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    Bear Witness: Observing Wildlife, Seeing Ourselves

    The world contracts to a narrow round window containing a horizontal spruce branch and its occupant, a red squirrel, who returns the stare of the binoculars without blinking while efficiently twirling a spruce cone between her forepaws. A flurry of scales float towards the forest floor as she neatly plucks out each nut with precise movements of her teeth. I am not in a mind to notice the marvel of coevolution between tree and mammal playing out in front of me. Nor do I appreciate the way the spring sun makes each strand of her bushy tail glow like a live wire, the way it silhouettes her ears with a neon fringe.

    Those ears are my focus, and the glorious play of light on fur is confounding all my efforts to distinguish the colour of small segments of wire that protrude from her metal ear tags. I attached the tiny antennae the first time I trapped her this spring in order to allow me to identify her from a distance. I did the same with every squirrel I could capture within the study area assigned to me for the summer. It is a yearly ritual carried out by all new recruits to this longterm research project – we move on after a few months but the ongoing life-story of each squirrel continues in both forest and dataset. For now it looks like this record will belong to the ubiquitous Unknown Female who appears frustratingly frequently throughout my notes.

    I sigh, defeated, deciding to try again on my way out at the end of the day. The binoculars fog up with the exhalation. I let them fall against my vest as I pull out a pencil and enter the observation in neat block capitals in my notebook. The last of the winter’s snow crunches loudly beneath my boots and the lingering chill of winter nips at my fingers through thin gloves. I turn back to the old pipeline trail that cuts a straight line through the marsh between my study grid and the Alaska Highway, shaking my head to dispel the intense focus of peering through field glasses. I raise my gaze to take in the Kluane mountains and discover that the objective observer is actually the subject. I am being watched impassively by a large grizzly standing quietly about 10 metres down the trail.

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