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  • David Mattson

Disserving the Public Trust: The despotic future of grizzly bear management

An Introductory Aside on Democracy

Francis Fukuyama of Harvard University recently completed a magisterial two-volume review of the emergence and evolution of human systems of governance. The volumes are somewhat immodestly entitled “The Origins of Political Order” (2011) and “Political Order and Political Decay” (2014). Despite obligatory sniping by other political scientists, Fukuyama’s basic thesis is compelling. Human governance has evolved from the egalitarian and Big Man forms typical of small collectives and tribes, to the culminating manifestation of our modern aspiration for a life of dignity, in the form of democracy. Winston Churchill probably best captured the flawed but virtuous nature of democracy with his quip: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That being said, I consider democracy to be one of humankind’s greatest inventions.

Why? Quite simply because, in theory, every citizen is afforded authoritative standing in the political process, even if it amounts to no more than an allotted vote for a representative. As important, we all (again, in theory) can publicly voice our perspectives and preferences regarding the outcomes of the political process. Yes, democracy in application is messy and sometimes corrupt. But perhaps the essential feature is a shared narrative that can be invoked to justify demands for the equitable empowerment of all citizens.

Parenthetically, one important dimension of democracy is the scale at which we invest citizens with voice and standing, usually with reference to specific public issues. Municipal? County? State? National? Some issues entail consequences of such magnitude for so many people that decision-making necessarily occurs at a national scale. National defense is a classic example. Regardless of the scale, some issues and outcomes are of such importance collectively that they trump the localized special interests of the few—for example the well-established notion of eminent domain. At some point, enough people have a sufficient stake over a wide enough geographic extent to legitimize the elevation of political deliberations from the municipal to the county, the county to the state, or the state to the national. Those whose local interests are swamped by such an up-scaling may cry “foul,” but at some point the aggregate interests of the many outweigh the localized interests of the few.

Rounding out this brief primer, it is worth noting that corruption and despotism are perhaps the most enduring threats to democracy. Put simply, despotism occurs when the political process concentrates ever more power, wealth, and other values in the hands of the few at the expense of the many, typically through the overt or sometimes veiled disenfranchisement of most people. Corruption is the betrayal of the public trust by public officials, usually in the form of preferential service based on kinship, financial dependencies, or ideological affinities. Yes, despotism and corruption are pervasive under the covering rhetoric of “democracy.” But, from my perspective, this unpleasant fact does not justify any tolerance for these profoundly toxic phenomena—at least for those who care about the health of our democratic society.

And Now for Grizzly Bears

So, what does all of this have to do with grizzly bear management?...more specifically, the kind of management we can look forward to if we remove Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and turn them over to the tender mercies of state wildlife management?

Here and in my two following blogs I attempt to answer this question.

In brief, wildlife management by the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana is a corrupt and despotic system enslaved through culture and financial dependencies to serving the interests of those who have a worldview that features violence, iconizes weapons, makes fetishes of sexual organs, and instrumentalizes animals. Moreover, state wildlife managers have a history of demonizing carnivores in defiance of the best available science as part of a narrative that features killing predators to purportedly boost sport-hunting opportunities for “customers.” And, interestingly enough, all of this is realized through the services of people who are, by and large, well-intentioned nice guys. Leading, in turn, to what I call the “nice guy fallacy,” which is the chronic tendency of apologists for state wildlife management to conflate personality with institutions and culture.

In what follows, I elaborate on the despotic and corrupt nature of regional state wildlife management. In the blog next after, I explore the culture of this institution. And, finally, in my last blog of the series, I describe in more detail the regressive nature of predator management in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

So, starting with despotism and corruption…

The Enfranchisement of the American Public

The Yellowstone grizzly bear population has been managed since 1975 under the authority of the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Yellowstone grizzlies—along with conspecifics elsewhere in the contiguous US—were afforded ESA protections because they were threatened by humans who killed them, aided and abetted by existing state and federal regulations. In fact, wildlife managers in Wyoming and Montana sponsored trophy hunting of grizzlies despite the fact that the Yellowstone population was severely diminished and potentially even heading towards extirpation in areas outside of National Parks. Listing of Yellowstone’s grizzlies under the ESA is testimony to the fact that the national public had--and continue to have--a compelling stake in management of this iconic regional population, and that management under state auspices was failing.

Perhaps the most important effect of the ESA—a federal law—was the enfranchisement of the entire citizenry of the United States (currently 240 or so million adults) when it came to managing Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. From 1975 on, every American citizen had authoritative standing in grizzly bear management, including the opportunity to provide input regarding weighty decisions. Anyone who could establish standing sufficient to pursue litigation could do so to insure that federal managers were following the law. In fact, the repeated success of litigants in court demonstrated that agency managers, left to their own devices, were almost invariably drifting towards serving the status quo interests of the Lords of Yesteryear: The Czars of logging, mining, agriculture, and recreation. But for litigation, we would not have habitat-based recovery criteria for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, standards for managing roads and habitat security, or any meaningful monitoring of bear foods.

