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  • Louisa Willcox

Heavenly Bears, Grizzly Deaths

Stars and the heavens capture our imagination this season. No constellation is more famous than the Big Dipper, which is also known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In French, Grande Ourse. Italian, Ursa Maggiore. German, Grosse Bar. Ursa Major and its neighbor Ursa Minor, the Lesser or Little Bear, are the first two constellations listed in the earliest star catalogues.

Ancient peoples saw bears in these constellations, creating stories that varied widely throughout the Northern Hemisphere – the result of long nights of star gazing. The Big Dipper points to the North Star in Ursa Minor, and never sinks below the horizon at night.

Like bears that have long been seen as guides and teachers, these constellations provide literal direction.

Some Native American people saw the bowl of the Big Dipper as the body of a bear, and the three stars of the handle as her cubs. The Big Dipper has been interpreted as a bear lying on its back in winter. Crawling from its den in spring. Standing on its hind legs in summer. Tracking the seasons in its changing position in the night sky.

Stories of these constellations share a common theme: the richness of our connection with bears and nature. The Mother Bear has long been a symbol of care and nurturing, and her stories are full of generosity of spirit.

One of my favorites is the Greek myth about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor that centers on Callisto, one of the maidens of Artemis, goddess of the forest and the hunt. (Her name shares the same root word as the Latin name for bear, Arctos). Callisto was seduced by Zeus and bore a son, Arcas, who grew up to be a hunter. In revenge, Zeus’ jealous wife Hera turned Callisto into a bear. Coming upon her son one day in the forest, Callisto rushed to greet him. Not recognizing his mother, Arcas took aim and was about to shoot her, when Zeus saw what was happening. He turned Arcas into a bear and, to save them both, flung them into the heavens where they were transformed into stars. She became Ursa Major, he Ursa Minor.

I wish I had the power of the Greek gods to spare bears from killing born of ignorance. This year, 54 Yellowstone grizzlies were killed by humans, shattering previous records. The leading cause was big game hunters, which is especially disturbing because there is not yet a legal hunt on grizzly bears. That happens next year if the federal government removes endangered species protections for grizzly bears. A proposed rule to delist grizzly bears is expected in January.

What will happen to Yellowstone’s magnificent grizzly bears if hunting is legalized when there are already too many human-caused deaths?

The Grizzly Dead

According to the federal government, 54 of the 59 Yellowstone grizzly bears reported dead this year were killed by humans (link). This breaks the record for annual grizzly bear deaths by any cause since data started to be assembled in 1959. And it breaks my heart.

Applying a federal estimator of unknown but probable bear deaths, there most likely are another 30 plus dead bears in Greater Yellowstone. This yields a total of roughly 90 dead, or over 12% of the estimated population of 717 grizzly bears -- and a 30% increase above the next-highest year, 2010, when 43 bears were killed. A full rundown of the body count and what it means can be found here (link).

The numbers of this year’s dead are overwhelming and under-reported in the media. I know I am not alone in wishing for the power of a god to shield innocent bears from bullets.

Of Foul Play and Thuggishness

Of the bears killed this year, 19 are being investigated as possible poaching incidents (link). This is almost three times the next highest number of potential poaching incidents recorded in 2012, when 7 deaths were under investigation.

It is almost certain that these deaths were caused by hunters (or by poachers, although the line between hunters and poachers is often blurred). In the past, deaths under investigation fell into the categories of hunter-related incidents, self-defense kills, and black bear hunters mistaking a grizzly for a black bear.

A discussion of how out of whack this year is can be found here (link).

What is going on? We may never know for sure, with so few eyes and ears in the backcountry, as federal budgets and the number of backcountry personnel shrink.

But this could well be more of the notorious “Shoot, Shovel and Shut up” behavior that landed grizzly bears on the endangered species list in the first place. In other words, armed thugs tired of waiting for delisting are looking for opportunities to illegally kill bears.

A recent article in the Jackson Hole News and Guide gives a glimpse of the mindset involved (link). Two years ago, in Wyoming’s remote Thorofare area, one party of hunters shot into a group of five grizzly bears feeding on the carcass of an elk they had killed. They killed a 17 year old radio-collared bear, Number 764, with .44 and .357 magnum slugs. The hunters had watched the situation for many minutes and had the chance to walk away. This was not a surprise, defense of life situation. It was an act of raw aggression. The case was not prosecuted. Almost none are.

Another incident occurred in 2010 on Mountain Creek in the Teton Wilderness (link). A grizzly bear was killed at an outfitter camp. The protocol for dealing with bears that get near camps like this one is to try to scare them away with noise, dogs and shooting cracker shells. A worker who shot the involved bear in the chest and abdomen said later he intended to “hit it in the ass.” “Son of a bitch wouldn’t leave,” he said.

Fear, aggression, and lack of understanding and heart. These are the kind of ungenerous and perverse connections with bears that seem to lie at the root of today’s killing spate. The polar opposite of the relationships represented in the Callisto story, which are all about an intimate and compassionate connection between humans and bears.

