Friday, March 12, 2010

Fighting The Grizzly Wars

If one were to sit down and read only the most important books about bears, a good place to stop might be David Knibb's Grizzly Wars, a study of the attempts to preserve grizzly populations in North America and the attempts of the general public and government agencies to drive the last traces of the animal into extinction. In many ways, the book would make the perfect summation of one's own personal bear education.

The story begins with the mysterious sightings of grizzly bears in Washington's Cascade Mountains, the slowly mounting evidence that a small population of grizzlies may be trying to re-establish itself there, and the efforts - some almost desperate - of Fish and Game wildlife managers to sweep it all under the rug, despite the presence of some undeniable evidence. With the Bush Administration's removal of the grizzly from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (citing it as a waste of tax dollars), the fight begins, following U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials who were unlucky enough to be given the job of challenging that removal and standing up for the rights of an animal that is feared and hated by so many.

At a public meeting, one of these hapless officials was confronted by an elderly woman. "So you're one of those bastards in favor of grizzly bears," she said. She railed and cursed at him for a few minutes, telling him that he would be responsible for the death of her grandchildren, and then she spit on him....and that was only the beginning of the meeting! By evening's end, he had received NINE death threats, including a man who swore that he would be waiting outside the building with a gun at the end of the gathering, a threat that was fortunately only a bluff.

As the meetings went on, so did the opposition. Fear caused by misconception ruled the hearts and minds of the public, who proclaimed the grizzly to be nothing more than a murderous killer and that if there were any in the Cascades, they should be hunted down and destroyed. It's telling that most of these ideas came from people who did not live in bear country and whose ideas were fueled by Hollywood theatrics, whereas the biggest support came from those who did live in bear country and who did not consider the grizzly something to be feared. Finally, a nationwide poll showed that 97% of the country favored restoring grizzly populations. Unfortunately, America is no longer a country in which the people have a voice, so the government and wildlife officials persisted in brushing aside the issue. Jon Almack, a state wildlife manager, says that he personally observed a "strategy within the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to deny, discount, and dismiss the evidence about Cascades grizzlies." Wildlife managers know that if they continue to deny even the most irrefutable of evidence that they can delay grizzly recovery for as long as possible, maybe even until there is no longer a species left to recover. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee now estimates that it could take as long as two hundred years to restore grizzlies to the Cascades.

This is a shocking prospect! The idea that wildlife managers, who are supposed to be for the protection of wildlife - especially endangered wildlife - would instead be stalling the issue until it's too late, is difficult to fathom but it's exactly the reason why this book would be the perfect summation to your own bear education, because it drives home just how important that education is. I've read volumes on both sides of the bear bandwagon and taking all of that information and putting it together as a whole has been a revelation! This book shows what can happen when that information doesn't come together. Bears are too complex to focus on only one side of their story; it must be taken as a whole. This is a field of study that is about to blow wide open and most people either don't know or don't care and that's precisly what leads to some of the attitudes in this book. It's partly because of those attitudes that the book was written in the first place. It's why I started this blog. The book doesn't end with much hope except to say that progress will never be made unless people are properly educated and are made to see that living with the grizzly is a blessing, not a curse. That's the goal we're working towards but it's going to be a long road getting there.

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