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Good Witches, Bad Witches and Grizzly Bears, Oh My!

The Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) meetings of November 3-4 in Teton Village, Wyoming, featured a fascinating analysis by Gregg Losinski of the Idaho Fish and Game Department of recent media coverage about grizzly bears. Among other things, his presentation shed important light on how governmental agencies are attempting to manipulate coverage of its management of grizzly bears along with the debate over its push to strip endangered species protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. (The meeting was filmed and can be seen by contacting Gregg Losinski at glosinski@idfg.idaho.gov).

And, more importantly, Gregg’s talk raises questions about how and whether the government is fulfilling its obligations to protect the public trust and the interests of all citizens, not just the privileged few.

But, first, a civics refresher: in our democratic society we have charged our public servants with the responsibility of caring for shared resources such as water and wildlife, pursuant to laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. Neutrality, fair play, and objectivity all signify public servants fulfilling their trust duties. The media plays a potentially key role in scrutinizing how well the government discharges these duties. An independent media matters, because citizens need to know whether officials vested with power are fulfilling their trust responsibilities or abusing their prerogatives, in order to make informed choices at the ballotbox and in other venues.

According to the dictionary, “to serve” means “perform duties or services for others.”  Public service thus involves a sacred trust between citizens and elected officials who make policy. Respect for the views of citizens and the media are expressions of the public trust.

So with this in mind…Gregg’s presentation started with a review of commendable agency co-existence work in communities around Greater Yellowstone, with the sensible observation: “no one has the universal answer.”   He then reversed course, evaluating press coverage with far less equanimity.

Rather than using metrics such as the thoroughness of the articles, the diversity of opinions represented, or the reliability of the reported science, Gregg assessed the quality of journalism on the basis of whether or not articles supported the government generally, and, more specifically, its position on stripping endangered species protections (or delisting) for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears—whether or not, more broadly, the coverage supported sport hunting bears. Simply put, the press was either “for us” or “against us.” (Note: as per the primer above, the job of the press is to evaluate the performance of the government, not the other way around).

In the frame of the Wizard of Oz, Gregg was essentially saying you are either a “Good Witch” (pro-government and pro-delisting) or a “Bad Witch” (critical or questioning of the government and its position on delisting and trophy hunting). Briefly, an image of my essay about how those who had defended grizzly bears were silenced by their government employers flashed upon the screen before the audience, with this comment: “People are bringing up strange things that honestly don’t tie into what we are doing”.  Which is to say (at least according to Losinski) that the integrity of agency bosses when it comes to managing grizzly bears is irrelevant. Really?

In any case, according to Gregg, I was not a Good Witch. For a moment I regretted not being in Jackson at the IGBC meeting in person.  As a long-term opponent of the government’s campaign to delist grizzly bears, part of me saw Gregg’s disparagement as a badge of honor. As someone who is trying to communicate a legitimate and worthwhile perspective, the rest of me felt betrayed.

Even though I was cast as a Bad Witch, I was in incredibly good company. There were several slides of headlines about the Indian Tribes who have come out in opposition to delisting, who were also portrayed as obstructionists. No less than 41 Indian Tribes have been arguing for protecting rather than hunting grizzly bears (link). In fact, Oglala representative Reuben Fast Horse presented a statement at the meeting in opposition to delisting and requesting formal consultation between the Tribes and the federal government, which has not yet occurred.

Since when does our government have the right to portray Tribes–sovereign nations–as “problems” when they exercise their First Amendment rights and demand that there be good faith implementation of numerous legislative and administrative mandates?

Another Bad Witch was Harmony Szarek, an Ohio State University graduate student of Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter.  Ms. Szarek recently completed her master’s thesis, which reported how a number of scientists viewed the question of delisting Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, and concluded that politics was a major factor shaping the views of these experts, despite the fact that decisions to list and delist species under the Endangered Species Act are supposed to rely on science (link). Losinski accused her of producing “shoddy science.” Why? Because apparently none of the inner circle of bear managers remembered receiving her questionnaire.

Gregg also showed a headline of an article that reported on the burgeoning opposition to trophy hunting of grizzly bears in British Columbia (BC). He cited this as yet another example of a problematic perspective despite the fact that, according to a widely reported poll by Insights West in Canada, over 90% of the citizens in BC are opposed to sport hunting grizzly bears (link).