Of relevance to all this, we Americans are increasingly a diverse lot, including nearly 40% who are of Hispanic, African-American, Asian, or Native decent, and roughly 51% who are female. Of these multitudes, only around 6% hunt. By contrast, 3-4 times as US adults primarily enjoy wild animals by viewing them—alive. Certainly, the main reason why 3-4 million people visit the Yellowstone ecosystem each year is to see wildlife, including charismatic animals such as grizzlies…not to put a bullet in them and cart a head back home. The point being, our national-level interests in animals such as Yellowstone’s grizzly bears primarily organize around appreciating them for intrinsic and aesthetic reasons, as well as for the derivative economic benefits of non-consumptive tourism…not for the limited opportunities to use bears by allowing a very few to kill them in service of a need to enhance a sense of self-potency (more on this next week). It’s not surprisingly that nearly 70% of people queried in a recent national survey opposed hunting grizzlies for trophies. Only 20% supported the idea.

The Disenfranchisement of the American Public

Interestingly enough, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which holds primary authority for managing Yellowstone’s grizzlies under the ESA, has been trying since roughly 1992 to remove ESA protections for this population of bears. The FWS was turned back on its first attempt because a judge concurred with litigants that the FWS’s Recovery Plan was fatally flawed, and then on its second attempt by multiple judges who determined that the FWS had grievously neglected relevant science. Now the FWS is back at it again, with another proposal to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population on the streets as of March 2016 and a promise by the FWS’s Director, Dan Ashe, to finalize the delisting process by the end of this year.

This begs the question of what awaits Yellowstone’s grizzlies if the FWS is successful in its bid to remove ESA protections. The answer is: Nothing good, either for the bears themselves, for the national constituency that cares about these animals, or for the health of our democracy.

Why? Because the bears will be turned over to wildlife managers in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—who are not only the antithesis of diverse, but also slaved to the narrow special interests of hunters and fishers within the confines of their respective states, all under the presumed legitimizing rhetoric of the North American Model of Wildlife Management (hereafter the Model). According to proponents of the Model such as Valerius Geist, local sportsmen (i.e., hunters and fishers) are the only people who have the best interests of wildlife at heart, the sole genesis of past wildlife conservation successes, and the financial backbone of wildlife management.

As a matter of fact, hunters and fishers are the primary constituency or “customers” of state wildlife managers. Going further, the Model avers they should be the primary constituency and that all others should play second fiddle…at best. The Model’s version of democracy is simply that there will be “hunting opportunity for all” and no “prohibitions on…use of wildlife.” One of the biggest perceived threats? “…A value system oriented towards animal rights,” which is, in fact, not only a valid and appropriate interest, but also one held by increasing numbers of American citizens. (For more on all of this, see the recent paper by Adrian Treves and coauthors.)

A Last Bastion of White Male Gun-Owners

So who are these hunters and those who operate at their behest? In the three-state region containing Yellowstone’s grizzlies, hunters comprise a mere 14% of all adults and are overwhelming white (98%) and male (90%). The employees of the wildlife management agencies who answer to them are likewise more than 95% white and 70-80% male—and almost all are self-styled hunters. Even more extreme, the 19 Commissioners appointed by Governors in the three-state region to have ultimate authority over wildlife management are 100% white, 95% male, and all self-described hunters—most, avidly so.

Of import equal to rote demographics, state wildlife management agencies are almost entirely dependent on hunters, fishers, and gun owners for revenue. Aggregated over all three states, 30% of funding comes from federal taxes generated primarily by national sales of arms and ammunition—channeled through the FWS; 67% comes primarily from the sale of products to hunters and fishers, principally hunting and fishing licenses; and only 2% comes from general funds appropriated directly or indirectly by state legislators. In other words, wildlife managers are almost entirely beholden to sportsmen for money.


Not surprisingly, the upshot of all this is what some call an iron triangle—others, even, a diamond triangle—characterized by institutionalized corruptive relations among regulators (i.e., Commissioners), the regulated (i.e., hunters and fishers), and functionaries of the regulators (i.e., employees of state wildlife management agencies). State wildlife managers, charged with serving the public interest, are instead coopted by those they presumably regulate, focused on serving a narrow set of special interests, and corrupted by ideology and financial dependencies. As a result, the large majority of state residents who have an interest in wildlife that doesn’t include consumptive use are disenfranchised, disregarded, and ignored. Which matters because 38% of all adults in the Northern Rockies states identify themselves as wildlife watchers, of whom 52% are female…so, more than 2.5-times as many as there are hunters, and proportionately five-times as many who are female.

