60 Minutes’ Toothy Porn



by Louisa Willcox


Our relationship with wildlife has thankfully evolved since 80 AD when during a single day 50,000 cheering fans packed the Roman Coliseum to witness the slaughter of over 5,000 animals -- including bears. Or since Elizabethan times when blindfolded chained bears were pitted against mastiffs to entertain blood-thirsty drunken crowds. Or since bounty hunters and well-armed settlers in the American West killed every wolf, bear, and cougar they could find in the name of Manifest Destiny.


Our treatment of animals has surely become more enlightened. We have banned wanton abuse of animals and curbed killing of wildlife. We have also learned a lot about the critical role that large carnivores play in the web of life and our national psyche. Our collective grief over the extirpation of many species fueled the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that codifies a national moral commitment to preventing extinctions.


But just how much have we really evolved since the days of Nero? And why is it that so many are still entertained by the sight of animals being harassed, slaughtered, and eviscerated? What explains the thirst to possess body parts taken from large toothy predators? If, in fact, we were so enlightened, copies of Outdoor Life with covers featuring snarling grizzlies would no longer fly off the racks. And shows such as Savage Wild or Ted Nugent’s Spirit of the Wild that feature animals being gunned down and tormented would not have so many enthusiastic fans.


The truth is that, below the veneer of civilization, we are still gripped with an inchoate ancient fear and fascination with animals that can kill us — that often translates into a visceral need to dominate, eliminate, or just simply be titillated.


60 Minutes’ Grizzly Gore: If it Bleeds It Leads

An episode aired by 60 Minutes on October 11th is emblematic. Despite its billing as a deliberative exploration of challenges of coexisting with grizzly bears, the show was little more than a buffet of toothy pornography.


The show began with scenes of an ensnared bear lunging at the camera -- not that different perhaps from what Shakespeare saw near the Globe Theater. Then there was a grizzly attacking a cow and rolling it over in a gory free-for-all – reminiscent of popular 19th century exhibitions where grizzlies were pitted against bulls in front of cheering crowds.


Then, enter stage left, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Eric Wenum who invited 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker to put his hand into the drugged and blindfolded bear’s mouth. Throw in footage of a bloodied hunter being life flighted by helicopter to a hospital after being mauled by a grizzly, and your ratings are guaranteed.

Proving the point, the show was viewed by more than 12.4 million viewers, helping 60 Minutes retain its place for the third straight week among Nielson’s top five weekly broadcasts.


The 60 Minutes reporters seemed consummately indifferent to basic facts, including how rarely grizzlies maul people or kill cattle. The show’s title was “People and Grizzlies Learn to Live with Each Other in Montana,” but the featured images belied the purported theme. And the producers granted just a few short minutes to the show's only professional practitioner of coexistence, the dedicated Bryce Andrews, who did his best to explain about how people do indeed manage to live amicably with bears.

Responsible journalism -- really?


Why the Media Matters to Conservation – and Our Democracy

Despite the fact that journalism increasingly seems to offer us little more than circus entertainment, the media matters, not only to conserving our remaining bastions of wildlands and wildlife, but more broadly to the functioning of a healthy democracy. As the fourth pillar of democracy, the media is vital to fostering a democratic culture that configures our political system and provides citizens with information to make enlightened decisions.


Partisan media biased towards a few well-heeled individuals or a toxic political agenda can endanger our democratic system. Think Fox News. Likewise, media that offers little more than red meat for a blood-thirsty throng betrays its civic duty.

As the most successful news program in TV history, CBS’s 60 Minutes bears special responsibility to uphold the highest standards of integrity. But despite once being the gold standard of network magazine programs, the show has come under fire during recent years for sloppy and promotional journalism – and above all for featuring violent content.


Former CBS and NBC programming president Jeff Sagansky explained the gore with this: “The number one priority in television is not to transmit quality programming to viewers, but to deliver consumers to advertisers. We aren’t going to get rid of violence until we get rid of advertisers.”


There you have it: violence to enrich greedy advertisers. Forget the public trust.


And just as disconcerting was the behavior of public officials featured in the show.


Of Government Complicity

Under the US Endangered Species Act, or ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with recovering endangered and threatened species as trustee for all of us – those living and those who come after. All Americans have a stake and voice in management decisions – and not just those who live near places occupied by endangered species.

Until fairly recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service took its job seriously – and grizzly bears benefited. Since 1975, when grizzlies were granted ESA protections, the government has been guided, albeit sometimes tortuously, by a rational science-based approach to protecting habitat and promoting coexistence between bears and people. New technologies such as bear-proof dumpsters, electric fence, and bear pepper spray have also reduced conflicts. And a cadre of people specializing in coexistence practices have helped citizens make peace with bears.