Gregg is correct in seeing the tsunami of protest against trophy hunting of grizzly bears in BC as having implications for wildlife management in the US, but this is hardly a “problem,” unless you are invested in perpetuating current paternalistic power arrangements. It simply indicates that as a society, we are having a change of heart about our relationship with large carnivores. This shift indeed threatens the ethos of death and killing that undergirds traditional state wildlife management (link), but promises to replace it with a more life-affirming approach.

In various ways, we Bad Witches are challenging the wisdom of status quo management. Simply put, the Good Witches are those who support it.  For example, under the guise of “education,” Bear Trust International, one of the recognized Good Witches, is promoting a school curriculum that actually advocates delisting. Needless-to-say, one of its founders is none other than the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen, who has been promoting delisting for over two decades.

But wait: since when does our supposedly democratic government get to decide what defines good and bad media? Isn’t the government lurching in a dangerous direction by calling into question our First Amendment rights and the freedom of the press– the very freedoms that the public relies on to make informed choices?

In the grizzly bear arena, this agency behavior has been going on for decades. The scientific and historic complexity of the issues that typify grizzly bear management has handicapped most reporters, who are faced with ever-increasing space constraints and ever-shortening deadlines, both of which contribute to reporting that is biased in favor of the government’s positions (link).

In my many years of conservation work, I have also seen reporters lose sight of their function as journalistic watchdogs and opt for playing insider politicians themselves. There is, in fact, considerable confusion about the different discreet functions played by various entities in a healthy functioning democratic society.  It is as if we are collectively forgetting how civil society works, and letting dangerous trends slide.

For whatever reasons, it has become commonplace for media outlets to simply run government-issued press releases. And that is precisely what happened in the run-up to the Jackson meeting, when three pro-delisting releases were issued by the involved agencies within less than a week. The first admitted to high numbers of conflicts and grizzly bear killings, but largely attributed them to a growing bear population (link)–which the government’s own data calls into question (link).

The second featured grizzly bear # 211, also known as Scarface, whose life tale was used as a vehicle to convey a pro-delisting message (link). Ironically, the world that Scarface will wake up to next spring might be one where all of his previous protections have been stripped away.

The third was a release by the US Geologic Survey (USGS) of a new genetic study that essentially claimed a quadrupling of the Yellowstone population in a 10-year period—something that is biologically impossible (link). This last release was on Friday afternoon, ensuring that press would run over the weekend without any chance of a response from those who saw this science as being highly suspect. In a Google search, no less than 16 articles were found with no response to the government’s position.

All of that being said, it is truly impressive that despite over two decades of such media efforts on the part of the government, the vast majority of the concerned public has not bought off on the agencies’ pro-delisting message (link).

But my point here is that public servants should better serve the media and the public by being more even-handed and by more fairly sharing information. Again, public servants are responsible for protecting the public trust, not promoting a partisan political agenda.

The frame of Good Witches and Bad Witches does not, in fact, serve anybody who cares about the health of our democracy – although it does serve the agenda of powerful government employees who seem to prioritize the special interests of themselves and their agencies. No better way to do that than by setting more witches afire.

I would argue that our public servants would serve us all better if they would simply recognize that many of us are struggling to find a meaningful relationship with each other and with wild animals, epitomized by the grizzly bear. In this changing world, configuring these relationships is not easy. Maybe a starting place is to stop and then listen to each other’s stories about bears and our connections with them.

But for this to happen, the government has to be willing to drop its own agenda that serves a privileged minority. And officials must refrain from publicly criticizing—even condemning–the media and those who dare to question the “party line.”

In the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy was asked whether she was as Good Witch or a Bad Witch, she responded: “I am not really a witch at all.” Neither are I, Harmony Szarek, 90% of the citizens of BC, and over 41 Tribes.

Government officials must be held accountable for the fact that they are charged with protecting the public trust – which means the interests of ALL of us, not just a select few who want to kill bears. The press should redouble their committment to their watchdog function. And, if we care, we should demand something better from our public servants for us, our children, bears and the world we co-inhabit.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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