But this entails looking only within the confines of any given state in the northern Rocky Mountains. Of even greater consequence, delisting would bring about the explicit disenfranchisement of 99% of the national public that is currently enfranchised by the ESA. And, when accounting for the fact that only 14% of the within-state population (i.e., hunters) will have a meaningful say in what happens to grizzly bears, the disenfranchisement is an even more staggering 99.9%. Moreover, the representation of white males will increase from approximately 22% nationally to roughly 90% in state wildlife management—or even 95% if you allow for the fact Commissioners hold ultimate authority curbed by little public oversight. In other words, over 204 million US adults will be left out in the cold, including a hugely disproportionate number of women, non-hunters, and people of color—including nearly all who value animals such as grizzly bears simply because they exist.

In a word, despotism.

Public Trust Rhetoric by Nice Guys

It’s worth noting at this juncture that state wildlife managers have increasingly mobilized rhetoric invoking the Public Trust Doctrine (or PTD) to defend what would seem to be the self-evidently despotic status quo. This rhetoric entails various claims from wildlife managers that they are attending to diverse public interests through their wise deployment of science. The argument is basically a technocratic one in which managers are gifted with privileged insights regarding all sorts of things, including who matters, what they want, and what they will tolerate (e.g., “social carrying capacity”).

Even at face value, these claims to authority on human-related matters are peculiar given that 99% of state wildlife managers are trained as biologists, not sociologists. Moreover, it is unclear how wildlife managers are gifted with insight into peoples’ aggregate preferences and perspectives—especially when those who value wildlife for “non-consumptive uses” are disregarded, even disrespected, any time they comment on management plans or testify at meetings of wildlife Commissioners. And, when you closely scrutinize what wildlife managers say and write, you will find beneath the prefatory gloss, at the level of clearly stated objectives, an enduring dominant commitment to providing a “quality hunt” and harvestable surpluses of game animals.

Parenthetically, the deployment of PTD- and Model-laden rhetoric by wildlife managers has largely been in response to a crisis of legitimacy and finances that emerged in the 1990s—a crisis that exists for good reasons. Numbers of hunters have remained more-or-less static, with revenues from hunting license sales lagging behind the mounting costs of operations. Some of the deficit has been recently remedied by what state wildlife managers cynically call “the Obama boost,” which amounts to an increase in tax-based federal grants fueled by a dramatic surge in sales of arms and ammunition, largely to white guys who imagine a sinister federal conspiracy to take their guns away (presumably followed shortly after by marauding hordes of young Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim males?). And criticisms of state wildlife managers have mounted as the perspectives and preferences of increasingly educated urban-dwelling Americans have diverged from the hunting ethos central to state management.

Of course—and perhaps paradoxically—most of the people defending status quo state wildlife management are sincere and even well-intentioned; usually nice guys; but typically not very self-reflective nor well-informed when it comes to the basics of governance or democracy. All of which can be quite seductive for those who listen with an uncritical and equally uninformed ear, but, in the end, without negating the fact that the nice guys who work as state wildlife managers are complicit in a fundamentally corrupt and despotic system.

A Point of Clarification

Let there be no misunderstanding. I am not calling for the disenfranchisement of hunters and the end of hunting. Far from it. Hunting is an appropriate and valid interest. But the perpetuation of despotism and corruption is not.

Because I am concerned about governance, I am calling for the reform of an institution. I am advocating proportional representation of peoples' diverse interests and perspectives regarding wildlife. I am calling for a more equitable and hopefully transformative allocation of entailed financial burdens. I am promoting a commensurate change in the culture of our state wildlife management agencies, perhaps along with a civics course or two for all employees. But, perhaps even more important, I am advocating some sort of law that duly enfranchises the American public in perpetuity when it comes to management of wildlife of national interest--as with Yellowstone's grizzly bears.


On an ending note, if you don’t think that our current institutions of state wildlife management are problematic, then I would invite you to visit China, or Russia, or Zimbabwe…or any number of other countries that have born the toxic fruits of despotism and corruption. There is no rhetoric, not the vaunted North American Model of Wildlife Management, that can justify how we currently manage wildlife in most states—and most notoriously so in the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana…the cradle that will rock Yellowstone’s grizzly bears once they are delisted.

And, if you live anywhere other than in this three-state region, or are a person who advocates some purpose other than hunting grizzly bears, or are someone, say a Native American, who prioritizes spiritual connections with the Great Bear, then think again if you imagine you will have a say in management of a delisted Yellowstone grizzly bear population. You will not.

So where to from here? In my next blog I explore the problematic ethos embodied in the despotic regime that awaits Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. More specifically, an ethos organized around violence, death, weapons, insecurities about potency, and an instrumentalizing impulse. And, again, all of this brought to you by a bunch of (for the most part) nice guys.

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