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Grizzlies Symbolize Transformation, and Challenge Us to Transform Governance

Photo by  Roger Hayden

Photo by  Roger Hayden

Bears are up and about again, a living announcement of spring. With their miraculous ability to hibernate, bears have always symbolized transformation and renewal (link). A mother bear seemingly dies in winter, interred in the earth, only to re-emerge with new life in the spring. The process is a mystery which scientists do not yet fully understand — as perhaps it should be.   

Transformation is a central issue, because our society, as well as perhaps the rest of life on Earth, needs us to abandon our technocratic despotism –which leaves everybody but an elite, empowered few largely excluded from decisions that affect us all.

Apropos of transformation, we have seen a softening of our relationship with large carnivores, including grizzly bears, during the last half-century. Without protections offered by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), wolves and grizzlies would likely have disappeared from the contiguous United States.

But, even after 40 years of protection, grizzlies still occupy just 3% of their former range (link). Worse, bears have been relegated to ecological islands. Vulnerability to inbreeding as well as climate-driven deterioration of habitat predictably follows. We can and must do better.

The Surprising Speed of Change

Our relationships with bears and other wildlife can, in fact, change quickly. It took only 60 years during the late-1800s and early-1900s for European settlers to wipe out grizzlies in 97% of their former range — leaving only five remnant populations, with most grizzlies relegated to islands in and around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Armed with guns and Bibles, settlers eradicated anything and anybody that got in the way of “progress,” including peoples who had been here thousands of years — and had coexisted with grizzlies who they still see as relatives, healers and guides.

More recently we have seen a remarkable and more benevolent shift. After wreaking havoc on ecosystems throughout the world, people have begun to rediscover their empathy for the “wild other.” Passed in 1973, the ESA codified this shift in values.

Progress Toward Recovery

With the implementation of ESA protections in 1975, grizzly bear numbers have increased (link), along with occupancy of habitat south and west of Yellowstone Park and south and east of Glacier. Venturesome bears are showing with their paws that our current fragmented populations can be reconnected.

The most promising linkages between Yellowstone’s long-isolated grizzlies and their kin to the north runs through Central Idaho’s vast wildlands (see map below). Grizzlies once flourished in this remote wilderness, but were extirpated by hunters, miners, and sheep-herders with a genocidal attitude.

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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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