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  • David Mattson

Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World

Sigmund Freud made an interesting distinction between two fundamental human drives, one seeking life (Eros) and the other seeking death (Thanatos)—the latter of which can readily spawn the infliction of suffering and death on others. Existentialists such as Irvin Yalom similarly claim that humans are beset by core anxieties—even terrors—about death, which are also often the cesspit out of which arises destructive human behaviors. And then there are contemporary psychological researchers such as Shalom Schwartz and John Jost, who have described a widespread and often strong impulse among humans to fear ambiguity, create hard boundaries, and delineate a small moral universe. All of which leads to a bounded capacity for empathy, and the dehumanization—even demonization—of those who have a different worldview, a different religion, a different ethnicity, a different sexual orientation, ad nauseam. Or, even, simply are of a different “species,” whether by taxonomy or bigotry.

My point? Imagine people possessed by such unresolved and ill-managed fear of death. Then imagine, arising from this, a world populated in the minds of these people with threatening—even demonic—others, rooted in a bounded moral universe, a limited capacity for empathy, and an impulse to instrumentalize and objectify the alien “other.” An impulse to violence. An obsession with weapons. A willingness to marginalize and disenfranchise anyone who is different. Think, in this country: not white, not politically conservative, and perhaps not even male. Certainly not those who would ascribe rights to animals or prize spiritual connections with species such as grizzly bears.

Unfortunately, it’s not too hard for me to populate this profile with real people.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Having laid this foundation in what may seem like the arcana of human psychology, I move on to something more concrete in the world of grizzly bear conservation and management. Specifically, a memorandum recently released by the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho in which wildlife managers describe how they will divvy up opportunities to kill grizzly bears once (they hope) Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections are removed from Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population and authority shifted from the federal government to the states. Hereafter Memorandum is short for this Memorandum of Agreement, the full text of which can be found by following this link.

Wow. I imagine this looks like quite a leap—from human psychology to a relatively technical memorandum related to management of grizzlies. But, stay with me, because this agreement among state wildlife managers speaks, in its own small way, to current dynamics that will ultimately determine the kind of society we live in; whether we will be governed by an ethos of death, intolerance, and exclusion, or, as Shalom Schwartz would say, a wide moral universe rooted in an ethos of life.

Again, wow. A leap perhaps. But I tend to be the kind of person who sees these lurking connections.

So, what is it about this Memorandum that gets me going?

Death, Killing, and More Death

First, perhaps, the obvious. The exclusive focus of this core document codifying an agreement among state wildlife managers is death. Which is to say, killing grizzly bears. And, more specifically, figuring out the maximum number of grizzlies that will be available for sport hunters to kill. Which is to say, available to mostly rich white guys who apparently get a thrill out of killing, mounting, and displaying a grizzly bear in their den or living room. Which is to say, guys who seemingly need to kill something as beautiful, powerful, and iconic as a grizzly bear to enhance their own precarious sense of potency. Dare I say, briefly redeem themselves from chronic terror by asserting themselves so forcefully in the world?

However you understand it, this document is clearly about serving, not just a dark egotistical impulse, but also the special interests of a very small minority residing within a three-state region. And, being a bit more generous, perhaps the interests as well of a handful of conservative politically well-connected regional ranchers who want to kill grizzlies to rid themselves of an inconvenience and, perhaps, make an ideological statement. Who also happen to be mostly rich white guys. Whatever the case, I guarantee you that all of these men hold a worldview that is perhaps best typified by an impulse to dominate and use—to reduce grizzlies to mere cyphers on a population balance sheet, and with that, rendered into objects to be used for one purpose or another. Certainly not as the sentient emotional beings that they are, worthy of empathy and compassion.

But, then, this is nothing new. In fact, these patterns have long-typified state-level management of wildlife. At its core, the institution of state wildlife management is about figuring out how many animals can be killed by hunters (euphemistically, harvested for sport) within a state's jurisdictional boundary. And, perhaps more generously, about “conserving” this harvestable surplus for use by future generations of mostly hunters who view wildlife primarily as something to be dominated by inflicting death, and then used as a wall mount or meat. Which is to say, “Conservation.” Yikes.

Does that bother you? If not, then it may not be worth reading any further. If you are bothered (or even if not), my next point is probably the more important one…

Born of a Despotic System

The hunting-focused approach to managing Yellowstone’s grizzlies described in the three-state Memorandum is both the product and further promulgation of a despotic system. Which is to say, a system that has systematically marginalized and disenfranchised virtually everyone who values wild animals for reasons or purposes other than hunting—and who comprise a large majority of the American public. Which fits the technical definition of “despotism” as a system that benefits the privileged few at the expense of the disenfranchised many.