But perhaps the most important gains have involved the debunking of myths of our European ancestors that fueled vicious pogroms against grizzlies and other large carnivores. This has been achieved in a multitude of ways, including through cutting-edge science, enlightened documentaries, and opportunities for visitors to our National Parks to see grizzly bears for themselves.


One small contribution has involved banning the public and press from trapping operations. Not only is the presence of spectators potentially dangerous, but the venue is also guaranteed to offer up provoked pissed-off bears that reinforce harmful old stereotypes.


Until the recent 60 Minutes episode, I had not seen media coverage that featured trapping grizzlies, at least not since 1960s National Geographic specials that featured the pioneering Yellowstone studies of grizzly bear researchers John and Frank Craighead. But that was a different era – before the endangered plight of grizzly bears was widely recognized, when we knew relatively little about these amazing animals.


So why would state and federal wildlife managers invite the team of visibly nervous 60 Minutes greenhorns from New York City to film a trapped distraught bear -- in contravention of long-standing practices and policies?


Only one explanation seems plausible. Politics.


But first some background.


Damn the Torpedoes, Sound the Alarms

Regional politicians and the state wildlife managers from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have flogged Fish & Wildlife Service during the last 20 years to strip ESA protections from Yellowstone grizzlies. Their prize is trophy hunting grizzlies and unfettered exploitation of federal lands.


Brow beaten, the Fish & Wildlife Service has capitulated and become complicit in the states’ agenda – despite overwhelming opposition from independent scientists, conservationists, native peoples, and hundreds of thousands of citizens who flock to places such as Yellowstone hoping to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear in the wild.

A series of court rulings have blocked the government’s attempts to remove ESA protections, most recently in 2018 and, again in 2020 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision. In a previous court ruling that restored federal protections for Yellowstone’s bruins in 2009, a federal judge lambasted the Fish & Wildlife Services’ “full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes” approach. But the Fish & Wildlife Service did not pause, but barged instead towards a second legal defeat under the whip of regional politicians and Trump’s administers.

So it was no surprise that last summer Interior Secretary David Bernhardt—an oil and energy industry lobbyist—traveled to Montana to meet privately with ranchers, hunters, and conservative politicians to assure them that the third effort to remove ESA protections for grizzlies would be the charm. This from the man charged with protecting 250 million acres of public lands and recovering roughly 1,300 endangered species, from Franklin’s bumblebees to North Atlantic right whales.


Continuing the drumroll, just last week Trump’s recently appointed Director of the Fish & Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, hand-in-hand with Montana Senator Steve Daines, convened a private meeting to assure state officials and ranchers that delisting grizzlies was at the top of their “to do” list. In the meantime, they assured their regressive audience that they would loosen restrictions on killing grizzly bears. To hedge their bets, Daines and others have also introduced bills in Congress to legislatively remove ESA protections for grizzlies.


Notably, these Trump sycophants declined to talk to some of the many Montanans who love grizzlies—or to the millions of visitors to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, or the many people working in the Blackfoot River drainage, Tom Miner Basin, or Madison Valley who have worked so hard to promote peaceful coexistence between grizzlies and people. If there was any doubt, the Lords of Yesteryear have proven that they are on the wrong side of history—and that their fealty is to an intolerant and fearful minority rather than to the national public.

But these corrupt politicians have not acted alone. Journalists have been complicit. “If it bleeds it leads” still prevails in pressrooms. This trope explains the disturbing number of recent stories in regional papers that continue to hype grizzly bear depredations, maulings, and conflicts. Stories about successful coexistence, the fascinating lifeways of grizzlies, or the thrill of a family spotting their first grizzlies tend to end up on the cutting room floor.

I naively hoped that 60 Minutes, one the most watched shows in the country, would do better.


Enter Bernhardt’s Handmaid, Hilary Cooley of FWS

Hilary Cooley, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the Fish & Wildlife Service, certainly played her part, carelessly sprinkling false or misleading claims throughout her interview. She began by lying about gains in grizzly bear numbers, claiming that populations have tripled in size when they have not even doubled according to data from her own agency. Bears numbered roughly 1,300 individuals during the mid-1970s when grizzlies were given ESA protections. Today, grizzly bears number little more than 1,800. You do the math.


She went on to hype the severity of conflicts and the impact of grizzlies on people, stating that “Bears can be really hard to live with. They kill livestock…it's a big impact.” Actually, not. In one recent study, grizzly bears killed between 0.01 and 0.03 percent (that’s one one-hundredth to three one-hundredths of a percent) of total cattle numbers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. More than 99% of annual deaths are attributable to disease, weather, birthing, and theft – not depredation. Moreover, the state reimburses ranchers for losses to predators. And most of the ranchers in grizzly bear strongholds have deep pockets and are well able to afford losses caused by grizzly bears.


