Disserving the Public Trust: the Ethos of State Grizzly Bear Management


Most people are familiar with the term worldview. In academe, scholars such as David Naugle (“Worldview”), Jim Sire (“Naming the Elephant”), and Mark Koltko-Rivera (“The Psychology of Worldviews”) have helpfully summarized the history of this pedigreed concept and its relevance to understanding the human condition. For me, worldview is central to understanding otherwise inexplicable human behaviors—including the verbiage that comes out of most peoples’ mouths.

What is a worldview? Intuitively, one could simply understand it as a “view of the world” that people carry around in their heads. But what does that mean? By all indications, worldview is the portal through which we make meaning of the overwhelming smoosh of sensory experience, which then dictates how we each orient to the world. Worldview is fundamentally semantical and semiotic in nature—configured and represented through internalized stories that we tell about the world and ourselves in it, saturated with emotion-laden icons and symbols. Worldview distills and integrates values, impulses, attractions, fears, and even terrors. Worldviews are typically illogical, incoherent, and resistant to change, largely because they are so intertwined with our identities and social networks. Worldviews are powerful stuff.

But worldviews are not some sort of concrete thing that we can unambiguously measure like we can, for example, the diameter of a tree. Nonetheless, because worldviews so powerfully configure what we say and do, it is actually quite easy to use any number of indices to build a reliable picture of this phenomenon for individuals or communities. Analysis of written texts is one approach. Analysis of repeatedly deployed symbols and images is another. And surveys that elicit peoples’ responses to carefully crafted questions are another yet. All of which is to say that social science does provide a box of tools that allows us to usefully describe worldviews.


Various scholars have gone even further to describe typologies by which we can categorize how people view the natural world and themselves in it—what I call “nature-views.” Academics such as Mike Manfredo and Tara Teel at Colorado State University came up with a relatively straight-forward systemcomprised of four categories or bins. Steve Kellert of Yale University came up with a more nuanced schematic comprised of between eight and nine categories (see his “Value of Life”). Whatever the typology, a major dimension consistently emerges along which most peoples’ nature-views can be arrayed. At one extreme is a view that nature—and animals therein—is/are to be dominated and used. At the other extreme is a view that emphasizes intimate, aesthetic, even anthropomorphic connections.

And, Again, Grizzly Bears

All of this is relevant to understanding what goes on with state-level management of our wildlife and, in turn, anticipating what will happen to Yellowstone’s grizzly bears if Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections are removed and the bears turned over to the tender mercies of state wildlife managers. And, likewise, relevant to understanding why these managers and the Commissioners who oversee them are frothing at the mouth to start trophy-hunting grizzlies once authority is surrendered to the states by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS)—the same people who are seemingly obsessed with power, control, and meting out death (see my essay on Divvying Up the Dead).

In my previous essay of this three-part series I emphasized governance problems in our current management of wildlife by the states, along with the extent to which this management is enslaved to a very narrow demographic (i.e., white guys) and an equally narrow set of special interests organized around hunting—which is to say, killing stuff. But here I emphasize the worldviews that inform the despotic and corrupt system I described.

And, just to be clear, none of what I say should be construed as an interest in doing away with hunting. That is not my intent or motivation. In fact, I’ve spent most of my professional career studying—and admiring—animals that kill stuff. But at the same time, I strongly believe that not all worldviews are equal, nor are the moral and ethical systems embedded in these worldviews equal. Some worldviews and the nature-views therein yield toxic results. Others do not. As simple as that, and to believe otherwise is to descend into a quagmire of relativism that is guaranteed to yield nasty outcomes for humanity.

Nature-views, Hunting, and Carnivores 

So, what are the worldviews that motivate the dominant paradigm of wildlife management? A full description of these views would be overwhelming—and diverse they are—so instead I focus here on modalities, dominant themes if you will. The point being that those who are invested in and benefiting from status quo wildlife management adhere in varying degrees to a number of nature-views. But this does not negate the fact that some views are dominant, especially when it comes to driving how state wildlife agencies manage large carnivores including, potentially, our Yellowstone grizzly bears.

I’ll start with one particularly interesting research project that I supervised, undertaken by Liz Ruther, inquiring into peoples’ attitudes towards mountain lions, including their relevant behaviors. We asked a random sample of adults whether they would support various measures to protect or conserve mountain lions, including whether they would support a ban on killing juvenile lions, limit the killing of females, or support measures to conserve important lion habitat. On the behavior front, we asked whether they hunted, had killed a lion, or carried a firearm in the woods for protection—versus nothing at all or a non-lethal deterrent such as pepper spray. But of particular relevance here, we also asked people a number of questions designed to help us explain attitudes and behaviors. In particular, we asked questions that allowed us to score people on the basis of how strongly they adhered to a particular nature-view—among others, a belief in dominating and using nature.

