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  • David Mattson

Contingencies of Coexistence, Part II: Diagnosing the Landscapes

In part one of this two part series I offer my take on how the heterogeneity of those involved in the drama of cohabiting with wolves and grizzly bears can be usefully parsed for diagnostic purposes. My four broad categories are Regressive Reprobates, Reluctant Pragmatists, Uninformed Innocents, and Affirmative Innovators, each denoted with a name that is hopefully partly self-explanatory. For more on each see Part I, Parsing the Participants. My take is specific to the northern US Rocky Mountains, but with potential relevance to other regions in North America, even other parts of the world.

Categorizing participants is but a first step. The most useful follow-on applications are to first recognize how each group generically responds to different modes of engagement, at least in service of promoting coexistence between people and large carnivores, and then apply these characterizations to the diagnosis of coexistence challenges in specific landscapes. Such applications can facilitate efficient insightful initial orientation, but perhaps more importantly also an appreciation of the contextual complexities of bringing about the peaceful cohabitation of people and predators such as wolves and grizzly bears.

In what follows, I first talk a bit about the necessity of multiple motivators—including coercion—and then apply all of what has preceded to a diagnosis of six different and emblematic landscapes in the northern US Rockies. Among my several purposes is to call out the increasingly numerous pliers of platitudes among some environmentalists and wildlife managers who would have us believe that the art and science of coexistence is tantamount to a sound bite.

The Necessity of Multiple Motivators

By definition, different subpopulations of people have different signifying attitudes and worldviews. Of particular relevance to advancing coexistence, these varied perspectives translate into differential receptivity to diverse motivators. Regressive Reprobates will be unaffected by information about coexistence techniques, but probably influenced by coercion. Uniformed Innocents will likely respond to information, but be turned off by anything heavy-handed. Reluctant Pragmatists will likewise probably respond well to respectfully provisioned information, against callous coercion, but be substantially influenced by the larger constellation of incentives and disincentives shaping their environment. Affirmative Innovators probably only need resources and venues for sharing information to further their progress along a path they’ve already committed to. And all of this necessarily plays out in a hierarchical dynamic of culture affecting politics, politics affecting policy, and policy affecting practices.

Despite the apologias of state wildlife managers and some environmentalists, coercion is, in fact, a key ingredient for promoting coexistence and advancing the restoration of grizzly bears and wolves in areas where we extirpated them. Most Regressive Reprobates will not be swayed by any amount of information or any degree of conciliatory engagement. The majority are fixedly devoted to a parochial worldview featuring domination, political conservatism, and the displacement of personal anxieties in particularly nasty ways. Unfortunately, most people in political power within our region belong to this tribe. If coexistence is to occur in meaningful ways at meaningful scales, Regressive Reprobates will need to be coerced, whether through politics, the courts, or, in cases where they maliciously break the law, with fines and jail time. In fact, most poachers, vandalizers of public signage, and motorized trespassers on non-motorized public lands are Reprobates in need of chastisement.

Sport hunters and wildlife managers loudly promote the idea that devolution of all authority over large carnivores from the federal government to state managers will recruit public support. A key purported element of this dynamic is the institution of trophy hunting and more lethal regimes to beat back carnivore populations, thereby pushing back distributions, reducing conflict, and providing people with opportunities to have fun killing animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. But this shtick is both wrong and wrong-headed. It is illogical, contradicts the empirical evidence, and, in fact, works against the very premise and ethos of coexistence.

To begin with, this argument treats the “public” as amorphous lumpenproletariat, which contradicts the very premise of my thesis as well as all the available evidence regarding peoples’ diverse perspectives on nature and wildlife. Different people respond differently to different inducements. Moreover, hunters and livestock producers—the primary beneficiaries of a lethal state-sponsored regime—comprise a distinct minority of those who value and otherwise engage with large carnivores such as wolves and grizzly bears. Add to this the fact that an emerging body of research shows that institution of sport hunting does not reduce levels of poaching on species such as wolves. Instead, poaching tends to increase primarily because Recalcitrant Reprobates remain unmoved and, in fact, see state-sanctioned killing as tacit permission for them to engage in their own private vendettas.

