Contingencies of Coexistence: Parsing the Participants

Coexistence seems to be the new bling for environmentalists and bureaucrats making money and careers from wolves and grizzly bears, especially in the mayhem surrounding recent removals of federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for both species. The by-now old saw is that it doesn’t really matter whether these species are protected or not. In the end, it comes down to whether “people” accept these large carnivores, and whether there are on-the-ground measures to promote coexistence—which is fine at face value. But, in practice, there is more arm waving than substance and ample trite platitudes in lieu of sophisticated understanding when it comes to the contingencies of cohabiting with grizzlies and wolves. In fact, increasingly weak-kneed groups such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition seem to substitute platitudinous exertions and the rhetoric of coexistence for the kind of activism that actually requires a spine.

At one level, the art of coexisting with large carnivores such as bears, wolves, and cougars is not rocket science. The key ingredients are well known. Reduced to its essentials, cohabitation with large predators comes down to the skill and diligence with which involved people deploy available tools, whether they have sufficient monetary and material resources, and whether there is aid from knowledgeable coexistence professionals when needed.

But attitudes and worldviews are also critically important, especially to the extent that they affect whether people are motivated to even minimally exert themselves on behalf of coexisting with large carnivores, which is the main focus of this piece. That having been said, peoples’ perspectives can be overwhelmingly complex, which is why I also emphasize in this blog and the one next after some basic rubrics or categories that I’ve found useful for thinking about relations among people, landscapes, and coexistence challenges.

Some Tools

However, before I get into all of that, it’s probably useful to offer a high-altitude high-speed survey of the coexistence tools we have, starting with those designed to reduce conflicts with bears in our backyards…

Garbage Tools

The presence of foods near people is an enduring challenge with bruins, but one for which the solutions are in a category of no-brainers. Don’t leave dog food out on the porch. Don’t put out bird feeders. Get rid of garbage or put it in bear-proof containers, of which there are now many effective designs. If you don’t want bears in your yard, don’t plant fruit-producing shrubs and trees. If you care about your domesticated animals, bring them inside at night or, if you are raising chickens, pigs, or goats, make sure they are in a barn or stout electrified enclosure. And so on.

Examples of success on this front are legion. Conflicts between bears and people over human-associated foods have been reduced to nil in many places simply because private citizens or public lands managers deployed known tools. You need look no farther than Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, areas such as the Blackfoot River Valley, or towns such as Big Sky, West Yellowstone, and Cooke City. National Forests have contributed by providing bear-proof food storage boxes and garbage containers in campgrounds and backcountry campsites. Such places were once the locus of escalating and unnecessary conflicts between people and bears but, in many places, no longer.

Even so, despite lots of progress dealing with conflicts organized around food in peoples’ literal or figurative backyards, other conflicts between bears and people have escalated. Predation on livestock by grizzly bears has skyrocketed in the Yellowstone ecosystem, as have encounters with big game hunters over hunter-killed carrion or simply by chance with hunters out stalking their prey. Grizzlies along the East Front of the Rockies in north-central Montana are increasingly trampling through fields eating oats, wheat, and corn, as are grizzlies farther west in the Mission Valley. Many of these conflicts are on public land grazing allotments, others on public lands used for hunting, and some on private agricultural lands. Some involve crops, but most organize around bears competing with people for meat.

Livestock Tools

As with foods in peoples’ yards, there is no shortage of methods for reducing conflicts with bears over livestock, crops, or even animals killed by hunters. Electric fencing can work wonders protecting beehives, sheep, newborn calves, and corn fields. Collecting and composting the remains of livestock dying for all the reasons they do, rather than simply dumping them in a ditch behind the ranch house, can prevent bears developing a cow or sheep habit. Guard dogs and protective herding can help, as can making sure that livestock don’t bed down at night near the kind of cover used by bears for ambush. Low-stress herding also helps prevent the kind of bawling and bellowing that is tantamount to a dinner bell for bears and wolves. Being especially attentive to and protective of lambing ewes and calving cows is another no-brainer. And so forth.

Hunter Tools

For hunters, carry capsaicin bear spray, keep a clean camp, don’t dump carcasses nearby, and sure as hell don’t leave recent kills out—especially overnight—for a bear to find while you futz around getting friends to help cart it out. Moreover, expect to bump into bears if you sneak around in the woods or blunder down a path in the dark. To expect otherwise is just plain dumb. Et cetera…

Again, the basic point is that we don’t lack tools or even people trying to think of yet more clever non-lethal ways to promote cohabitation of people and carnivores.

The Problem of Attitudes and Motivation

What we do have are shortages of experts, accessible information, resources, law enforcement, and people willing to make meaningful efforts to prevent conflicts, accommodate predators, and accept residual risks. And, as it turns out, assiduous skillful effort never eliminates risk, whether of human injury or loss of livestock. Somebody will eventually get mauled; sheep and cow calves will get killed. The question is, how often and how seriously? In the end, people living among large carnivores need to abide some level of risk if meaningful coexistence of any sort is to occur—much like people driving 140 mph at each other on two-lane highways in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, not knowing whether the other person is DUI or on their smart phone texting a message.

Circling back to where I started, a nub issue when it comes to coexistence is what goes on between peoples’ ears—basically, their worldviews and attitudes. Just how motivated are people to implement the requisite coexistence practices versus complaining about the inconvenience and cost of living with predators while picking up the phone to avail themselves of predator-killers employed by the taxpayer-funded federal agency named Wildlife Services?