The results were striking. The degree to which our respondents adhered to a belief that nature and animals were here to be used and dominated explained most patterns. Figure 1 shows the main relations. People who adhered more strongly to this ethos were far more likely to carry firearms, hunt, and have killed a mountain lion (AKA cougar). They likewise were far more likely to oppose (or not support) any measure that would limit the killing of lions. And, most noteworthy, they did not favor measures to protect habitat for the benefit of lion conservation.

Figure 1. This figure shows some key results from a study of peoples’ perspectives on mountain lions, based on a random survey of adults. The extent to which respondents believed in domination and use of nature was strongly related to the likelihood that they would exhibit lethal behaviors and oppose policies that would conserve mountain lions.

These policy-related results warrant comment because they run counter to the myth that intertwines with the North American Model of Wildlife Management (i.e., the Model). The Model claims that hunters (as per our results, those adhering to the domination and use ethos) universally support measures that conserve wildlife—all wildlife. Yet here we found that those most closely identified with hunting and status quo wildlife management were hostile to essentially any measure that would conserve or otherwise curb the killing of a large carnivore—in this case, mountain lions.

As it turns out, our results were consistent with a wealth of other information showing that many (most?) big-game hunters see predators, not as anything intrinsically worth conserving, but rather as competitors for opportunities to kill large herbivores such as elk, deer, moose, and bighorn sheep. So, invoking the language of Freud, not a stance informed by the superego, but rather by the ego—the drive for self-gratification. Which is not surprising given the extent to which the rhetoric promoting the Model unabashedly invokes selfishness as major motivation for those being served by it (Closely read this authoritative document with a critical eye if you doubt this claim).

The Iconography of Hunting

Another of my recent projects was equally enlightening. I had gotten interested in the iconography of hunting, more specifically, the seminal icons being promoted by hunting-related magazines. Casting this in more abstract terms, what identities and identifications were being broadcast by literature that served the hunting community? A casual glance through several magazines was enough to clarify candidate icons, including images of white people (versus people of color), men (versus women), arms and ammunition (versus pages without), dead (versus live) animals, and the percentage of these animals that were males with prominent sex-linked organs (i.e., horns and antlers). I tallied all of the relevant images from a relatively broad spectrum of magazines that I picked up at the local book store, ranging from fringe publications such as Predator Xtreme to more stolid products such as Field and Stream. As a point of contrast, I also included magazines with a non-hunting outdoor focus, including Outside and Trail Runner.

Figure 2. The results of a survey of images in hunting and non-hunting outdoor oriented magazines, with each bar specific to each magazine. The heights of the bars denote, left, the proportion of all animals shown that were dead (killed by a hunter), middle, the proportion of all animals that were males (almost invariably bucks or bulls), and, right, the proportion of pages that showed a weapon or ammunition.

The results were not subtle. The bar charts in figure 2 show what I found, with each bar a result for the corresponding magazine labeled along the horizontal (or x-) axis. In virtually all of the hunting magazines dead animals accounted for the majority of animal pictures, in Trophy Hunter reaching a staggering 80%. Even more dramatically, bucks and bulls (i.e., animals with exaggerated sex-linked organs) accounted for 80-90% of all animal images in all of the hunting magazines but one—Predator Xtreme—which focused primarily on showing dead carnivores irrespective of sex. Not coincidently, weapons or ammunition showed up on between 20 and 65% of all pages, most prominently in Predator Xtreme and Bow Hunting.

And what about the faces smiling or otherwise looking back from the pages of these magazines (figure 3)? Of the hunting/fishing mags, between 85 and 95% were men and only 3 were of people evidencing any ethnicity other than Caucasian…less than 1% of the total. Interestingly, two of these were of President Obama as part of diatribes against some of his favored policies. The third was of a black man portrayed…as a zombie!

Figure 3. Additional results of the survey of images in hunting and non-hunting outdoor oriented magazines, with each bar specific to each magazine. The heights of the bars denote, left, the proportion of all people shown who were male and, right, the proportion who were of any evident color, including Hispanic—i.e., not evidently Caucasian. Note that the scale for men versus women starts at 50%.

Just for giggles, I later tested these results against what I found in a magazine that I picked up in a doctor’s office, Bugle, the official magazine of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. There was little or no difference. Of the pictured people, 99% were white and 93% were male. Of the animals, 93% had horns or antlers, although a more modest 30% were dead. Arms and ammunition showed up on 39% of all the pages.

What can be concluded from this? Well, I suppose you could argue that definitive conclusions would need to await a more comprehensive study. But I am willing to wager a substantial amount of money that the extreme results I found would only be confirmed. In short, the iconography of magazines explicitly serving the hunting community features death, iconizes weapons, makes fetishes of sexual organs, and instrumentalizes sentient beings, all of which is consistent with the ethos of domination and use. And, not surprisingly, the faces looking out of these mags are a mirror of the narrow demographic that hunts—mostly white males (see my first essay of this series).

