LESSONS FROM DEATHS IN THE CLAN OF 399
In the end, what can we make of the stories of three dead grizzly bears, the offspring of matron grizzly 399? They are certainly not foils to that lily-white golden-haired Goldilocks foisted upon us by our European ancestors.
We should never forget how inherently vulnerable grizzly bears are and the difference that one good mom can make, provided we let her and her kids live. The entire Yellowstone grizzly bear population could be built on as few as 50 fertile females alive during the early 1980’s. Every mom matters. A female such as 399 is an Olympian.
Photo Credit: Roger Hayden
The debate about the 399 family reminds us that the term “habituation” hurts more than it helps. Here, “habituation” simply means that these bears have come to see us as a benevolent part of their world. No more, no less. Is that so wrong? It is a life-giving strategy for the bears that adopt it, not cause for a death sentence.
If state managers haze or kill roadside bears after delisting, as they have said they will, mayhem will ensue on multiple fronts. The bears themselves will be displaced and confused; some killed by other bears; and many others killed by people.
Grizzly 399, along with all of the other grizzlies in Yellowstone, has been caught up in rapid dietary shifts driven by potentially catastrophic environmental changes. This dietary revolution has led, in turn, to dramatic increases in the numbers of bears being killed by people.
Yellowstone’s grizzlies, including 399’s clan, have been seeking out more meat during the last ten years to compensate for human-driven climate-driven losses of whitebark pine and native trout, which were previously critically important foods (link). The problem of big game hunters killing grizzlies during accidental (or other) encounters, as in the tale of 615, will undoubtedly worsen if federal protections are removed, as will conflicts over livestock, like those leading to the death of 587. Moreover, grizzlies themselves will almost certainly be hunted for sport after delisting.
The dramatic increase in grizzly bear deaths directly or indirectly caused by ranchers and hunters during the last decade has likely contributed to declines in the Yellowstone population (link). In fact, data from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team show that the grizzly bear population could have been declining since 2007 (link). This downward trend will likely escalate when grizzly bears are hunted and with foreseeable declines in efforts to catch and prosecute poachers. More specifically, prosecutions as occurred with 615’s poaching will be increasingly unlikely.
Also looming over 399’s family--along with many other bears--is the question of how the states
will manage roadside bears, especially after delisting. This goes to the heart of differences in worldviews held by state and Park Service wildlife managers – and by different members of the public as well.
For years, it has been the policy of Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks to allow grizzly bears to live near roads – which gives thousands of park visitors the pleasure of seeing a bear in the flesh. While many may wish for Wyoming wildlife managers to just deal with that fact, they probably won’t, given their devotion to dominating, controlling, and using nature (link).
Unless the whole approach of states to managing wildlife is reformed – not likely in the near-term -- roadside bears may be beloved inside parks, but will almost inevitably be aggressively “managed” (and killed) beyond park borders. That is why so many citizens, conservationists and independent scientists have reservations and questions about state management of grizzly bears.
State managers are clearly pissed off about the intimate relationships that people are able to develop with roadside grizzly bears. If nothing else, people who are invested in the welfare of individual grizzlies make it more difficult for the state’s wildlife managers to kill these bears with impunity. State managers want to return to the era of unexamined, dehumanized connections with nature, wherein wild animals are mere objects, at best, part of quotas to be filled during a hunting season.
Meanwhile, in Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks, people are giving grizzly bears names, taking their pictures, telling their stories. Who is related to whom. What bear was just seen and at what mile marker. What they were eating – dead bison, biscuitroot, berries.
These stories, conveyed often in twitter and on facebook, are not unlike the ancient tales of bears and humans, which are centered on our connectedness. For humans and bears have long shared much: dietary preferences, fierce mothering qualities, problem solving ability, intelligence, and resilience. We have shared the same habitat across the northern Hemisphere for thousands of years, for the most part amicably.
399 has made the risky choice to invite us into her life and trust us with her fate and those of her cubs. Will we betray this trust?