Grizzlies are one of the most iconic of the endangered species that have all but vanished from the American West. Efforts to bring them back, though, have been dogged by their reputation for eating humans, a trait that has made them even less popular than wolves as government biologists have fought to help the species regain some of its lost ground.
Even hikers, who tend to be among the most conservation-minded among forest users, have balked at the idea of sharing more hiking trails with more grizzlies.
The grizzly arguably has been affected more by the Bush administration’s war on the environment than any other forest dweller. It was Interior Secretary Gale Norton who scuttled plans to boost the bear population in the Bitterroots, effectively ending augmentation plans anywhere else. But the contention over grizzlies, and the collisions between science and politics goes back long before that.
Author David Knibb tells the tale in his book Grizzly Wars: The Public Fight Over the Great Bear. Plenty of other species have suffered at the hands of human expansion across the continent. Some have disappeared altogether. Few, though, spark the imagination, or for some, the hatred, that the grizzly does. Ranchers worry they’ll gobble their cows and sheep. Neighbors worry the bears will invite themselves over for dinner. Hikers worry about close encounters in the woods.
That has made it a challenge to do right by the bear under the Endangered Species Act, a bit of legislation that has survived its own scrapes with Western politicians who have tried unsuccessfully to kill it or at least maim it.
In 2007, for better or for worse, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared Yellowstone’s grizzlies had recovered. Grizzlies around Glacier National Park could be next. In other places where recovery efforts were to take place, though, grizzlies are barely hanging on, Knibb writes, and may disappear altogether.
Comparing the pace of grizzly recovery with the progress of recovery in other success stories may be unfair because grizzlies reproduce more slowly. Even if everything is done right, it takes longer to see results. Wolves, introduced in the Rockies well after the grizzly program started, have already left the list. The reproductive rates of wolves and grizzlies are like the difference between high-speed Internet and dialing on an old phone line. Threats to bears can multiply at the high speed of modern life, but grizzlies live according to an ancient and slower rhythm. In the ways we measure time, it is slow motion. How well can such a slow-motion animal cope in a fast world?
Not well, apparently. As many as 100,000 grizzlies once roamed the West, Knibb writes, from the Great Plains to the Pacific, from the Yukon to the Sierra Madre. Now, less than 2 percent of the species survive on less than 2 percent of their historic range. They’re gone from California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and probably Colorado, too.
Their habitat has been sliced up, and they don’t do well with roads, railroads or humans in general. Those problems, compounded by their slow reproductive rate, has made recovery efforts challenging. Add to that the political dimension. Antagonism by locals. Opposition by Western politicians. Reluctance in the Clinton administration. Resistance in the Bush administration.
The efforts to protect the grizzly has been nothing short of a war, Knibb argues, and a losing one at that.
While grizzlies roam the forest, the decisions that affect them are being made in federal offices and board rooms. Knibb seems to become a fly on the wall in these rooms, and in his exhaustively-researched book, he tells the blow-by-blow story of grizzly recovery efforts. A Seattle lawyer, Knibb devotes most of the book to the battle in the North Cascades, where the opposition was steepest and bear proponents were least organized.
For the casual reader, it is a bit too blow-by-blow. For readers less interested in inter-office memos and department feuds, Grizzly Wars is at its best when Knibb takes a step back to view the threat to a powerful carnivore put at risk due to the realities of biology and the unrealities of politics.
After all, Knibb points out, the grizzly is not alone.
Substitute Canadian lynx, timber wolf or woodland caribou for grizzly bear and the story is much the same. Humans came and killed, randomly or systematically. We took the best habitat as our own. We fragmented what was left, separating remnant populations into subgroups too small to survive on their own. We introduced livestock and pets and then justified more killing to protect them. Even now that we realize the consequences, some of us resist change because change would make things harder, more expensive, less consistent with our own needs. Quietly the subgroups start to wink out.
This is extinction while we watch. The story of the grizzly differs from the others only because the great bear makes it harder for itself by placing greater demands on us.
The book also may be found through Eastern Washington University Press.