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Here I describe the principles and values that fundamentally shape how I orient to grizzly bears and humans--especially human behaviors, choices, attitudes, and institutions.  My personal guideposts are compassion, discernment, the precautionary approach, seeking truth, and improving democratic processes so as to serve the broader public interest.


If my tone is sometimes a bit inflamed, it comes from a sense of anguish about the failure of our governance systems to fulfill the public trust. Grief about basic lack of compassion for other beings as we collectively exterminate species and other cultures. And frustration about our tendency to see the problem as “out there” (government regulation, economics, others’ behavior), rather than inside each of us.


As a frail human being, I do not come anywhere close to living by the core values articulated here.   But they do serve as cairns in the wilderness, stones piled by those who found a route this way before.  Guides such as Aristotle and Plato, and more recently Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ken Wilbur, and deep ecologists such as Bill Duvall and George Sessions. And of course, my many teachers who emphasize the importance of personal practice.  


Louisa Willcox



To me, compassion is about respect, appreciation, and a recognition of our connection with bears and all other beings. That which happens to bears happens to us. The lesson of ecology is that everything is connected. It is no accident that native peoples around the world saw bears as relatives, for we are all, indeed, related. Watching what bears do – play, nurture and teach their young, check out new smells, test relationships with other bears, walk on hind legs to get a better look at something – we are reminded of ourselves and our own aspirations.


While we all want to see ourselves as compassionate people, the practice of compassion is tricky. What are the bounds of our compassion? Our immediate family and friends, our community, our country, all living beings? What is our daily practice? Do we extend compassion to a few and diminish others who irritate or threaten us?  Do we demonstrate compassion and respect in one part of our life and cruelty in another?


How do the pervasiveness of technology and the ethos of control over nature affect our sense of compassion in today’s society? Will more connections with nature—and with bears—rejuvenate our feelings of connection and capacity for empathy?


I hate going to meetings of committees that oversee grizzly bear management because of the lack of respect shown to the public. Critical questions are often dismissed, dodged or belittled. If you look closely, you will see the rolling of eyes. Everyone feels deprived of respect. The battle lines tend to harden over time, as people become symbols rather than living beings. There is little if any empathy or compassion. 


Watching bears is a good antidote. I am reminded of my relationship with animals, their ties to each other, and the compassion I want to live by.  




To me, discernment is about seeing what is, not what I project onto a situation or another being. It involves a certain level of detachment but not disassociation. To be discerning is to exercise native intelligence. Discernment involves seeing things at multiple scales. Up close and far away, at the same time. Seeing means being in the present moment, not caught in the past or future. It is human to obsess on what happened this week or what is likely coming up next, and overlook the arc of a year or decade.  Discernment is especially tricky because it means being present and making decisions in real time while being aware of the broader context. 


As I work with the idea of discernment, I see that in practice it is connected to compassion. Maybe they are two sides of the same coin. To me, compassion is the feeling of kindness one brings to others or a situation, while discernment gives me the space to operate out of a more objective, less clingy place.  If I am full of raw emotion, or at the other extreme, overly distant, I am less likely to make intelligent, good-hearted choices.  


Like all of us, I live by hardwired stories. I am also often so close to my own stories that it is difficult to truly see them, and harder to chart a different course.


In the case of bears, discernment is especially challenging, and involves not just bears but the constellation of everything that happens around them. There is something about grizzly bears that brings out the extreme passions in all of us. And passion often clouds discernment.


That is why, for me, discernment, like compassion, is a practice. 


Getting at the Truth


We all want to make choices based on good information.  That means having information about all aspects of an issue, not just a few facts selected out of convenience or to serve preconceived outcomes. In these days of cultural attention deficit disorder, few of us have time to do our own research. So, we tend to trust the experts, often filtered by the press.

In the case of bears, getting at the truth is especially hard because it lies at the nexus of politics, law, science, personal agendas and preferences, economics, history and story. Bears are at the center of a mandala that reflects the complexity of human affairs. Bears are a window on the whole ecosystem, from bugs to bison and biscuitroot.  The same applies to human systems: bears connect environmentalists, ranchers, tourists, businessmen, legislatures, the courts, and financial markets.


We all tend to gravitate to the science, and to give short shrift to other forms of knowledge. It is true that science is cool and that scientific information played a major role in the listing of grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. Culturally, we share the view that decisions should be based on science. Science has also been at the center of much litigation that improved management and, in 2009, restored protections to the grizzly bear after the government’s abortive attempt to delist them.


But it is easy to forget that scientists are human. Scientists have preferences and prejudices, like the rest of us. They also have their values and incentives, especially when it comes to sources of money. These things can powerfully shape the questions that researchers ask and how they interpret research results.


Further complicating the role of science in decision-making is the way it is presented. Hearing a presentation on the latest research is often like hearing a sermon in Latin. We sense that what is being said is important, and conclude that the speaker is probably smart and has thought of all the relevant angles.


