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Drawing the Line on Bears

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The beloved Teddy Bear is rooted in surprising controversy. In 1906, the life of the model for the first Teddy Bear was spared by President Theodore Roosevelt. The descendants of the president’s namesake survive mostly in the swamps and hardwood forests of Louisiana and Mississippi. But today they are threatened and, like other bears, in need of a presidential pardon.

The story of the doll goes like this. President Roosevelt refused to kill a black bear cub whose mom had been killed for the president’s sporting pleasure. Roosevelt was in Mississippi in an effort to resolve a boundary dispute with Louisiana. Clifford Berryman, a well-known political cartoonist, captured the incident and the president’s disgust at the situation. In the next 6 months, several doll-makers had sewn the likeness of Teddy, a baby bear with glass eyes and a bow tie. Today, what child in America does not get quiet comfort from a Teddy?

For the real Teddy, there was the idea of limits, depths to which even a hard-bitten big game killer – albeit a conservation oriented one—would not stoop. Among other things, not a helpless cub tied to a tree.

How about a friendly Yellowstone grizzly bear such as the famous photogenic 760, grandson of the even more renowned 399, the “Grizzly of Pilgrim Creek” and topic of recent photo essay book by Tom Mangelson and Todd Wilkinson?  This bear had never committed a crime, but a year ago sniffed out a hanging deer quarter (like any curious, friendly bear might) in the wrong zip code in Wyoming, where there was an order for Wyoming Game and Fish to bait and kill him.

What about the innocent grizzly bear that did not know that there was an elk hunt going on in Grand Teton national park (of all places) a few years back, and was shot and killed by an elk hunter in an “accident”? After all, elk are well known attractants, and there is good reason that almost all national parks prohibit hunting: parks are for the preservation of nature.

How about Wyoming’s upper Green River area, where more grizzly bears are coming into conflict with cattle in the wake of the loss of the seeds of whitebark pine, a key staple of grizzly bears until climate change wiped out the forests in the last decade?

Is the answer to remove federal endangered species protections (in other words, “delist”) from Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, and get rid of as many bears as possible in the Upper Green, as some ranchers might hope? Or, might the answer be to consider limits, in the form of different husbandry practices, as Teddy might advocate if he were yet living?

These are not just any bears, these are threatened bears. According to the federal government maybe 2,000 total still live in the lower 48 states, with less than half of them in and around Yellowstone. The last of the last taking refuge among us, essentially what we have left after we wiped out 99% of them and plowed under and cut down their wilderness home.

We caught ourselves before we killed off the rest. Not unlike Teddy, as a society we drew the line with the Endangered Species Act, or so we thought.

This line applies not just grizzly bears, but to Louisiana black bears, which are a genetically unique subspecies, secretive and remarkably tolerant of relatively high numbers of people.

These threatened black bears, like grizzly bears, are not doing well, for essentially the same reasons: too much killing and habitat destruction. Like all bears, these black bears have very low reproductive rates and cannot suffer high rates of killing. There are only a few hundred left in the last 20% of the bottomland forest that has not yet been converted to agriculture (link).

Both grizzly bears and Louisiana black bears are also threatened by premature delisting.  Last summer, the Obama administration proposed delisting the Louisiana black bear, despite ongoing high mortalities from human-bear conflicts and vehicle collisions, and problems posed by habitat fragmentation and isolation of the remaining subpopulations (link).

A hunt could begin next summer.  And soon, likely, the Yellowstone grizzly. Predictably, bear hunters in both places are pushing for trophy hunting  (link) and industry is chafing for easier access to the forests.

These hunters are particularly influential because of the institutionalized ethos of domination and death that pervades our state wildlife management agencies (link). There is perhaps no better example of state attitudes towards bears than the decision of Louisiana Game and Fish to serve meat of a threatened black bear at its National Hunting and Fishing Day in Baton Rouge (link). The poor bear had been killed in response to a conflict.

For Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and Louisiana’s black bears, Florida is perhaps the spirit of Christmas future. Florida also boasts a genetically unique subspecies of black bear. Roughly 20% of their habitat has been destroyed (link), and habitat continues to shrink as a result of human encroachment. More people move into the state every week than there are black bears in all of Florida (link). It is not surprising that conflicts are mounting.

For the last 23 years, hunting of federally protected Florida black bears was banned (link). Delisted in 2012, the state reinstated hunting last October, over the objection of 75% of those who submitted comments to the state (link). A state-wide poll conducted by Humane Society of the United States showed that, rather than resort to sport hunting, most Floridians preferred outreach, education and better sanitation to manage conflicts (link). 

Turning the Teddy Bear story on its head, Florida Wildlife Commission Chairman, Richard Corbett, said:

“Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we’re talking about teddy bears. ‘Oh Lord, don’t hurt my little teddy bear!’ Well these bears are dangerous…. Do you want blood on your hands? We don’t. We have taken a step (link).”

Notwithstanding the fact that no one in Florida has ever been killed by a black bear, the step taken by the Florida Wildlife Commission was instituting a sport hunt on black bears. During just two days in October, about three hundred bears were killed, roughly 10% of the population (link). For the strong of stomach, a photo essay by Richard Foster in the Daily Kumquat is worth viewing (link). This is the face of sport hunting for bears. Hunters called the event a smashing success (link). 

Florida officials explained that the hunt was needed to reduce bear conflicts with people (link). This argument is the same as what you hear in Wyoming. But hunting cannot solve conflicts because it does not occur where most of the conflicts do: near homes and developments. For a hunt to effectively address conflicts, a huge chunk of the population would need to be exterminated.

The real reason for the hunt?  To satisfy the demands of a minority of sport hunters.

But most people have shown themselves to be bigger-hearted. Time after time, in Wyoming, Florida, Louisiana, elsewhere, in comments to government officials and in the media, people draw the line differently, saying that alive, bears enrich their lives. They say they deserve to survive unmolested in the last of a shrinking wilderness. Concerning the hunt, special sympathy is often extended to cubs who can be orphaned. Born helpless, no bigger than a tea cup, cubs rely on mom for their first two years to learn the ropes of life.

We know now what many in Teddy’s day may not have appreciated: that animals are sentient beings that experience joy, grief, pleasure, and pain just like we do. Their lives are complicated and multidimensional. The more we learn, the more amazingly resourceful and adaptively successful animals prove themselves — especially bears, with their almost magical ability to hibernate.

Even in relatively crowded states like Florida, more bears can be sustained if people choose to accommodate them.

But that means drawing a different line regarding our own behavior, and that of our government  institutions, particularly regarding killing. Where will that line be?

And where is Teddy – “ a  man with a conscience” — when we need him?

More articles by:

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

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