By design, state wildlife management is financially and culturally slaved to hunters. Virtually all funding comes from the sales of hunting and fishing licenses or from taxes levied on sales of arms and ammunition. Virtually all of those holding power of any sort are self-described “avid hunters and sportsmen.” By contrast, the vast majority of the disenfranchised are female, or urban-dwelling, or of non-Caucasian ethnicity—and often better educated. By the data.

And sportsmen have fought tooth and nail to protect their prerogatives and privileges, resisting as best they can any efforts to loosen their death-grip on wildlife management and broaden the franchise…or even diversify the sources of funding. Which is paradoxical given that hunters frequently complain about carrying the full financial burden. But, when push comes to shove, they seem to prefer that burden to undertaking the meaningful reforms that would not only diversify finances, but also necessarily enfranchise a wider and more diverse circle of stakeholders. Hard boundaries, intolerance, and a willingness to perpetuate inequities…

Involving the Jealous Protection of Power and Privilege

Returning to the Memorandum, this document is clearly the manifestation of a systematic reaction by the states against federal authority over grizzly bears exercised during the last 40 years under terms of the ESA. By all indications, a reaction born of a deep and abiding resentment on the part of state managers over loss of power for four long decades.

But I would argue, only partly about jealousy over power. Perhaps more importantly, this resentment seems to stem from the fact that management of grizzly bears has been governed by a federal law—the ESA—that embodies and empowers a different, alien, and even threatening ethos held by people who are probably equally alien and threatening. An ethos of intrinsic valuation, held by a mostly urban national public. Held, in fact, by the majority of this country’s citizens.

So it is probably not by coincidence that the Memorandum makes no mention of the National Park Service or the over 2.5 million acres in the core of the Yellowstone ecosystem within which wildlife (including grizzly bears, even after removal of ESA protections) will continue to be under the jurisdiction of the federal government—in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

In fact, the Memorandum seems to be almost deliberately constructed so as to exclude, even offend, Park Service managers and the national constituency they serve. For one, the Parks are not apportioned any of the foreseeable mortality that is an intrinsic part of managing grizzly bears—all of which is allocated to the three involved states. Even more remarkably, the Parks are apparently viewed by state managers as reservoirs of disposable grizzlies in service of subsidizing state-sponsored killing undertaken on surrounding non-Park lands.

State managers clearly can’t wait to wrest power back from the federal government and return to the business of serving up grizzly bears as hunting opportunities for their powerful customers and clients—seemingly in a way that, to the maximum extent possible, sticks it in the eye of the threatening alien other. Perhaps as a kind of revenge for past deprivations of power…as well as for being suborned to an ethic of intrinsic valuation during the last four decades of ESA “tyranny”? Hmm…

So, what do I make of all this?

The Nice Guy Fallacy

First, I need to comment on a phenomenon that seems to distract and even confuse people, including many who object to the concrete outcomes of state management of wildlife. It is what I call “The Nice Guy Fallacy.” Which is to say, I know for a fact that state wildlife management agencies are chock full of nice guys who are sincere, well-intentioned, and interested in the wildlife they manage. Likable.

Moreover, they often don the seductive trappings of the mythologized West, including cowboy boots, western-cut shirt, blue jeans, and a twangy rural western drawl. New residents of the West, recently expatriated from the East Coast, often seem to swoon in their presence.

Which is part of a common tendency to conflate these “nice guys” with the abstract institution and the embedded culture that they represent. Which is to say, I’m sure that many despotic institutions, past and present, have been populated by “nice guys,” replete with symbolically potent trappings. But, when it comes to societal and even cultural outcomes, this misses the point. Which is…

The Ethos of State Wildlife Management

Our current institution of state wildlife management is highly problematic if you care about equitable and democratic outcomes--or, perhaps not, if you don’t care about such things. This institution is specifically designed to marginalize and disenfranchise national constituencies that care about local or regional wildlife—such as Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Moreover, even within hard state boundaries, this institution is implemented in ways that further marginalize and disenfranchise anyone who is not a hunter or fisher—or, perhaps, even white and male.

Try being a female spokesperson for animal welfare or an Indian advocating consideration of spiritual concerns, testifying in front of state wildlife commissions in Idaho, Wyoming, or Montana. Expect not only complete disregard, but also disrespect and disdain.

But, equally disturbing to me, current state wildlife management embodies an ethos of death, fed by an impulse to violence, channeled through sanctioned killing—of animals. And, foreseeably in the case of grizzly bears, largely to feed a dark egotistical impulse which, to my eye at least, has nothing noble or virtuous about it.

As one high level wildlife manager from the state of Idaho put it (with a slight western drawl), speaking over his shoulder while at a urinal: “We’ll hunt grizzlies just like we hunt every other species.” Which is a great synoptic statement of the internalized ethos that he and so many others seem to be slaved to—often unconsciously. In case you missed it.

This is the ethos and ethic to which we will surrender Yellowstone’s grizzly bears if and when federal endangered species protections are lost. The thought fills me with an unnamed dread.

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