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  • David Mattson

To Hunt or Not to Hunt Grizzlies? That May or May Not Be the Question

Ernest Hemingway (right) with grizzly bear killed in Timber Creek drainage of Wyoming

Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

by David Mattson

The hunting of big game for trophies is a symbolically and emotionally super-charged issue—perhaps not to the extent of the contemporary debate over abortion or Second Century disputes over the nature of the Holy Trinity, but close. Then add to this fraught baseline the prospect of hunting an iconic species such as the grizzly bear. Given this mix, it’s not surprising that hunting has become one of the most contentious issues in management of grizzly bears in the U.S. Northern Rockies.

Social-Psychological Substrata

Grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S. are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which not only gives primary authority for management to the federal U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (or Service), but also preempts sport hunting. Both of these provisions violate norms and precepts baked into the very culture of wildlife management in the United States. State governments prize and jealously guard authority over managing wildlife, with hunters and hunting a centerpiece of management. Both considerations tap into potent social-psychological dynamics rooted in dispositions of power and fulfillment of doctrinal precepts. And, indeed, adherence to the centrality of sport hunting is manifest by hunters and state wildlife managers with near religious fervor.

Of relevance to this last point, a friend of mine likened a public event he recently attended, convened by proponents of hunting grizzly bears, to a Christian revival meeting, replete with a strutting bearded preacher of the doctrine. And, indeed, there is a doctrine, come to be formally called “The North American Model of Wildlife Management.” As with all doctrines, it has a formula. Notably, both the doctrine and formula elevate hunters to the pantheon of heroes, responsible for virtually all gains in wildlife conservation since the 1800s. As heroes, the Model argues that hunters have rights and privileges that preempt all other considerations, including the interests of non-hunters. The logical derivative of all this is that hunting is a sacrament that, along with hunters, deserves pride of place in wildlife management. Moreover, states, not the federal government, are sanctified to hold authority over management of wildlife.

There are clearly major problems with not only the Model’s doctrine and formula, but also its manifestations in state management of wildlife—including despotic power arrangements driven by culture and financial dependencies, as well as a problematic ethos organized around the centrality of violence and trophies in a quest for virility by hunters who are almost wholly white and male. Although the Model is not a focus here, it is directly relevant to my topic: a process recently convened by the Governor of Montana under the billing of Grizzly Bear Advisory Council.

But, first, a bit more background.

Some History

Grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S. have been protected by the ESA (i.e., “listed”) for the last 45 years. Shortly after being listed, the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho were already agitating for removal of protections—a process called “delisting”—at a time when grizzly bear populations were at their undisputed nadir. Since then there have been several efforts to delist grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region, aided and abetted by the Service, for reasons that would require an entire essay to explain. All of these delisting efforts have been thwarted by litigation brought by environmentalists, most recently in Montana Federal District Court during 2018, with the resulting ruling upheld by a panel of judges from the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals during 2020.

Meanwhile, frustrations have mounted, not only among state wildlife managers, but also among the hunters, ranchers, and farmers who, as in so many places, dominate wildlife management agencies in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. State wildlife managers continue to be deprived of power. Hunters resent the on-going dethronement of hunting in management of grizzly bears. Ranchers object to losses of livestock to grizzly bear depredations, as well as the mere presence of grizzlies in places they haven’t been seen for 100 years. For many ranchers, increases in grizzly bear numbers and distributions symbolize the assertion of alien values under auspices of ESA protections, seemingly felt as an existential threat to traditional privileges, prerogatives, even “ways of life.”

Interestingly—paradoxically—the issue that has consistently sparked the most fervent opposition to delisting among environmentalists and animal welfare advocates has been the prospect of a trophy hunt on grizzly bears under state authority. I say “paradoxically,” because the States and Service might have succeeded in delisting several grizzly bear populations but for the near-strident insistence by state managers on instituting a hunt shortly after removal of federal protections, as was the case with Wyoming and Idaho during the last delisting attempt in 2018. In some ways, state wildlife managers have been their own worst enemy. And yet this is not surprising given that hunting is such a central cultural motif, apparently to the point of displacing rationality.

Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council

This historical backdrop brings me to the Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, or GBAC. There is little doubt that state officials in Montana were casting about during the last two years for some creative way to not only resurrect the delisting agenda, but also legitimize hunting grizzly bears. It probably didn’t take much to light on a page from the playbook followed by state officials as part of the lead-up to a previous delisting attempt during 2006-2007. During this antecedent effort, the Governor of Montana had…convened an advisory council comprised of people representing different public interests.

As it turned out, this council was stacked to represent the interests of those who were advocates not only of delisting, but also of hunting and establishing hard boundaries for the distribution of grizzly bears within Montana. Not surprisingly, the council produced recommendations that were then used by Montana and the Service to promote delisting and the curtailment of grizzly bear distributions to comport with “social carrying capacity”—i.e., places where politically influential people in the ranching, logging, and mining industries didn’t want bears (for more on this, see this essay).

Why not try this hat trick again?

And lo, the Governor of Montana announced during 2019 that he would convene an advisory council comprised of citizens representing different interests held by the people of Montana to develop recommendations for management of grizzly bears in Montana. Applications were welcomed from all and sundry. Of the 150 applicants, 18 were selected and appointed. Facilitators from the University of Montana were employed. Managers and biologists from Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks were designated as the official provisioners of information regarding all matters biological, ecological, and social. The stage was set. On the face of it, the GBAC looked auspicious.

But, as always, the devil is in the details.

Failings of the GBAC

Perhaps the best way to understand the nature of this devil is in reference to some standards that have been developed for collaborative processes that build common ground as a basis for developing widely-accepted solutions to shared problems—all in service of a healthy democratic society. Minimally , these standards include: (1) meaningful representation of the spectrum of public interests; (2) transparent criteria for selection of participants; (3) independence of the process, writ large, from the partisan interests of conveners; (3) independence of facilitators from the special interests of either conveners or a subset of participants; (4) provisioning and co-creation of information in ways maximizing odds that participants develop a shared view of how the relevant world works; and (5) transparent, mutually agreed-upon, and rigorously implemented standards for deliberations.

And this is at a minimum. If you are interested in reading more about standards for judging collaborative processes see the book by Tom Koontz and others entitled "Collaborative Environmental Management," Tim Gieseke's book "Collaborative Environmental Governance Frameworks", Roger Pielke's book "The Honest Broker", and the many books by Larry Susskind, best introduced by "Breaking the Impasse".

Without going into exhaustive detail, the GBAC failed on all of these counts, sometimes miserably so. The selection process was opaque. The resulting composition was clearly weighted towards the interests of extraction industries, ranchers, and hunters—out of proportion to their representation in the broader population of Montana. Some interests, notably rooted in the new economies of technology and ecotourism, were not represented at all. The conveners—Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (i.e., FWP)—clearly dictated the agenda, either directly or through the charter created by the Governor. The facilitators were also clearly taking their marching orders from officials in the FWP. Sources of information from outside FWP were deliberately and systematically excluded from authoritative deliberations, often in ways that inflamed rather than ameliorated divides. Instead, a cumbersome system organized around the notion of “public comments” was constructed, without any clear indications of how, whether, and to what extent these comments were introduced into deliberations. In the end, the role of science, information, and proof were polarized and politicized as much due to failings of the facilitators as to the design of the process.

But, importantly, all of these failings were rooted in the partisan promotion of an agenda fielded under the guise of a “collaborative process”—an agenda that was not too hard to divine from patterns of authoritative bias in all aspects and at all stages of the process.

The GBAC was largely constituted and run so as to yet again serve the purposes of promoting delisting and instituting a grizzly bear hunt. FWP officials repeatedly advocated the virtues of—even need for—a grizzly bear hunt during Council proceedings. They worked assiduously behind the scenes with pro-hunting advocates on the Council to develop pro-hunting arguments. FWP officials further served their purposes by selectively feeding the Council information about the ecology and management of bears in ways brazenly designed to make the presumed virtues of hunting inescapable. And the facilitators allowed all of this to occur, largely uncontested.

Fleshing Out the Arguments

And yet the agenda of FWP’s top brass was largely thwarted. There is no recommendation from the Council in favor of delisting, nor was there consensus on the desirability of a hunt—despite the best efforts of State officials. The dysfunctional process also served at least one useful purpose by encouraging participants to flesh out arguments for and against hunting in a forum that allowed for a more-or-less systematic debate—albeit one that was encumbered by attempted censorship of available information.

