The warp of time, space and wishful thinking
What makes grizzly bear recovery particularly challenging for reporters and the rest of us are the big scales and long time frames involved. With home ranges in the realm of 400 square miles in Yellowstone, grizzly bears cannot be relegated to parks and public lands: lacking map reading skills, bears need habitat at the scale of whole ecosystems. Thus, an integrated multi-scale approach is needed, at federal, state, county and personal levels.
But reporters have an imperative to focus on particular incidents – especially those that bleed. Such stories often miss the bigger spatial dynamics of what is going on. Being able to think at several scales at once matters.
Grizzly bear recovery is also a long slog. While we can and have wiped out grizzly bear populations in the blink of an eye, we cannot grow them back very quickly, due to their inherently low reproductive rates. You often read that a “good year” of low bear mortality is a boon for recovery, while a “bad year” with many dead bears doesn’t matter. (The government pitches such stories because they support its delisting agenda). Despite what actually happens in a year, it all reflects well on managers. But does a year matter in terms of recovery? Probably not: longer term trends are more telling.
Admittedly, time frames are confusing, and we all tend to think that the future will look like that past, despite the evidence in our lives to the contrary. For bears, habitat and food options are changing very rapidly and it is harder and harder to stay out of peoples’ hair.
What do increasing conflicts today actually mean – more bears, changes in bear behavior or our own? What can we do? How do these conflicts and mortalities translate to prospects for long term recovery? With the current state of reporting, it is impossible to tell.
A major source of reporting bias is based on our collective desire for a quick fix for today’s problems. In these troubled times, we want to find things we can call successes and check them it off the list. On the surface, Yellowstone grizzly bears seem to fit the bill.
Thus the government’s message that “we have achieved recovery” has seductive appeal. But it is deceptive and ignores mountains of information that we taxpayers have helped to generate, and signs of trouble ahead.