Another problem with the “state management will cure all” argument tiers back to Reluctant Pragmatists. By and large these folks pay close attention to cost-benefit calculations. If they see federal management under the ESA as imposing hard constraints on lethal options, Reluctant Pragmatists will probably be more willing to consider coexistence technology and practices. If state managers are telling them that lethal options are fully on the table, many Reluctant Pragmatists will probably be more inclined to simply get on the phone with Wildlife Services and have them send out a killer to deal with “the problem.”

And yet another problem has to do with resources. Every single motivator of relevance to every type of participant in the coexistence dynamic requires resources of some sort. Law enforcement to curb and catch poachers requires resources. Subsidies to defray the cost of coexistence infrastructure require resources. Coexistence Professionals require resources. Outreach and education require resources. Money and material are universal needs. The problem is that state wildlife management agencies are strapped for money and headed for even more straightened circumstances. With the removal of direct federal involvement in wolf and grizzly bear management under ESA auspices, so go federal resources and federal-mandated priorities.

And so on. State managers and state management have a long ways to go before we can expect such auspices to promulgate effective coexistence practices at a scale that encompasses landscapes needed to connect populations of grizzly bears and wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and beyond.

Coexistence Landscapes

Putting this all together—a rough schematic of participants and an understanding of entailed modes of engagement—allows for potentially efficient and insightful orientation to dominant coexistence challenges in specific landscapes. Of relevance to wolves and grizzly bears in the northern Rockies, six are emblematic: the Cabinet-Yaak, the Flathead and Mission Valleys, the East Front of the Rockies, The Blackfoot Valley, the High Divide, and the East Front of the Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming.

The Cabinet-Yaak

Grizzly bears and wolves in the heavily-forested and heavily-roaded Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of far northwestern Montana are barely hanging on—despite relatively low densities of humans. The dominant cause of grizzly bear mortality is poaching, i.e., “malicious killing.” Wolves likewise die at an unsustainable rate from both legal and illegal causes. This lethal environment derives mainly from a remarkable concentration of Regressive Reprobates. The main coexistence challenge is not the promulgation of information or the promotion of technologies and practices. It is mainly one of law-enforcement and politically imposed constraints, coupled with longer-term culture change marked by replacement of current generations of Regressive Reprobates with new generations of more pragmatic and benevolent people oriented towards economic pursuits other than mining and logging.

Much could be said about ultimate drivers of current attitudes among Regressive Reprobates in the Cabinet-Yaak, as well as about various proposals made for placating these folks. By all indications, the negative attitudes and behaviors of Regressive Reprobates here (as well as most other places) are the result of a focused displacement of anxieties about larger life concerns and increasing cultural and economic marginalization onto “government,” liberal elites, and, partly through that, onto large carnivores such as wolves and grizzly bears seen as malevolent manifestations. At a functional level, one could probably say the same about gang members on the south side of Chicago, although with a different demographic profile and with different objects of displacement. The commonalities are an impulse to violence mandating something more than simply placation.

The Flathead

A short distance south and east of the Cabinet-Yaak are the teaming masses of humanity occupying the Flathead Valley and creating a hard boundary for grizzly bears along the western edge of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Human densities taper off a bit south into the Mission Valley, but the flow of people driving at high speed through the Mission to and from the Flathead Valley create another potentially lethal barrier in the form of non-stop traffic. Not surprisingly, bears in this area die mainly because of conflicts precipitated by Uniformed Innocents, many recently arrived from urban America, and by collisions with vehicles driven by the same on highways. Chickens, pigs, and garbage are big problems, amplified by a shortage of sane zoning laws yielding sprawling housing developments and ranchette subdivisions located on an ever-widening net of secondary roads. The Flathead Valley certainly has its share of white supremacist Regressive Reprobates, but they do not as fundamentally configure the coexistence challenge as in the Cabinet-Yaak.

Given these patterns, a main challenge in the Flathead Valley is supporting the number of Coexistence Professionals needed to reach out to and educate multitudes of Uninformed Innocents—in between responding to mounting irreducible conflicts spawned by existing patterns of development and non-stop human population growth. A network of overpasses, underpasses, and fenced highways is also a critical part of the coexistence infrastructure—constituting one of the outstanding successes in this part of the world, thanks to a collaborative of federal, state, tribal, and private entities billed The Peoples’ Way. This enterprise, undertaken to facilitate movement by wildlife across Highway 93 through the Flathead Indian Reservation, is a model for mitigating other high-speed highways in the northern Rockies that are otherwise lethal barriers to wildlife, most notably east-west Interstate 90 and Highway 93 south of Missoula.

East Front

East of the Flathead Valley, across the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, is the sparsely populated but heavily agricultural East Front. Here cows far outnumber the relatively few people, in contrast to the Flathead Valley, where the numerous people far outnumber cows. East of where cattle and livestock producers dominate along the verge of the mountains, grasslands transition to predominantly fields of wheat and oats incised by riparian bottoms. The upshot of all this is that conflicts with large carnivores along the East Front largely organize around livestock and, farther east, around depredation of crops and concerns about human safety.

Landowners here are primarily Reluctant Pragmatists, among who are a few Affirmative Innovators and Regressive Reprobates. Many of the ranches are large, many owned by rich folk, either recent purchasers or removed by a few generations from original landed gentry. Among these are a scattering of Conscientious Conservationists and Wannabe Cowboys—all of them served by a mere three or four Coexistence Practitioners. Plus add in a couple of Hutterite colonies. Taken together, this amalgam of often widely-spaced landowners creates a problematic context within which to undertake community-based grassroots coexistence efforts.

The upshot is that coexistence largely comes down to an agonizingly slow diffusion of technology and practices designed to reduce the vulnerability of beehives, sheep, and cows calves, involving electric fence, relocation of calving and lambing pastures, and composting of the annual endemic crop of dead livestock. The outcome has been increasing adoption of coexistence techniques, but with minimal community support, sanctioning, or deep integration into norms. Ranchers willing to revert back to the “good ole days” of solving problems by killing large carnivores are still well-represented among the Reluctant Pragmatists, aided and abetted by agitators among the Regressive Reprobates.

The Blackfoot Valley

Move south and a little west and you arrive in the valley containing the Blackfoot River. This landscape is also heavily agricultural, also with its share of wealthy land owners, but, in important ways, fundamentally different in how the coexistence problem has been approached. For somewhat quirky reasons, a cabal of forward-thinking Reluctant Pragmatists and Affirmative Innovators years ago catalyzed the formation of a community-action group called the Blackfoot Challenge. The initial focus was collective problems involving water and weeds, but with the social capital and other capacities engendered by these efforts, the group was well-positioned to deal with a spate conflicts arising from the southward spread of grizzly bears and wolves into their valley. The diffusion of coexistence practices was comparatively rapid at a scale that mattered, followed by integration of these practices into community norms. As a result, conflicts especially with grizzlies have dropped to near nil despite an on-going presence of bears.

The main lesson of the Blackfoot Valley is an important one. Effective coexistence can, in fact, happen at relevant scales, but it takes substantial on-going monetary investment, skillful Coexistence Professionals, and a predominance of Reluctant Pragmatists if not Affirmative Innovators. Plus, social capital and community integration matter ideally manifest as a self-actualized grassroots organization to coordinate and catalyze collective action. On the one hand this is encouraging, but on the other hand not. We are probably not going to encounter this favorable constellation of circumstances very often.