Today’s media does not have the time and space to untangle the arguments on either side. There is little incentive for the press to dig into deeper truths when grizzly bear managers crassly (or more subtly) threaten to deny access if coverage does not reinforce the delisting agenda.  


So it is easy for all of us to throw up our hands.   If we as a society do that, existing monopolies over information will continue along with the selective distortion of facts by those in charge -- at the expense of bears and the larger public interest.    


It is both possible and necessary for the government to give us all a more complete picture of what is going on so that we can make informed choices. Comprehensive and relevant information is essential for each of us to not only decide how much risk we are willing to take with grizzly bears, but also the factors that drive that risk.

Humility and Caution

Given how few grizzlies remain and the magnitude of threats to their habitat, we as a society have chosen to take a precautionary approach to managing the surviving populations. Precaution is built into the bones of the Endangered Species Act. As grizzly bear populations have grown during the last 40 years (albeit slower than advertised) we have proven that a cautious approach works.

But how vulnerable is this progress and what are the likely consequences of delisting, both in the shorter and longer term? And who decides what is risky and what is not? Where does the burden of proof lie and what are the standards of review for decisions? How do we err in the face of uncertainty?

The answers to these questions are determined by science, but rather by public choices based in values. Yes, science can help frame choices about the chances we are willing to take given a specified time frame. For example, is there is 90% chance that a population will survive the next 50 years, but 90% chance that it will be extirpated within the next 200 years? Which is the more important consideration: The short or long term? I have never seen a government analysis framed this way, but such an approach is important if the public is to make informed choices.


Government bureaucrats often mask their decisions in the language of science, rather than speaking clearly in terms of risk. (I personally relate to the problem of techno-speak after spending nearly 30 years perfecting the sometime impenetrable language of a conservation “professional”).   And the government, rather than its critics, typically gets the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the quality of information. (This gets back to the discussion of discernment above, and our sometimes unwarranted collective trust in government experts.) Hunters, livestock operators and motorized vehicle users skew choices in favor of development rather than caution because of the overt or implied pressure they apply to decision-makers, but also because the ethos of management bureaucracies is inherently tilted toward use and manipulation, rather than restraint and compassion.

Managers often make unsupported claims about the future to downplay the risk of their choices. For example, you often hear: “if the population tanks after delisting, we will just relist”. While that may sound reasonable, the argument ignores the fact that the states will fight to the death to prevent restoration of protections simply because it means loss of authority. And it ignores the additional fact that climate change and human development will continue to erode habitat in the meantime, so that relisting may be too little too late. 

My personal approach is to minimize risk reckoned over time frames of tens of thousands of years. This approach is consistent with the pace of evolution, consistent with a host of scientific evidence, and the better part of caution. I particularly like a comment by Mark Schwartz from Minnesota as part of public comments on a delisting rule that was proposed by the federal government in 2007. Mark said, “Why take chances (with the future of the grizzly bear?) You are the government, do what you do best. Go slow. When that doesn’t work, go slower.”

Improving Democracy 

We probably all believe that a fair democratic process is in the greater public interest. I would argue that virtually all of us also want our systems of governance to maintain human dignity, respect our opinions, and take the long view.

But it can be hard to fathom how decision-making actually works—the part that goes on behind the superficial processes we are presented with. Because government decisions are couched in the language of professionalism, members of the public can be easily confused, thinking they need to have an advanced degree to engage.  And, it takes time and effort to pierce the veil of appearances sufficient to understand fundamental power dynamics and the truth of what is happening. Yet, given the frenetic pace of most lives, who has the time?

I believe that democracy can and must better serve the broader public interest. In the process, I strongly suspect that we will take better care of the natural world and sustain healthy relationships among ourselves. But that entails breaking what has been called the “iron triangle” of power that currently grips the management of grizzly bears and so-called natural resources in the West. This triangle is centered on the mutually reinforcing power of local and state legislatures, government bureaucracies, and wealthy traditional users, such as the energy and livestock industries.  Together these voices synergistically reinforce each other. They share an ethos of use and domination (over compassion and respect for “other” voices or values), undergirded by the deployment of powerful myths such as the lone cowboy, the hunter, the frontiersman.

From the standpoint of those invested in use and domination, bears are often viewed as a symbol of government interference and a threat to turning a profit – as are voices that express pro-wildlife and wilderness sentiment.   Cowed by those who want to exploit nature for either fun or gain, the government often capitulates, even if the public states its preferences for a more cautious approach. As evidence of this, even though an overwhelming number of people have supported stronger protections for bears in every public process over the last two decades, the government has continued to plow ahead with its agenda to remove ESA protections and kill more bears.  A loud minority continues to dominate the political process.

What is the solution? In my view, key ingredients include leveling the field, so a few bullies don’t run the playground. Also vital is basic respect, a sense of fairness, deep listening, and a comprehensive understanding of the “problem” of grizzly bear recovery.

There are many relevant stories about finding common ground and solving problems. Creating a culture of sharing and learning would go a long way towards benefiting bears and the rest of us. So would personal self-reflection and discernment. A democratic system is only as functional as the people who engage.        


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