Book Review: ‘Engineering Eden’

by Kit Stolz for High Country News


“Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature”

Jordan Fisher Smith

370 pages, hardcover: $28

Crown New York, 2016

In June 1972, a young man from Alabama named Harry Walker visited Yellowstone. One night, returning to his illegal campsite near Old Faithful, he was mauled and partially eaten by a grizzly bear. His death marked a nadir for the National Park Service, which increasingly found itself having to kill grizzlies that came into conflict with humans, even though the species was in decline. Grizzly advocate Martha Shell, convinced that the agency was covering up its mismanagement, soon filed a lawsuit.

It didn’t go well for the Park Service, which was found guilty of negligence. Forty years later, drawing on the trial transcripts, interviews and archival research, writer (and former park ranger) Jordan Fisher Smith brilliantly excavates an underlying debate that still plays out among wildlife managers: Should agencies manipulate wildlife and vegetation, choosing between species in wilderness — or should they do their best not to intervene, and let nature decide?

In “Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature,” Smith unearths a series of painful ironies. For one, the Park Service had already begun trying to wean grizzlies from human food in Yellowstone — an effort that inadvertently may have contributed to Walker’s death. In 1967, a new supervising biologist named Glen Cole ordered the central Trout Creek garbage dump, where grizzly bears by the dozens fed, to be closed.

Frank and John Craighead, two far-sighted biologists deeply versed in Yellowstone wildlife, disagreed with the closure. They saw the dump as a bear magnet, drawing grizzlies away from campsites and cabins. In a 1967 report, they warned that if dumps were closed without alternate provisions for garbage-conditioned bears, “the net result could be tragic personal injury, costly damages and a drastic reduction in the number of grizzlies.”

All of which came true, sadly. Not only was Walker’s death attributed to the dump closure during the trial — although the ruling was overturned on appeal — but the grizzlies also suffered grievously. In 1970 alone, 57 grizzlies died “unnatural deaths” in Yellowstone, and by 1975, with just 136 bears left, the species was declared endangered.

The year after Walker was killed, photographer and activist Galen Rowell discovered a secret dumping ground for dozens of black bears euthanized by the Park Service in Yosemite. He found piles of decaying bear corpses beneath a roadside cliff, some hanging in trees, and he forced the Park Service to confront the “ghastly spectacle.”

Smith describes the ensuing reformation in wildlife management in Yellowstone and Yosemite with masterful grace, weaving together tales of fire, forestry and bears. He concludes by arguing that the choice between “full-on intervention” or “a healthy reticence to jump in and do things” all depends on the environment in question. “No natural law requires us to embrace one or the other.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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