Parenthetically, I did not find any hunter-oriented magazines entitled something like Compassionate Sportsman or Benevolent Bowhunter, or even one approximately named Meat Hunter, featuring photos of prime backstrap and flank steak (although there is a website named Meateater, but featuring the usual assortment of trophy shoots and sexualized animals). Which is to say, for all that many hunters might claim they hunt for meat, or hold a benevolent view of wildlife, these kinds of orientations are notably absent from the iconography of materials produced for public consumption.

Embrangled Sexism

But before I wrap this up and come to my concluding points, I need to mention one very important embranglement—with sex and sexism. This thread is suggested by the few photos of women that I found in hunting magazines. Some images actually presented empowered self-confident camo-clad females competently brandishing guns. But there were also a disturbing number of photos featuring scantily-clad nymphs brandishing guns in a way that reeked of sexual innuendo. And, in fact, several academics, most notably rooted in the field of women’s studies (e.g., Linda Kalof, follow this link and this link), have presented compelling evidence that masculine sexual pursuits blur with sport hunting, in one extreme case, manifest as men literally hunting fleeing naked women in a video game marketed primarily to hunters. All of which is consistent with a memorable experience of mine dropping in on a social event hosted by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, greeted by a throng of white guys immersed in throbbing background music watching films of muscular bull elk wrestling prior to then mounting closely-herded pliant cows.

Interestingly, I’ve personally witnessed the extent to which sexism contaminates debates over management of large carnivores such as grizzly bears. As it turns out, advocates for the welfare, rights, and conservation of large carnivores are disproportionately female and urban-dwelling and, moreover, better educated than those advocating hunting (and opposing protections) on the other side of the issue. This disparity in identities readily translates into a heightening of disparagements and vitriol that invoke gender, perhaps not surprisingly, primarily on the side of the mostly male rural-dwelling hunters (for example, this paper by Rachel Einwohner). That being said, the women I’ve interacted with can have strong views and feelings, but they seem to also preserve a greater generosity of spirit. Basically what you would expect.

Not All Worldviews are Equal

So, what can be made of all this? I find the core ethos of especially trophy hunting to be highly problematic. The actualization of this ethos by state wildlife managers and Commissioners is, in fact, the genesis of bad outcomes for both people and animals—especially large carnivores such as wolves and bears. My first essay elaborated on some of the bad outcomes for people, my third will do the same for the affected animals.

Hopefully I don’t sound too uncharitable when I note that the dominant worldview of trophy hunters, manifest in most hunting organizations and hunter-focused literature, features the meting out of death to male ungulates sporting massive horns or antlers—followed by the perennial glory shot. It is not too much of a stretch to make a connection between this fact and an impulse to enhance self-perceived potency by killing something that is so graphically virile. Likewise, researchers such as Chris Darimont and Paul Johnson have shown a similar dynamic organized around the killing of large “fierce” predators. No doubt this is an ancient impulse for guys, but such a pedigree doesn’t make it anymore laudable, virtuous, or appealing. Manage animals such as grizzly bears so that men can go out and kill them as trophies to cart home as a symbol of their potency and power? Understandable, but not a basis for public policy or the management of a public trust such as wildlife.

Which brings me back to a point I started with: not all worldviews or associated ethical systems are equal. In fact, there are many that I would personally like to see fade away because they are the product of ancestral lifeways that yielded intolerance, parochial perspectives, a small moral universe…and lots of violence. Scholars as diverse as Stephen Pinker (“Better Angels of Our Nature”), Peter Singer (“The Expanding Circle”), Shalom Schwartz (“Universalism Values…”), and Myres McDougal (“Human Rights and World Public Order”) have observed an encouraging decline in human-on-human violence along with a correlated increase in the extent of our moral sphere, entailing an ever broadening ascription of full rights and standing to ever dissimilar people—including of different races, ethnicities, sex, ages, and, now, sexual orientation and identifications. This has been an incredibly important and encouraging trend. And some, including Pinker and Singer, have observed that the current frontier is our view of animals and their prospective rights. Which is to say, current debates over how we treat (i.e., “manage”) animals are as much a reflection of the journey we Europeans have been on with ourselves as it is about the animals themselves.

I have no doubt that the current dominant ethos of hunting and state wildlife management is not only a cultural throwback, but also a regressive, even destructive, influence in our society—especially the worldview that spawns trophy hunting. Hey guys, get over it, or if you need to kill things such as grizzly bears as a virility-enhancing move, don’t impose that need as a defining construct on an institution that should instead be serving as public trustee.

David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago.