Aaron Elkins: Unnatural Selection

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Aaron Elkins Unnatural Selection
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    Unnatural Selection
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Unnatural Selection

Aaron Elkins


ONE

The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana August 28, 2002

For six days and nights she had roamed, feverish and disoriented, drinking little and eating next to nothing. A few fibrous tree mushrooms, some ants and cutworms she had slashed from rotting logs, a wilting patch of skunk cabbage, the already scavenged corpse of a baby elk she had stumbled across. But where were the berries she depended on, the sweet, juicy, nutrition-rich blackberries and huckleberries that would sustain her through her long winter sleep? Always before there had been berries. She would gorge on them for weeks on end through the long, warm, sunny fall afternoons. This year, what few there were were shriveled and hard.

And the trails and the markers, what had happened to them? Where were the trees whose bark she had clawed to mark her territory? Where were the worn, well-known paths she had trodden her whole life, back to the time when she and her brothers had wrestled and play-growled on them at their mother’s side? They had been there forever, and then one day she had awakened from a nap and everything had changed. Smells, sights, sounds, places-all new and frightening. Nothing was familiar. How could that be?

These were not thoughts and questions in her mind, for her mind could not form thoughts or questions, but in some dim recess of her brain she was aware that things were not as they were supposed to be, as they had always been. She knew too, if “knew” was the right word, that she was in pain, but she had forgotten the fall down the cliffside that had splintered her humerus and driven its jagged ends into her flesh, and she understood nothing of the fever and the raging infection that had spread through her bloodstream from it.

What she knew-all she knew-was: hunger; thirst; pain; confusion.

On the seventh morning, dazed and starving, following smells she had never encountered before, she limped heavily into a clearing and sensed at once the utter alienness of the place. In it were objects she had never seen, never imagined. She stood perfectly still, at the very edge of the forest wall, into the protection of which she could escape if she had to, her snout lifted, sniffing the alluring, alarming odors.

On the far side of the space, beyond the jumble of unfamiliar things in the center, an amazing creature appeared; the only being she had ever seen, other than her own kind, that could stand on its hind legs. The creature made tentative sounds.

“Oh, wow. Hey, you. Shoo.”

The bear too reared nervously onto her hind legs to see the strange thing better, to sniff better at its scent. Was this a threat, an enemy? Was it food? She threw back her head and loosed the fierce, long, huffing roar that was half-uncertainty, half-belligerence.

The smaller creature shrank back, made more sounds. “Oh, my God! Doug… Doug! Where’s the-”

It was food, the she-bear decided. She dropped onto her three uninjured legs and loped painfully, purposefully toward it.


The Missoula Messenger, August 31, 2002

CANADIAN COUPLE KILLED, PARTIALLY EATEN BY GRIZZLY

Bill Giles

The Associated Press


Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, MT-In a horrific incident at Lost Horse Creek campground, on the Idaho-Montana border about forty miles southwest of Missoula, two campers were attacked and killed Wednesday morning by a marauding grizzly bear.

The dead are Douglas Edward Borba and his wife, Mary Walker Borba, both twenty-six-year-old graduate students in environmental sciences at McGill University in Montreal. In an ironic twist of fate, the Borbas were in the Wilderness as part of a preliminary study to assess the ecological impact of the recent restoration of grizzlies to the area. Accompanying them was the director of the study, J. Leonard Kazin, 50, an associate professor at the university, and two other students, Edward K. Jekyll and Elise Martineau. Mr. Kazin was unharmed, as were Mr. Jekyll and Ms. Martineau, who had both gone to Darby for supplies at the time of the incident.

The attack occurred shortly after dawn on August 28, said Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness spokesperson Dawn Grisi in a prepared statement. “The bear apparently attacked without provocation. To our knowledge, this is the first time that a grizzly bear has fatally attacked humans in the Wilderness.”

Kazin, sleeping in a separate tent, was awakened by the sounds of screams and scuffling and emerged to find Mr. Borba frantically punching at the bear, which was hunched over the prostrate form of his wife. Kazin saw the bear slap at Borba, sending him several feet through the air and apparently fracturing his skull and shoulder blade.

“I ran back into my tent and got the pepper spray,” said a distraught Kazin, clad in a borrowed ranger uniform, “but by then the bear was gnawing at Mary’s body and you could see that she was beyond help by then. I was able to drag Doug a few yards away, but I think he was already dead, too. There was just nothing I could do. I tried calling 911 but the damn cell phone wouldn’t work. I’m telling you, there was absolutely nothing I could do to help them. I feel terrible. But all I could do was grab my shoes and trek on out to the pickup and drive back up to Darby, to the West Fork Ranger Station, to tell them what happened. I was in my underwear. I still don’t have my own clothes.”

When rangers arrived at the scene they found both bodies partially eaten. They were able to track the radio-collared bear for a quarter of a mile, then shoot it.

“Doug and Mary were the cream of the crop of our grad students,” Kazin told this reporter. “Mary was on her way to becoming a topflight ecologist, following in her father’s footsteps, and Doug had already been offered a lecturer slot on the faculty for next year. It’s not only an awful personal tragedy, it’s a terrible loss to science.”

The incident is sure to inflame the ongoing controversy over the federal plan to gradually restore the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness’s grizzly bear population. An earlier proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service was scrapped in 2001 in the face of opposition from the governors of Idaho and Montana, and from citizens’ groups citing danger to humans and domestic animals.

However, a modified version of the plan was reintroduced and partially implemented earlier this year, largely due to the campaign spearheaded by prominent wildlife advocate and author Edgar Villarreal (Wild No More: America’s Vanishing Wilderness Heritage), who twice appeared before committees of Congress in support of the program. The dead bear’s collar identifies it as one of the initial group of five taken from the North Cascades in Washington State and resettled in Selway-Bitterroot earlier this month.

“Grizzly bears, like other bears, generally avoid humans,” spokesperson Grisi said in a prepared statement. “Attacks on human beings are extremely rare. Since 1970, they have averaged only one a year in the entire United States, mostly to hunters, and mostly non-fatal. We are assuming that this particular animal may have been maddened with pain as the result of a recently broken and infected leg, and also may have been starving due to this year’s extremely dry local conditions, which have virtually destroyed the area’s berry crop. The National Park Service offers its sincere condolences to the families and will do everything possible to ensure that no such incident occurs in the future.”

Villarreal, contacted at his home in Alaska, said that the incident was “unfortunate” and declined further comment.

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