The Grizzly Bear (A Tragic History And The Test Of Our National Character Moving Forward)

The Grizzly Bear (A Tragic History And The Test Of Our National Character Moving Forward)

The great, untamed American frontier was forever altered by our westward expansion.  What once was considered great progress in our country’s advancement should be looked upon today with a more balanced and wiser understanding.  Our westward march undoubtedly broadened our new civilization, but with devastating costs to the beautiful, unspoiled landscape and all the beings dwelling within.  A heart-breaking chapter in our history included the exploitation of indigenous species and peoples.  Diverse human cultures, which for thousands of years had occupied the land prior to European settlement, were destroyed or severely disrupted and oppressed.  These cultures had more or less lived in harmony with nature, in contrast to the Manifest Destiny mentality of European colonists and later generations of settlers trying to subdue and dominate it.  As sad as the mistreatment of these indigenous people was, the native plant and animal species received far worse.

The two most iconic creatures embodying the great spirit of the American wild remain the wolf and grizzly bear.  These two impressive species were driven to the brink of extinction after decades of relentless hunting, trapping, and poisoning.  Our fear, intolerance, and ignorance created an unwillingness to live in symbiosis with the land and share in its bounty.  Some sub-species did become extinct; such as the California grizzly, now only hypocritically displayed on the state’s flag.  Only small and isolated populations of these species survived in rugged and remote areas of the lower forty-eight states.  By the time the U.S. Government finally wised up, establishing the Endangered Species Act in 1973, there were only 136 grizzlies remaining in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; and the wolf was for all intents and purposes, extinct.  When the grizzly was finally listed as threatened in 1975, their population, once estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 in the lower forty-eight states, now occupied only 2% of its original range.

The wolf population never significantly recovered on its own because there simply were too few survivors in the Northern Rockies. This eventually led to government reintroduction programs establishing new populations in areas the west could accommodate; the prime example being the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  In spite of ardent locals’ protests –primarily hunters and ranchers holding tightly onto the archaic views of our destructive past– these programs were an overwhelming success.  The ecosystems slowly recovered, and populations of all indigenous creatures became more balanced.  However, this success eventually led to the wolves’ delisting, returning management of this vital resource back into state hands.  Despite our ugly history of reckless extermination of native species, hunting permits were once again issued, as though nothing had been learned.  Scientific proof should have transformed public perception toward understanding our problematic historical relationship with wolves, alongside a sense of guilt and shame, yet stubborn minds refused to evolve.

Now we stand at yet another crossroads.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently released a proposal to remove the Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species List.  Like the wolf, this iconic apex predator is now facing the same fate with society’s failure to come to terms with our past, and take a more mindful approach toward nature and our future.

In the early 1980s my family had the great fortune and experience of being able to live in Yellowstone National Park when my father became its Administrative Officer.  During the three years we resided in the park I never saw a grizzly and only once spotted a black bear cub.  It wasn’t until years after I learned the reason why.

After decades of human-bear conflicts, their diet being supplemented with human handouts and unsecured garbage, bears consequently lost much of their natural ability to forage in the wild.   In 1970 an intensive management program was established to restore bear populations to subsist on natural foods, thereby reducing conflict.  Garbage dumps were closed, dumpsters and garbage cans bear-proofed, and feeding wildlife prohibited.  With these food sources absent after generations of learned behavior, bear populations plummeted.  Many bears starved to death with only the strongest and more remote, wilderness savvy bears surviving.  It is believed the grizzly population dropped below 100.  Four decades later, grizzly numbers in Greater Yellowstone are estimated at roughly 600-700 bears.  While considered minimally healthy numbers by biologists, many threats remain.  In 2015 alone, a record 59 grizzly fatalities were reported, 55 of which were human related.  This is 8-10% of the entire population. In terms of U.S. human population, this would equate to roughly 25-32 million deaths.

Isolated from other significant bear populations, Yellowstone grizzlies have low genetic diversity.  They also reproduce slowly.  Many of their major food sources have been decimated in recent years, and the population stopped growing substantially a decade ago.  With increasing human infrastructure, energy development, problematic livestock management, and a warming climate degrading habitat, it is difficult to see the sense in removing grizzly protections.

Why is the Federal Government trying to expedite the delisting process?   Is it an effort to appease state wildlife agencies eager to initiate a grizzly hunting season?  Why would we spend decades righting a wrong just to renew behavior that threatened the species in the past?  Have we learned nothing?

The logic behind such an action is short-sighted.  Imagine confronting other aspects of our questionable history in this way.  We righted a wrong by emancipating African slaves, and the United States has greatly prospered, both morally and socially, because of it.  Yet this doesn’t mean we would   now reconsider slavery.  Though grizzly hunting might make some ranchers and hunters content, this doesn’t make good sense for the species or our country’s long-term prosperity.  Politically influenced hunting policies that are weak on science essentially prohibit healthy ecosystems, and I have to wonder in doing this what state wildlife managers actually hope to accomplish.  Do they wish to limit competition with other predators?  Or do they still feel the grizzly poses the same threat, as their forbearers did in centuries past?

Despite unchecked human population growth, having proven to have a negative effect on our health and the environment, you don’t hear state or federal agencies calling for a human hunting season.  We are an apex predator, just like the wolf and grizzly.  The difference being bears and wolves don’t have an ability to overcome the constraints of the natural world, and thus add needed balance to sustainable ecosystems.  Our synthetic industrial history has given us alarming occasion to consume and deplete it. Like us, grizzlies and wolves are not prey, and it is not the end game strategy of the Endangered Species Act to return every recovered population to a hunting season, despite states’ apparent intentions. One has to wonder at the morality of hunting such magnificent animals.  Though we live in a world of limited resources and abundant waste has our civilization become too large to tolerate the growing numbers of other predators?  Has our history of widespread extermination of wildlife and destruction of habitat left a void that we have now filled?

At the crossroads. Will we take the high road?