Letters from the West

Books show nature’s wonders

Euplotes protozoa scavenge ponds for bacteria. It’s one of the microorganisms in Steve Stuebner’s book, “Idaho Microbes.”
Euplotes protozoa scavenge ponds for bacteria. It’s one of the microorganisms in Steve Stuebner’s book, “Idaho Microbes.” Courtesy Boise State University

Two books hot off the presses show and tell remarkable stories about the smallest and largest creatures in the Northern Rockies.

“Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” by writer Todd Wilkinson and photographer Tom Mangelsen, shows how the great bear has gone from the brink of extinction to a frequent tourist attraction throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem because of our tolerance. “Idaho Microbes,” written by nature writer Steve Stuebner, tells how our own existence and well-being is connected to single-celled organisms in the ecosystem and our own bodies.

Stuebner wrote the book and Boise State Professor Todd Shallat edited it and picked out the beautiful pictures. Stuebner goes along with Boise protozoa hunter William Bourland, a retired surgeon, on his search to discover new microbiotic species in our own backyard. The former Idaho Statesman environmental writer then goes around the state to introduce us to other people with their own connections to microorganisms and fungi.

If microbes wrote biology books, human beings would be a small footnote, a recent development — not very numerous, but generally useful as incubators.

Steve Stuebner, writing in “Idaho Microbes”

There is Chris Florence of Sweet Valley Family Farms from Meridian, who forages for large fungi we call morels and grows organic vegetables. There is Jay Kestling, whose former company Western States Equipment built a $15 million anaerobic digester that turns manure into methane. Using single-celled methanocaldococcus jannaschii and other methanogens, the plant converts manure from dairy farms into methane that is used to produce electricity bought by Idaho Power — solving a waste problem and creating renewable energy.

Then there is the fungus saccharomyces cerevisiae, which we call brewer’s yeast. Marty Ganz, his wife, Ellen, and business partners Matt and Jennifer Hurlbutt use it to create Udaho Gold and other beers at their Salmon River Brewery in McCall. Idaho’s craft brewers thrive with the help of this tiny fungi, believed to be the earliest domesticated microorganism.

Stuebner tells his own backcountry tale with a protozoan that every Idaho backpacker seeks to avoid: giardia intestinalis. This revealing chapter will make you think twice about drinking out of your favorite backwoods stream without a filter.

Stuebner shows how the fungus blister rust came to the United States in 1910 and killed off many of Idaho’s distinctive white pines and has contributed to the rapid decline of whitebark pine. He tells how bioremediators like bacillus and pseudomonas are used in environmental cleanup of oil and gas spills.

And he shows how microbes in the soil are critical to lives and wild places. Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian, known for his DNA research, warns in his forward that if we change the environment or our bodies too much, microbes could destroy us.

The Discovery Center is hosting a book launch for “Idaho Microbes,” published by Boise State University, Dec. 8 at noon.

The main character in Wilkinson and Mangelsen’s stunning book is Bear 399, a grizzly sow who has had many young since she was born in Wyoming in 1996. Mangelsen, a world-renowned wildlife photographer, has followed 399 around Grand Teton National Park since 2006.

His photos are perhaps the best series of a grizzly bear and its family ever photographed. Mangelsen loves bears and doesn’t hide his emotional attachment to a bear that has become one of the most famous in history.

She is a celebrity because so many people have had the chance to watch her and her cubs. I saw her along the road near Pilgrim Creek in Grand Teton Park in 2011. Her celebrity has turned many visitors into grizzly bear conservationists and perhaps prevented officials from killing her when a hiker was attacked after inadvertently surprising her and her cubs.

The survival of grizzly bears depends less upon what bears do; its more about our willingness to be accommodating.

Todd Wilkinson in “The Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering removing the protection of the Endangered Species Act from Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population, arguing that all of the habitat in the recovery area is filled. Mangelsen opposes delisting and abhors the idea of restoring management to the states, who are expected to allowed limited hunting seasons.

Wilkinson, a sharp-edged environmental journalist, tells both sides’ stories in his rich narrative, interviewing hunting guides, biologists, environmentalists and others whose lives have been touched by grizzlies like 399. Like me, he is not ashamed to say he loves grizzly bears and Yellowstone, and those feelings come through in his prose.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Get the books

The Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise has copies of “Idaho Microbes” and expects to have “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” soon.

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