To think it could get worse if grizzly bears are delisted next year and made the victims of sport hunting.

Ursa Major: Iroquois Tale

Here’s a different take on a bear hunt, attributed to the Iroquois. The Bear emerges from the stars in the Corona Borealis. He is pursued through the summer skies by seven hunters: Robin, Chickadee, Moose Bird (Grey Jay), Pidgeon, Blue Jay, Owl, and Saw-Whet (a kind of owl). As autumn nears, the four hunters farthest from the Bear lose the trail, with the stars setting one after the other. At last Robin fatally wounds the Bear with an arrow. The blood of the Bear colors the fall leaves red. One drop of the Bear’s blood falls on Robin, coloring his breast red.

The death of the bear in this story explains the cycle of the seasons. Yes, there is violence but it is not mean-spirited. It is part of the fabric of life and the ecology of the human imagination that ties Robin and the other birds to the Bear and the vibrant hardwood forests of the northeast.

If you truly lived by the ethos of such a story, shooting into a group of innocent bears would be an anathema.

Losing True North

The agencies responsible for managing Yellowstone’s grizzlies have responded to this year’s spike in potentially illegal mortalities with stunning silence. The topic of these deaths was a non-issue at recent meetings in Jackson and Missoula, which were instead a stage to glorify agency “successes” and promote delisting (link). Essentially, the agencies are committed to expediting delisting and hunting bears no matter what. It seems easier to legalize poaching than try to deter it, which, if so, begs the question why the agencies are so eager to placate people who behave like criminals.

The government, charged with restoring imperiled species on behalf of all of us, seems to have lost its way. I have written previously about the heartless government mindset. The metaphor that came to mind was that of a zombie in service of some relentless master (link).

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), that leads recovery of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population, has been enslaved to the agenda of state politicians who see bears only as things to be dominated and killed (link). Despite their mandate – and what could be a more compassionate mission than to save species – the FWS is now catering to the thugs.

Further, all of the government agencies are banded together in pursuit of the age-old tactic of avoiding the problem by attacking their critics, including scientists, advocates, and the 41 Indian Tribes that are opposed to delisting. At the recent meetings of agency managers, the Tribes, which have been raising objections over killing and hunting grizzly bears on spiritual and cultural grounds, were criticized by the government as being out of touch with reality (link).

The Tribes have not forgotten the direction of True North, of course. They object to delisting because it would give authority for managing grizzly bears to the states, which are yet bastions of the ethos of Manifest Destiny that drove the genocide of Indian people and the slaughter of millions of buffalo, wolves and grizzly bears in the name of progress.

The debate over grizzly bears highlights the battle we are engaged in today, which is over stories: killing and dissociation versus reverence and respect.

Unbearable Killing

Government data puts the lie to agency claims that the population can absorb high levels of mortality. The Yellowstone grizzly bear population is no longer growing, and more likely has been declining since 2007 (link). This trend is probably explained by high rates of mortality in the wake of the loss of two former key native grizzly bear foods, cutthroat trout and whitebark pine (link). Bears have turned increasingly to foraging on meat, mostly cows and big game, which draws them into mounting conflicts with ranchers and hunters (link).

As the US Fish and Wildlife Service has long recognized, most bear-human conflicts are avoidable. The solutions are not starry eyed, but practical. They include paying attention and being prepared to encounter bears in the backcountry (link). Carrying bear pepper spray (link). Keeping clean camps. Dealing responsibly with dead game to help keep grizzly bears alive.

These are some of the tools of coexistence. Our choice to use them, or bullets, depends on the story we choose to tell ourselves.

Ursa Major: Zuni Tale

The Great Bear guards the land from the frozen gods of the north. In winter, the land is ravaged by the frozen breath of the ice gods as the bear sleeps. In the spring, when the bear wakes, she drives the frozen gods back and the land is refreshed.

This Zuni story gets to the heart of the meaning of the bear throughout our shared history: renewal and transformation. An animal that seemingly dies underground in winter and emerges with new life in spring is, indeed, a miracle. To people who watched bears disappear into the earth when it snowed and reappear when the plants sprouted, bears represented the changes of the seasons, and the rebirth of life.

It is still amazing: no matter how much scientists have learned about hibernation and the general lifeways of bears, they are still in awe at the power and mystery of the bear (link).

Today, we have the power of life and death over the Great Bear. If unchecked, an armed and hostile few, aided by the government, will continue on the path of aggression and the grizzly bear in Yellowstone will likely be pushed back to the brink of extinction. The interests of the majority who want to see bears alive and flourishing around the nation’s oldest park could be sacrificed for those of a death-oriented minority.

And we could pay a bigger spiritual price. By turning our back on the stories that Ursa Major reminds us of each night, we reject ancient, life-affirming connections with the earth and the cycles of the seasons.

What kind of world will the grizzly bear wake up to next spring? What will we look to for direction? Find Ursa Major and you can always find True North.

As daylight slowly returns to the Northern Hemisphere, may light shine in our hearts also.

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