The argument in favor of hunting came out bit by bit, but eventually took on a coherent form. Hunting grizzly bears would reduce human-bear conflicts by killing troublesome bears, increase human safety by instilling fear, drive bears away from settled areas, and build acceptance of bears among people who were currently intolerant (i.e., increase “social acceptance”).

I appreciated having this argument articulated so transparently simply because it gave me (and others) the opportunity to evaluate its merits by the standards of evidence and logic. My efforts resulted in a technical report entitled “Efficacies and Effects of Sport Hunting Grizzly Bears.” To my knowledge, this report contains the most comprehensive review, synthesis, and application of research pertaining to the prima facie claims used to promote hunting grizzlies.

Evaluating the Arguments

Without going into exhaustive detail, none of the claims used to promote hunting are substantiated. There is little or no evidence supporting the contention that hunting will reduce conflicts—at least hunting short of levels leading to local near-extirpation of bears. By contrast, there is overwhelming evidence for the efficacy of non-lethal measures in promoting human-bear coexistence, as practiced, in fact, by many FWP employees with boots on the ground. Likewise, there is no evidence to support the contention that hunting will increase the safety of people around bears. At the same time there is reason to believe that the reactivity of bears will increase, along with hazards to people encountering them. Perhaps surprisingly, there is also little or no evidence for the claim that hunting will increase acceptance of bears among people who currently would just as soon not have them around. Rather, hunting would probably merely serve to satisfy a preexisting demand among a small number of hunters for opportunities to legally kill a grizzly, as well as preexisting desires harbored by some people for there to be fewer bears in fewer places. None of this amounts to increased “acceptance.” If anything, the available evidence suggests that intolerance might actually increase, along with poaching tacitly sanctioned by legal killing under the rubric of “hunting,” and more immediately spawned by personal vendettas against bears and the people who care about them.

Interestingly, as the GBAC process progressed, the untenable basis for pro-hunting arguments led to a gradual erosion of the legitimacy of resulting claims. These arguments haven’t gone away, but they are not voiced with as much frequency, stridency, or even confidence.

What Lurks Beneath

This whittling away of credible "science-based" arguments in favor of hunting led to an interesting and illuminating result. As part of a compromise reached by those on the GBAC for and against hunting, pro- and con-arguments were listed in lieu of a consensus statement or recommendation (see Section 2 of the GBAC's Draft Recommendations). Notably, this was the only issue of many treated this way.

The pro-hunting argument shed light on some subterranean or not so subterranean deeps. In the end, essentially the only argument fielded by pro-hunting advocates was invocation of the North American Model of Wildlife Management/Conservation. This argument made no obvious linkages between implementation of this doctrine and the greater public good—or even efficacious effects on grizzly bears or grizzly bear-human relations. Rather, the emphasis was on the putative heroic status of hunters, their mythic history of contributions to conservation, and, in the end, the notion that society somehow owed them the right to kill grizzly bears for sport. And all of this, in turn, was supposed to somehow almost mystically translate into something good for bears and people, writ large. How was not clear.

Which brings me back to where I started. Arguments for and against hunting grizzly bears are typically fielded under the guise of scientific evidence—yet often without being substantively informed by science. Support for and against trophy hunting is clearly deeply rooted in identities, worldviews, and other social-psychological substrata. Evidence rarely plays a dominant role. But even more importantly, the worldviews and derivative moral stances organized around the issue of hunting grizzly bears are not equal—ethically or in terms of implications for the dignity of sentient beings on this Earth, now and in the future.

Without intending to unduly inflate or inflame this issue, arguments for hunting grizzly bears feature exclusivity, intolerance, violence, domination, sexism, and assuaging concerns about male virility. None of this strikes me as being particularly virtuous. By contrast, the arguments I hear in opposition to trophy hunting invoke empathy, compassion, and sensitivity to the welfare of other sentient beings—albeit without our human capacity for language—all of which hearkens to virtue, at least as I understand it. Perhaps not surprisingly, proponents of trophy hunting more often tend to be men, whereas opponents more often tend to be women, probably in keeping with some deep evolutionary roots that are potentially—hopefully—the harbinger of a more promising future for all life on Earth.


You can download a letter that Dr. Mattson wrote to Governor Steve Bullock, Director Martha Williams and the GBAC facilitators, Ms. Heather Stokes and Mr. Shawn Johnson, expressing concerns about the GBAC by clicking here or on the image below:

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