds, Chris Servheen, Rob Steinmetz, and Frank van Manen. Nevertheless, I take responsibility for all errors or misinterpretations. I joined IBA (BBA) when it was first born at the Kalispell meeting in 1977, but didn’t know then about the coincident birth of the BSG.
Jonkel, C. 1985. Black bear research and management relative to “other bears”. Page 4 in Abstracts of the 3rd Western Black Bear Workshop, Missoula, MT, USA.
Jonkel, C., and I. McT. Cowan. 1971. The black bear in the spruce-fir forest. Wildlife Monographs 27:1–57.
Larsen, T.S., and I. Stirling. 2009. The agreement on the conservation of polar bears – its history and future. Rapportserie nr. 127, Norsk Polarinstitutt, Tromsø, Norway. https://polarbearsinternational.org/media/3215/2009-larsen-and-stirling_pb-agreement-history.pdf
LeCount, A. 1999. History of the IBA 1968–1998. Ursus 11:11–20.
Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Grand Rapids, MN 55744, USA
International Bear News 2018 Fall Vol. 27 No. 3 on pages 6-8