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Trusting Wildness But Not Us

Photo: William C. Gladish

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a nice article about grizzly bears in Montana. Humans decimated the grizzly bear numbers in the U.S. as we exercised our “manifest destiny” in conquering the West.  By the time we were done, grizzly bears were reduced to small fragmented populations—4, maybe 5—in the continental United States.

But after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the subsequent listing of the grizzly bear, their populations have started to recover.  This is particularly true for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to remove protections for this isolated population and hand over management to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Does this basic story sound familiar?

A large brown bear stands by a river, looking at camera
Grizzy bear, Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Robert Long

The NYT article focuses on the fact that male grizzly bears are dispersing from the current range of bears from the Yellowstone ecosystem to the south and the Glacier Park region to the north, raising the possibility of these 2 isolated populations reconnecting and restoring necessary genetic diversity.  The article points out that to bridge the divide, the bears must reckon with roads, housing developments, agriculture and private property rights.  And they must reckon with humans’ desire to kill things.

The way things are going, these bears will likely face these obstacles without protections under the ESA.  Instead, they will be “managed” by a state wildlife department. However, the last time a large carnivore that supposedly “recovered” under the ESA was delisted in the West, state game agencies promptly encouraged the hunting and trapping of that large carnivore (wolves), with a goal of driving its population straight down to a bare minimum—a politically bargained for baseline that had nothing to do with biology, ecosystem function, and certainly not ethics toward another species with whom we share this place.

Nature Finds a Way—If We Let It

As the father of a now 20-something-year-old young man who has always loved movies, I’ve seen Jurassic Park many, many times. I will always recall when Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) famously remarked that “nature finds a way,” in response to a protestation that the bioengineered dinosaurs couldn’t reproduce.

Indeed, if left to its own devices, nature will find its way. Left to their own devices, these dispersing grizzly bears will reconnect.  All we have to do is get out of the way.  But that’s the problem: We won’t leave them alone.

Small black bear dead on the side of the road, with a pick-up truck passing by
A black bear cub killed in a wildlife-vehicle collision in North Carolina. The same fate could await grizzly bears endeavoring to cross roads between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Photo: Ron Sutherland

We will run over them with cars and trucks.  We will shoot them—if not for sport, then under the guise of self-defense of life and chattel. (Indeed, the NRA is already framing the hunting debate as one of human safety.)  We will “relocate” them when they become an annoyance for showing up in the subdivisions that now pockmark their former habitat.

And the states charged with managing them will defer, over and over, to the human interests whose money puts their bosses in office.  We’ve seen this movie before; it is but a sequel to the days of settling the west and the delisting of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies.

The states say, “Trust us; we won’t allow hunting in the region where the bears may reconnect.”  The states ask that we trust them not to give in to all the interests that will always be intolerant of anything that interferes with their unfettered dominion over everything. They ask us to trust that federal intervention under the ESA is unnecessary.

I trust them to be human.  I trust them to do what they have always done.  I trust them to allow people to kill grizzly bears.  Of course, “kill” is too coarse a word.  We will hear euphemisms such as “sustainable harvest” by hunters and “removal of problem bears” by state wildlife officials.

But dead is dead.

So What Do We Do?

Given all of this, can the bears of Yellowstone and the Glacier Park bridge the divide?

Well, for better or worse, that’s up to us. We do need to “manage” a species, but it’s not the bears. We need to manage humans.  If we want a wild west, now and for future generations, we must proactively restrain ourselves.  How do we do that?

First, we must recognize that those who recreate or live where bears are reclaiming habitat will face new, and perhaps, scary risks.  I’ve hiked and fished in bear country; slept in tents while African lions silently walked through camp; and come face to face with tiger sharks, defenseless and dependent on an air supply attached to my back.  Do not summarily dismiss the effect of being in the presence of animals with the power to do you great harm.  Instead, let’s replace fears with knowledge of how to manage the risks of being in bear country.

And for those who have chosen to make their livelihood and live in bear country, we cannot ignore their reality—the presence of bears may cause them economic harm.  We need to support all efforts to educate and help folks live with bears, using tools other than guns and traps.  And we must be open to conversations of compensation for economic loss.

A large brown bear stands on a gray rock, angled down about 45 degrees, and overlooks a valley below him, which is just out of sight below the frame. Snow-capped mountains line the horizon behind the bear.
A grizzly bear overlooks Glacier National Park. If ESA protections are removed for the grizzly, they may not bridge the divide between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Photo: Erwin and Peggy Bauer

But all of us, regardless of where we live and how we make a living, also need to remember that the vast majority of the land on which grizzly bears roam are public lands, owned as much by you and me as those who live next to them.

For those who work the land—private holdings and leased public lands—they must remember that their businesses likely balance their books in part due to the federal subsidies that all taxpayers fund by allowing these businesses to use our public lands at a cost far below market value.  Us “city dwellers” also have legitimate interests, like the presence of grizzly bears as part of the landscape on our public lands, that also require consideration.

Finally, all of us need to remember that whatever our choices, life has risks.  They vary depending on the territory, but it is up to each of us to own them and to take prudent measures to minimize them.

But let’s face it: hoping for tolerance and self-restraint alone isn’t going to get the job done. We need the rule of law.  And we need enforcement of those laws.  These fundamental beliefs have driven my career ever since I read Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men during winter break as an undergraduate and subsequently chose law school over becoming a wolf biologist. So what are those of us who want grizzly bears in the wild to do?

The Critical Importance of the ESA

That brings me back to the ESA, which makes it a federal, criminal offense to “take” (kill, harass, etc.) an endangered animal like the grizzly bear.

A brown and gray grizzly bear walks through the middle of the frame in a field of tall wild weeds, with scattered tall trees visible behind it.
A grizzly bear, currently protected by the ESA, saunters through a field in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Terry Tollefsbol

I believe  few truly understand what an incredible piece of legislation was passed by our elected officials in 1973.  By enacting the ESA, with overwhelming bipartisan support, we the people declared that when necessary to save a species, that species’ needs trump human interests.  It was a promise to life, a promise to proactively do what we need to do so that nature can find its way to restore those species that we have driven to the brink.  It is a piece of legislation that also says humans cannot be trusted to do what is right by the rest of life if it’s inconvenient to do so.

And those who find themselves inconvenienced by the needs of the rest of life hate the ESA. For 45 years, they have worked to—and largely succeeded—in neutering it.  This has been a slow demise, but it has occurred under every administration. Some actively aided and abetted the haters; others didn’t care enough to fight back.

But the ESA still has teeth, which is why the Republican triumvirate in Washington, D.C. is hell bent on killing it off once and for all.  This we cannot allow.

Speak Up!!

We must demand that our elected officials protect what is left of the ESA.  We must demand that species not be delisted by legislative fiat.  We must support those who fight in court against the delisting of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears.  And we must support new laws that do what the ESA cannot: protect whole ecosystems to ensure that wildlife can safely move through wildlife corridors to protected core habitats.

The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, introduced into Congress by Rep. Don Beyer, would be a good start.  We are a Nation of Laws, aren’t we?

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