For most people the grizzly is a star attraction, not an oppressive impact. Newcomers are flooding into the region because of its clean water, clean air, good schools, public lands, and abundant wildlife – and the presence of grizzlies and wolves is part of the appeal.


Hilary went on to assert: “If there's a threat to human safety, we remove it right off the bat.” This is news to me and anyone else who has been following grizzly bear management for the last several decades. The ESA does allow people to kill a grizzly in self-defense, but not otherwise. And ever since 1986, when the Fish and Wildlife Service established policies for dealing with grizzly bear-human conflicts, the rule has been “three strikes and you are out” — meaning that the government’s policy is to try to non-lethally resolve a conflict at least three times before ending a grizzly’s life.


Interagency Guidelines 1986
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According to Hilary’s interpretation, the government should have offed one of the most famous grizzlies who ever lived, Grand Teton Park’s rock star matriarch grizzly Number 399. As a young bear, she mauled a jogger who ran by her as she fed on an elk carcass. Thankfully, the Park Superintendent gave her a second chance. Grizzly 399 has gone on to safely navigate throngs of delighted visitors for the last two decades while teaching her cubs to do the same.

Collaring Grizzlies to Kill More

Then enter, once more, Eric Wenum. Subjecting this grizzly to a traumatic ordeal was justified for research purposes, he claimed. What he didn’t bother to explain is that grizzlies are trapped, immobilized, tattooed, deprived of a tooth, and fitted with a radio-collar for no other reason than counting them to bolster the case for removal of ESA protections. Because current methods depend solely on females to estimate population size, they alone matter to the “research” agenda. And that’s why, after tormenting the small male bear, Wenum simply released him without a radio collar.


That bear did not count — other than as a momentary source of entertainment.


But all of this context would have probably been lost on a film crew from New York City with limited time, hunger for a hook, and little interest in sorting through the political agenda of their guides.


60 Minutes Does it Again to Grizzlies

Watching the show, I flashed back to 2005, when I was interviewed by Leslie Stahl for a 60 Minutes episode ostensibly about an earlier delisting decision. I was excited that the producers were interested enough in the science aspects of the story to attend a workshop in Yellowstone with grizzly bear experts.


But I was not prepared for what aired. “Not in My Back Yard” was hardly about science at all. Instead it featured the emotional story about the Oswalds, a California family that had just built their dream house in grizzly bear habitat near Cody, Wyoming and were terrified when a grizzly showed up in their backyard – and to their horror, chewed on their hot tub and meat-smelling barbeque.

Begging the question about why the fearful family would relocate to the heart of grizzly bear habitat, it is noteworthy that 60 Minutes chose not to interview some of the many thousand people in the region whose lives are enriched by the presence of grizzly bears.


Yellow journalism notwithstanding, there is a better, more peaceful way forward.

.

Towards a Kinder, Less Fearful Relationship with Grizzlies

60 Minutes missed a golden opportunity to explore what meaningful recovery of grizzly bears in this country could look like if we humbled ourselves and showed more compassion. The fact is that we can coexist with many more grizzlies than currently live in the Northern Rockies and, in the process, ensure that grizzly bears will survive the ravages of climate change to enrich the lives of future generations.


We literally hold the fate of the grizzly in our hands. We get to choose a risky path or a safer one -- not just for the Great Bear but for all of us on this beleaguered planet.

Surprisingly to some, Romania is on a more promising trajectory in its relationship with brown bears (same species as our grizzly) and provides a model we can learn from. There, more than 7,000 brown bears live cheek by jowl with a human population as dense as that of Appalachia. Romanians have coexisted with brown bears for thousands of years – not unlike Native Americans at mid-latitudes of North America who, prior to European colonization, lived in the midst of perhaps 70,000 grizzlies. To all ancient cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere, grizzlies were viewed as relatives, mentors, healers and guides – not monsters. Indeed, the grizzly was so revered that in some cultures its name could not be spoken out loud.


Our ancient ancestors’ understanding of bears as kin has been reinforced by modern science that shows how alike we are to all animals--with similar brains and feelings. When it comes to bears, we likely share aspects of consciousness and cognition. Few could watch a mother grizzly nursing, playing, or defending her cubs from intruders without concluding that we are not so different after all.


Unfortunately, shows like 60 Minutes hearken back to our darker brutal past, not a brighter future for us or the creatures we share the planet with. More than ever, we need journalists to step up on behalf of the broader public interest, not greedy advertisers, exploiters of the land, or those seeking the thrill of killing a grizzly to mount a head on the wall.

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