"..... to be whole and harmonious, man must also know the music of the beaches and the woods. He must find the thing of which he is only an infinitesimal part and nurture it and love it, if he is to live."
—William O. Douglas
In this part of Montana, most people view grizzly bears with pride, respect and wonder. But then I live in a university town that has to its credit some of the nation’s top grizzly bear researchers. I also live in a state where a Republican governor and legislature have declared war on wildlife. Wolves are being baited or called out of Yellowstone National Park by people eager to boast killing a Yellowstone wolf, due in part to Governor Gianforte’s illegal killing last year of Max the wolf, just outside the boundaries of the park. Meanwhile the Interior Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seem content to allow the slaughter to proceed. In Montana, 137 wolves have been trapped or shot in the past three weeks. The season runs until March 15.
What really is happening is a breakdown in our society being led by profiteering outfitters for trophy wolves and disenfranchised people in rural communities who take their anger out on wildlife, especially keystone predator species, as though it is their right. Privatization of wildlife for wealthy landowners is also a factor, carried forth by our Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Wildlife equals money now; science be damned. What is lost is any sense of co-existence and respect for wildlife and our precious wildlands. The players are literally stealing our wildlife and our right to see and share our national forests with species of high intelligence and feelings.
It has led me to think a bit about the concept of co-existence. This idea is repellent, even laughable, to those who view wildlife as targets for trophies and thrill killing. As a trapper told me, “Every day is like Christmas, I never know what is caught in my trap.” It is often by-catch like an eagle, fawn or a family pet. Taking the life of animals is central to their need for power and dominance. Simply letting animals live, especially charismatic species like elk, wolves, bears, mountain lions, is at odds with their need to portray themselves as unconquerable masters of the universe.
Manifest Destiny expressed this thinking on a colossal scale. We came west to conquer not just the Tribes, but the wildlife and the land. The idea of control was central. These westward conquerors had to know they were stealing lands, but they found justice in their deeds by proclaiming themselves more civilized and more powerful, and thus worthy of these rich lands and the animals living here.
So the timber fell, the rivers clogged, the bison were left in piles of sun-soaked and meat-wasted skulls and bones. There appears to have been no shame, just a sense that God and hard work had given them a new home. Such thinking has been carried down through the generations. The cattle took over the West and the coyote, grizzly and wolf were slaughtered. There were a few voices of resistance, but for many their heedless slaughter showed God-sanctioned destiny which justified the takeover of the lands soaked in blood.
Today we have built agencies to manage wildlife, ignoring the historical wrong that people played in their demise. We have allowed the Cowboy to be the poster of all the West and ranchers to be the guys in white hats to whom we dole out generous subsidies to kill the wildlife, impact climate change and destroy the land and waters.
Now Montana is embarking on their most insidious plan yet, to hunt down grizzly bears. The wolf killing apparently has whet their appetite to kill even more iconic species of beauty and intelligence. The bigger the animal, the more powerful the killer, and the more profit for trophies, goes the logic. They regard the concept of co-existence as ridiculous. Where’s the profit in that? Where’s the power? Where’s the privilege of manifest destiny?
Near Missoula, a mother and three cubs are on close watch by Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Thanks to people who left garbage strewn around their cabin, FWP may well feel compelled to kill the grizzly family in the spring. Why? Because the director of FWP, Hank Worsech, has made clear that grizzly bears are a major problem. So, with science-free decision making, the governor and FWP officially declare grizzlies fully recovered, unsupported by facts or wildlife biologists. This, in the last refuge for these magnificent animals. Wyoming and Idaho have joined the clamor for grizzly bear hunts. It’s easy to hate more powerful beings, harder to respect and live with them. Why bother, when one can just wipe them out, again.
This orchestrated effort to open killing seasons on grizzlies began with Governor Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) who has demanded delisting. It is being hyped as a major issue by FWP Director Worsech and could be part of Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) plan to get Martha Williams appointed Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Williams, during her tenure as director of Montana FWP, did little to help wolves and made clear she supported the delisting of grizzly bears. Now, to get Williams installed as director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sen. Tester had to orchestrate a special exemption because she lacks the required wildlife science background. Troubling is the possibility that he could delist grizzly bears with a rider on a big appropriations bill, as he did wolves in 2011. Tester and Daines are members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, part of the Sportsmen’s Alliance, which supports wildlife killing contests (the mass killing of wolves, coyotes, foxes, prairie dogs etc. for cash prizes and guns), calling them heritage. The sentimentality for mass slaughter is breathtaking.
Outfitters are salivating to kill grizzlies, the money could be huge. Trophy hunters are standing in line. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (a radicalized anti-wolf and grizzly hunting organization) bestowed a brand new Excellence in Advocacy Award on Sen. Daines for “efforts regarding hunting, wildlife management and natural resource conservation.” The Forest Service continues to allow onerous cuts in critical habitat, denying politics is involved. Our state laws made killing grizzly bears easier for ranchers.
We continue to slide backwards, losing more and more precious wildlife because of lack of a vision of a shared future, because of the cultural divide our governor whips up, and because of political leaders who put their personal ambitions before the protection of species that are vital, intelligent and offer us hope for a new dynamic in the West.
We cannot go backwards; we must elect new people to guide a simple principle—wildlife and humans can live together in peace. We can and we must have our voices heard.
Grizzlies, wolves and so many species deserve to have lands to live, love and thrive on. It is time to bury the Manifest Destiny mindset.
It is time for us all to thrive together. Grizzly bears must be protected. More land needs protection. A Rocky Mountain corridor for our wildlife is taking shape despite resistance. Co-existence is the answer; it should not be so hard.
Stephen Capra is the executive director of Footloose Montana, a nonprofit dedicated to ending trapping on public lands in Montana. He formerly was executive director of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, where he worked to create two national monuments and three wilderness areas and started the Mexican Wolf Coalition.