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  • Louisa Willcox

Inviting the Chief of the Grizzlies to Our Feast

Two Narratives: A Vision of Oneness with Nature and the Bear Vs. Domination Over Nature, Embodied in St. Corbinian Subjugating a Bear to Carry His Luggage

by Louisa Willcox

Harvest season is a time of abundance. From the earth’s gifts we bake apple pies, pickle beets, and boil cranberry for jelly. Many head out hunting, not unlike grizzlies. In fact, as fellow omnivores, we humans and grizzlies share similar tastes. This can be a terrible recipe for conflict, especially when hungry grizzlies contest foods that we consider ours alone – cows, chickens, or big game carcasses – with often deadly results for the involved bears.

Already, the spirit of the season has been tainted by a rash of human injuries and bear deaths in the Northern Rockies. Tragically, grizzly bear deaths are fast approaching the record-breaking levels of 2018, especially in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem where once again people have killed over 10% of the bear population.

The daily drumroll of tragic news threatens to eclipse an important and uplifting story about growing numbers of people who are welcoming grizzlies in their midst. In fact, we would not be seeing the recent expansion of the grizzly’s range if most people, whether resident and transient, were not fundamentally tolerant.

Indeed, our relationship with the Great Bear has been characterized by respect and reverence for almost all of the 40,000 years modern humans have cohabited with grizzlies in the Northern Hemisphere. Cheek by jowl, bears and people have long fished for salmon; foraged for acorns and huckleberries; and pursued bison and moose injured during the rut.

To celebrate our interrelatedness, we carved bear totems and masks, danced bear dances, and told stories of people turning into bears and bears turning into people. For perhaps 15,000 years we located the Pole Star in a constellation that represents a bear to find our bearings – whether we lived in Siberia or California or Greece.

Not that our relations with a large potentially ferocious animal were without challenges – as was indeed the case with other potentially threatening tribes.

A Tlingit tale makes this point, yet then emphasizes the rewards that come from showing kindness to those we might consider to be enemies:

An old man who had lost his family and friends, decided he wanted to die. He followed a bear trail to a salmon stream to let the bears kill him. When a large bear with white tips on his hair emerged from the bushes, followed by others, the old man became scared – and all of a sudden realized that he did not want to die.

The old man invited the bears to a feast. He went back to his village and began to prepare. The others in the village scolded him, saying: "The grizzly is our enemy. You do not want grizzly bears in your home."

But the man prepared a great feast, and the bears came and ate. Then the bear with white tips on his hair told him that he was in the same condition, that he was old and had lost all of his friends.

After this, whenever the people of the village gave a feast, they would always invite an enemy to the feast. And they would become friends, just as the old man had done with the chief of the bears.

This story should not be taken literally. We don’t want to encourage grizzlies to chow down at our table or in our coolers, as the outcomes would be undesirable for both us and the bears. But this tale serves as a powerful metaphor about the transformative power of extending compassion to those who scare us or simply make us uncomfortable.

And, in fact, grizzlies depend on our good will as never before to survive an unravelling environment. At the same time, our lives can be enriched in turn by the very act of sharing space with such magnificent animals.

A perhaps surprising number of people, including ranchers and hunters, have spoken about their passion for grizzlies and of how they make room for them. To people like Karl Rappold, John Robinett, and David Stalling, the company of grizzlies is its own reward.

Of Regret and Reconciliation

Karl Rappold and his family own a ranch along the Rocky Mountain Front. Before he died, Karl’s father told him that “the only regret he had was that he’d killed so many grizzly bears and that they’d almost become extinct. He made me promise that when I took over the ranch, these big bears would always have a home. So I worked most of my life to make sure that happened.”

Karl says: “We operate our ranch so that we can coexist with grizzlies.” His approach is simple. He cleans up dead livestock so they don’t attract bears. He breeds his cows earlier than is traditional, so they are bigger, older and better able to defend themselves against predators by the time they are put on summer pasture.

In springtime before plants green up and provide bears something to eat, Karl strategically places dead stock for bears to eat away from his calving areas. "My theory is that if a bear's full, he's not gonna look at my cows.” And they don’t. The ranch has not lost a cow to a bear since 1959.

“If a bear should kill one of my cows, it would be an act of Mother Nature, like an electrical storm,” Karl says. “I don’t feel the bear has to live with us. We have to learn to live with the bear. He was part of the country long before we settled it. And should remain part of this country. If you don’t like living with bears then maybe you ought to be ranching somewhere else.”

Karl is hardly alone. Over the past 15 years, he and other ranchers, hunters, tribal members, and conservationists have forged a passionate and influential coalition that has stood in solidarity for conservation of the Front and against rampant energy development. Two weeks ago, one of the last corporate holdouts gave up their lease and their dream of drilling the Front in response to litigation and ferocious public protest.

Here, Karl and others are sharing a feast not only with wild animals, but with all Americans, including those not yet born.

“One of the Most Intelligent and Forgiving Animals Alive”

Like Karl, John Robinett belies the stereotype of ranchers in his love for the grizzly, which he considers “one of the most intelligent and forgiving animals alive.” For over 25 years he and his wife Debbie have managed the Diamond G Ranch near Dubois, Wyoming, at the edge of the wilderness beneath spectacular Ramshorn Peak in the Absaroka Mountains.

In their early days on the ranch they had numerous conflicts with bears – as many as 42 in one year – especially during calving season. But the Robinetts were curious about grizzly bears and sought to make peace. John said: “Since I was a kid, I never liked to kill things and I never liked it when people killed things for no good reason.”