The High Divide

The lessons of the Blackfoot Valley are especially relevant to a region immediately south that environmentalists and their conservation allies have decided to call The High Divide. This is a huge area spanning the Madison River, Jefferson River, Bitterroot River, Big Hole River, and Wise River Valleys, plus parts of the Centennial Range, all of which comprise much of the region across which grizzlies and wolves need to cross if populations in Yellowstone are to be connected with populations in the Northern Continental Divide or central Idaho ecosystems.

Rich owners of large holdings predominate in this region, which at some level simplifies things. But any meaningful semblance of organized large-scale community action is rare—certainly nothing like the Blackfoot Challenge. Coexistence efforts are primarily being motivated by external actors supported by external funds manifest as ambitious aspirations of necessarily a small realized magnitude relative to the size of the region. Affirmative Innovators and their allies are, moreover, up against a sizeable contingent of Wannabe Cowboys with bad attitudes, aided and abetted by the obligatory contingent of Regressive Reprobates and their political allies. You thus have an area such as the Madison Valley, mostly owned by rich people, roughly 70% in conservation easements, but where diffusion of coexistence innovations is yet again agonizingly slow.

Greater Yellowstone East Front

Finally, there are the high-elevation grasslands and meadows that gird the eastern margins of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming—much of them in public ownership exploited for private profit through cut-rate grazing fees. These are the haunts of self-entitled Regressive Reprobate ranchers with deep political connections, bent on making public lands into their private fiefdoms, intermixed with a handful of Reluctant Pragmatists and Affirmative Innovators. Emblematic of the Reprobates are ranchers belonging to the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association—a billing that Hollywood movie-makers and others enamored of the cowboy myth have got to love. This cabal is particularly relevant because they graze one of the largest complexes of public lands grazing allotments in the Yellowstone ecosystem, the locus of the highest concentration of conflicts between grizzly bears, wolves, and livestock producers in the entire northern Rocky Mountains. This area has become a veritable slaughterhouse for bears in particular.

Insofar as coexistence efforts are concerned, there are essentially none. The cowboys here have assiduously resisted making any meaningful changes in their husbandry to accommodate large predators. Moreover, through their political connections they have successfully intimidated any public land managers who have tried to change how they operate. This lack of effort is not about lack of resources. By and large these ranchers are comparatively rich. Nor is it about lack of information or available technology. Much has been offered. It is about people who have little regard for the public interest and who, moreover, feel perfectly entitled to feed out of the taxpayer-funded public trough. These are the classic reprobate welfare ranchers who will be affected only through coercion, political or otherwise, exercised in multiple ways at multiple scales.

And So?

These various landscapes and players in the coexistence dynamic highlight the obvious. The contingencies of land, economic activity, human densities, and attitudes create a complex environment for anyone wanting to facilitate the cohabitation of people and large carnivores. There are no simple rules of thumb, no short list of coexistence practices that apply in all places at all times. The four agricultural landscapes featured immediately above all have cows and at least a modicum of rich land-owners in common, but differ enormously in the challenges presented and remedial measures required.

All of this puts the lie to claims that divestiture of management to the states—removal of ESA protections—makes all things better. It puts the lie to claims that coexistence is all about collaboration. It puts the lie to notions that there is little or no place for coercion—for the rule of law rigorously applied. It certainly doesn’t cast a flattering light on organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife that cling to the largely discredited notion that compensating ranchers for livestock lost to predators is the key to promoting coexistence; or the Greater Yellowstone Coalition advancing with great fanfare their money-making campaign to install bear-proof garbage dumpsters around the Yellowstone ecosystem at a time when bears are dying largely because of hunters, livestock producers, and speeding tourist.

My parsing of relevant dimensions helps me make sense of the otherwise overwhelmingly complexity surrounding coexistence between people and large carnivores. It may or may not help you, the reader. And, in the end, I have a disturbing premonition that widespread coexistence between people and animals such as grizzly bears and wolves will depend on a major cultural transition entailing much greater modesty and compassion coupled with abandonment of the acquisitive capitalistic impulses to which we are currently enslaved. It may even require that there be many fewer of us humans in the world.

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