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grizzly bear in fog


by Louisa Willcox

Founder of Grizzly Times

The grizzly bear’s future lies between our ears. The rest of our body, from trigger finger to foot on gas pedal, has a big impact too, depending on how we choose to live our lives and the stories that we live by.   


With big decisions coming up that will affect grizzly bears in the lower-48 states, it is time to take our “bearings” first inside ourselves, and then in the larger context of the world we have and the one we want.  


Let us start here by reflecting on what we have learned about living with bears.   For thousands of years, people have respected bears and their land, and given bears wide berths. (see heroes and myths). For most of our co-evolution, people did not use bullets as the first line of response to bears. And they still don’t in many parts of the world, such as Romania and Sweden. In recent years, people have benefited from the availability of bear pepper spray, electric fence, and bear resistant garbage bins, which have helped reduce conflicts with bears. The resurgence of ancient breeds of guardian dogs has also reduced bear and wolf depredations on livestock.  So has protecting parks (places with no guns) and wilderness, as well as limiting roads on public lands. 


What shapes the conversations we have about grizzly bears are the stories we tell about them and our relationships. There are basically two kinds of “uber-stories”.  In the first kind, our lives and the lives of all creatures of the earth are intertwined.  In the second, humans are superior to and separate from other creatures.


Around the world, where ever the paths of people and bears crossed, stories arose about bears as teachers, healers, family, and guides. (see heroes and myths). Landscapes are full of place names that invoke bears. The bear den as a place of creation. The mother bear as the embodiment of transformative power.


Maybe starting with the advent of agriculture during the Neolithic, another story emerged: domination over nature. Protection of my plot from other tribes, my goats from wolves. Us over them. In here versus out there. When Europeans arrived in North America, the story was well honed along with the technology to exploit and control others: guns, saws, axes…then barbed wire, railroads, better and more guns. Bears, wolves, bison, native people were in the way.


There were voices of protest over the rampant slaughter of the wondrous animals and people who had flourished throughout the plains and forests.  Yet these voices were not heard until the pendulum swung back, sort of – voices that were codified in laws like the Endangered Species Act, Wilderness Act, and American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Today, bear managers are telling us a story. It is actually a very old story, but it sounds new because they are the “experts” and some have fancy degrees. They know some of the science; at least they have the vocabulary. Their mantra is: “trust us”. (see agency spin).  


They say that we have grizzly bears coming out of our ears. That hunting bears will make the world a safer and better place for cows, sheep and people. That killing as many bears as possible outside Yellowstone National Park is needed and that a hunt will help achieve that goal. Because “we” are the experts, the public just needs to believe us. Of course, the public can speak for a token 3 minutes at their meetings, and then go away. But, we are the government, we speak techno-speak. And we speak last.   We speak for thousands of pages, at tax-payer expense, to an ordained few who sign the papers.    


In the case of grizzly bears, “we are the experts” is really the story of domination and death in disguise. What is really going on is that the government is selling an agenda to remove endangered protections (“delist”) grizzly bears so as to increase killing and allow “sport” hunting. (see debunking delisting). This is because of pressure by states, ranchers and others to kill more bears, in a retreat to the ethos of the 1800’s, cloaked in a language of professionalism. (see corrupt management).  


Using a more critical reading of science and the “cause no harm” principle of the Endangered Species Act, the government’s arguments for delisting make no sense. Because the population is still at precariously low levels—especially when you consider what we had in the early 1800s—and numbers are likely declining. (This according to the best available information, grudgingly disclosed by the government). (see agency spin). Delisting is not justified and risky in the face of what is emerging to be devastating effects of climate change, including increasing human conflicts and dead bears. And Yellowstone’s bears are especially vulnerable due to long-term isolation that, according to the government, necessitates trucking in bears without end to avoid inbreeding.


So…why should the governments of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana be trusted with the care of grizzly bears, especially given their demonstrated hostility to any animal with large canines that kills what they want to sell to hunters? (see state problems). This is especially true of the wolf, an animal that is still seen by a powerful handful as Satan’s dog. And, this, despite the valiant efforts of thousands across the country to remedy the wrongs of Manifest Destiny, perpetuated by those who live in a world defined by the ethos of death. After delisting, these states wasted no time in trying to eliminate wolves outsides the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. An encore performance can be expected after delisting of grizzly bears.  


No matter what the language, grizzly bear conservation is not about science. It is about the stories that we tell ourselves, which are fundamentally about whether we see ourselves as empathetic and caring agents in a world of wounds—or not. This is where you come in.


In a democratic society, each of us gets to determine what kind of story we want to be governed by. It is up to each of us to choose. (see core values).


In the wildest of landscapes left on this continent, we still have the chance to imagine grizzly bears roaming all the way from Yellowstone up to the arctic plains of the Yukon—along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. (see expanding horizons). Here a bear can ramble from the sagebrush plains at the southern end of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, to the tundra slopes of the Tuktayuktak Peninsula. From Montana’s Beartooth Mountains westward along the crest of the Centennials to Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return, then north through the thick forests of the Cabinet Yaak Ecosystem into British Columbia. To where the trees shrink and finally disappear.  Along the way, we can imagine grizzly bears grazing sedges, digging spring beauty, biscuitroot and glacier lily, hunting ground squirrels. Nibbling on crowberry. Scavenging moose that died during the rut. We can see them seeking out plants, not just as food, but as medicine--practices picked up by ancient peoples who closely watched, knowing full well that these ancient beings carried with them the wisdom of the centuries.  


Here in this landscape, we may someday yet hear and celebrate bear stories and songs, ancient and contemporary:  in the languages of Shoshone, Cheyenne, Salish, Nez Perce, Dene…and even English.  Stories about lands of raging rivers, ice and lightning, rocks rolling down mountains, and enormous hairy elephants that caused the earth to shake. Stories of the four universes and how the world was born after a pregnant woman was pushed down a cosmic hole by her husband.


Sharing stories keeps the world of hope and imagination alive, but more importantly, sharing stories keeps alive the spirit of compassion in a time of global anxiety and depression. Our future, and that of Bear Mother, starts between our ears.  

The story--our story--deserves our full attention right now. We can’t usefully engage in a debate over how wildlife should be managed, or how a social problem should be addressed, without reflecting on ourselves first. (see core values).

After getting a fancy degree or two myself, I have had to learn not to buy into the “experts” frame especially when it is deployed as cover for the exercise of corrupting power. While I thought that being an expert would make me uniquely qualified to participate in conversations about the future of the Great Bear, I found that this too often was not the case—or even allowed by those in power. I then started to dig for a story that would work for me.  


I dug my way back to where I found the Mother Bear (see heroes and myths), emerging in spring with new life after she appears to die winter. She has a power of a different sort. Ask one of the thousands of people who flock to Yellowstone in the summer to catch a glimpse of a grizzly.


Ultimately, we have to decide which kind of power we want to wield.   We can leave it to the 'experts', or we can take a stand ourselves.  


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