They started talking to experts, including Derek Craighead, son of pioneering grizzly bear researcher John Craighead. They found when and where grizzlies concentrated and tried to keep cattle out of those areas when grizzlies were there. They also gave up their grazing allotment on the Bridger-Teton National Forest to keep the cattle closer to the ranch.

Like Karl, John figured out that feeding dead cows to bears during the spring kept them away from his calving areas. He too never saw grizzly bears predating on live cows as a result of eating carcasses he had left for them.

John also advocates broader policies of restraint. To enlarge the bear’s dinner table and reduce the potential for conflict, John supports retiring other allotments on National Forest lands where there are concentrations of grizzly bear activity.

Of Gays and Grizzlies: “Misunderstood and Vilified”

David Stalling is a committed hunter, a conservationist with a special connection to grizzlies and the wild, and an ex Force Recon Marine. (You can listen to Grizzly Times' podcast with David here).

At first he was apprehensive to be out among grizzly bears, recalling: “Wow, you’re not the top of the food chain out there when you’re roaming the wilds without an M-16.” But his views changed.

During a time of personal struggles, he took a 1000 mile hike from his front porch in Missoula, Montana, north to Alberta, Canada, mostly off trail where he encountered many grizzlies up close and personal. One day he came upon a female grizzly with cubs unaware of his presence. After watching them for hours from behind a log, he recalls: “I remember thinking: they are what they are, they’re not evil, they’re not some sacred mystical thing. They’re bears and they need space, they need tolerance, they need understanding, they need respect.”

David, who is gay, reflects on his connection with grizzlies given that “…gay people are often misunderstood and vilified, and particularly among Christian conservatives who say: ‘they’re going to destroy family values.’… People hate what they misunderstand. And people misunderstand grizzlies.” His intimate experiences with grizzlies inspired David to dedicate himself to learning more and speaking out for the protection of grizzly bears.

Needless to say, regressive hunters find his views threatening. David says that every week “I am accused of being ’an anti-hunter green weenie tree hugger, who must be a city guy, who doesn’t understand wildlife.’” One of the most entertaining accusations is that he, like all “‘conservationists just want the wolves and grizzlies to eat all the elk, so there’s no more hunting, because they’re anti-hunters.’ And hunting groups go along with it.”

David here highlights both the insanity of far-right conspiracy theorists and their zero-sum ethos, that “your gain can be nothing other than my loss.”

A War of Narratives: “Domination and Control” vs “The More I Give, the More I Have”

Despite our strong economy and material abundance – especially compared to the rest of the world -- the predominant current narrative, particularly in rural America, seems to be one of shortage and scarcity. The scope of concerns among white conservatives is inward, tribal, and selfish. Short-term profit often trumps every other value. Those who make us feel uneasy –who are less fortunate or different – are not welcome at our seemingly shrinking table.

In these fearful times, beauty, transcendence, and altruism are considered irrelevant, unnecessary, and even hazardous. This paranoid and ungenerous impulse leads those, such as Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, to treat people who argue that public lands and wildlife should be protected for intrinsic values as demonic outsiders intent on destroying “the Western way of life.

Underpinning such views is a tenet of conservative ideology holding that land and wildlife are simply commodities to be bought, sold, and controlled. That God put us here to “use” the land and devote it to the production of cattle, grain, and minerals. This view has deep historical and cultural roots among Europeans and their descendants in the Americas. Under the banner of Manifest Destiny, our white ancestors justified the genocides of indigenous peoples and wildlife – including grizzlies.

It is shocking how quickly this destructive ethos crushed a more ancient and widespread story of accommodation that had sustained humanity for thousands of years. But, beginning only 200 years ago, we succeeded in building, for a while, a society on quicksand: greed, domination, and short-term gain. The result has been catastrophic for the bear, the planet, and us.

Protests against this ethos have been passionate, eloquent, and sustained. Nearly 100 years ago conservation icon, philosopher, and scientist Aldo Leopold lodged a simple and powerful complaint that few have bettered, writing: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

In his essay “The Land Ethic,” Leopold argued that we must take moral responsibility for nature out of recognition that we are “a member of a community of interdependent parts.” Although many scholars and advocates focus on Leopold’s ideas about ecology, ethics, and wildlife management, his daughter Estella finds his notions of love among his most important contributions. She says, “Dad was really focused on the moral and mental connection with nature, and love is that connection.”

Nowhere is the transformative power of love more beautifully explored than in Shakespeare’s plays, most poignantly when Juliet tells Romeo:

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.”

Here, the very act of love engenders more of the same, creating ever expanding bounty. Life continually reminds us how compassion, curiosity, and respect can be progenerative. Similarly, in recent decades we have seen how widening circles of love have meant extending rights to minorities, children, women, those with different sexual and religious orientations, and even other species – including grizzlies.

Needless-to-say, this is the antithesis of the zero-sum transactional view of human relations embraced by some of today’s leaders. In the West, most of us hardly live in shortage, except in a spiritual, moral, and relational sense. And abundance in our lives can grow, suggests Juliet, not by hoarding, but by giving it away.

In Better Angels of Our Nature, author Stephen Pinker sees a trend toward “the expansion of the circle of sympathy,” when “our well-being and others have become so intermingled that we literally love our enemies and feel their pain.” The next frontier in affording respect and rights to others, he suggests, is the welfare of animals.

That may sound radical and new, but to the Tlingit, the view is old as the hills and the way things should be. People like Karl Rappold, John and Debbie Robinett, and David Stalling are showing us a new way toward an ancient more loving ideal of relationship with nature and each other.

In this harvest time, a season of reciprocity, we are reminded of how much we have to share with those who are less fortunate or simply different. Metaphorically inviting the Chief of the Grizzlies to our feast might just be the only way to save our souls, society, and perhaps the planet.

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