But “people” are not just one big smoosh, which is what’s so often implied when wildlife managers talk about “peoples’” or “the publics’” attitudes, usually when advocating the presumed necessity of killing predators paradoxically to recruit “peoples’” support for predators. In fact, even allowing for the fuzziness and complexity of perspectives, “people” not only can be usefully lumped into a few broad categories relevant to understanding on-the-ground practical problems of coexistence—but also need to be lumped if useful orientation to coexistence challenges is to occur, especially at broad scales. And, yes, this still allows for the necessity of dealing with individual humans at some point in the process.

With broad categories in mind, a handful have emerged from my several decades of observing people and human-wildlife conflicts in the northern Rockies of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. One schematic that I use at the broadest scale is comprised of four bins: Regressive Reprobates; Reluctant Pragmatists, Uninformed Innocents; and Affirmative Innovators. There are other categories that could be imagined, but I find that these four capture much of the relevant variation among people when diagnosing the main coexistence challenges at a regional scale; say, differentiating the East Front of the Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming from the Flathead Valley in northwestern Montana, or the rangeland of the High Divide in southwestern Montana from the dark forests of the Cabinet-Yaak in the far northwestern corner of the same state.

So, briefly…

Regressive Reprobates

Regressive Reprobates are those people devoted to the original ethos of subjugation that accompanied settlement of the West by Europeans. Nature is to be used and dominated, as are the wild animals therein. Wildlife is to be managed and controlled, with a key distinction made between “useful” wildlife such as elk or deer that are to be “harvested,” in the agricultural sense of the word, versus “useless” or harmful wildlife such as toads or wolves that are to be disregarded or even eliminated, with reluctant provision for persistence in the small postage stamps that we call National Parks.

Regressive Reprobates are well-represented among agricultural producers and in industries devoted to extraction of so-called natural resources, notably timber and mining. They have little or no interest in coexisting with large carnivores and are, in fact, often influential advocates for the elimination of wolves or even grizzly bears. They are often in positions of power. They typically see large carnivores as competitors for harvestable game and an economic cost. The last perspective is a bit ironic in that most of these peoples’ land-based incomes in the northern Rockies are heavily subsidized in one way or another by American taxpayers—including our classic welfare ranchers who benefit from cut-rate grazing on public lands and other substantial economic subsidies.

An aside on Wannabe Cowboys

One subset of Regressive Reprobates is worth noting given that much of the ranchland in the northern Rockies is owned by very wealthy people who are either largely absentee or, if in residence, removed by only a few generations from rich ancestors who bought their spread. This holds, for example, for most of the Red Rocks Valley, Madison Valley, Beaverhead-Ruby-Jefferson Valley, flanks of the Crazy Mountains, Boulder River Valley, Beartooth Front and upper reaches of the Clark’s Fork and Green River Valleys surrounding the Yellowstone ecosystem.

These people are not hard-scrabble ranchers barely surviving the rigors of raising livestock in this part of the world. Most have money to burn. Most can easily afford the costs of cohabiting with large carnivores. But there is a disturbingly large contingent of these rich folk, most of whom I call Wannabe Cowboys, that don’t want to make the effort. In fact, they seem to want to be more Cowboy than the cowboys, which often manifests as thuggish intolerance of predators. Less egregiously, some are also suckered by the perverse tax incentives propagated by state legislatures to keep people slaved to agricultural land uses. Having cattle not only justifies trotting around in cowboy paraphernalia; it also gets you an attractive tax break. For all of these reasons, rich Wannabe Cowboys are an interesting, distinguishable, perhaps sleazy, but not wholly overlapping subset of Regressive Reprobates.

Reluctant Pragmatists

Reluctant Pragmatists probably account for the majority of ranchers and farmers in the northern Rocky Mountains, which is a good thing when it comes to coexisting with large carnivores. Reluctant Pragmatists are typically not strident ideologues like Regressive Reprobates. Most of them reluctantly allow a place for large carnivores such as grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars in the landscapes where they live—hence reluctant pragmatists. At the very least, they grudgingly acknowledge that these animals and the people who love them are probably not going away any time soon. The derivative conclusion for most Reluctant Pragmatists is that they need to figure out the least costly but most effective ways to cohabit with wolves, grizzly bears, or even mountain lions. They often take pride in their skill at such endeavors. They are, in fact, the kinds of people that we tend to idealize as iconic Americans: mostly civil and pretty good at solving practical problems.

Uninformed Innocents

This group of people is a hodgepodge insofar as background, circumstances, and even worldviews are concerned. What they do share is substantial ignorance about carnivores, even to the extent of not knowing whether such animals roam where they live or recreate. They are innocents only in the sense that they have little in the way of prior intentions or motivation with respect to large potentially dangerous carnivores, including the potential rigors of coexistence. All of this usually changes with information or upon encountering creatures such as wolves or grizzly bears in the literal or figurative backyard, revealing perhaps a Recalcitrant Reprobate, a Reluctant Pragmatist, or even an Affirmative Innovator. But, until such transactions occur, Uninformed Innocents typically live their lives in blissful even careless ignorance—which creates its own set of problems.

Uninformed Innocents comprise many of those flocking to the northern Rockies from other regions, or even from urban areas such as Missoula or Spokane, to settle on exurban and suburban ranchettes where they then often haphazardly deal with garbage and domestic animals. These are the folks that end up with grizzlies on their porch eating dog food, cougars in the pen eating pet goats or pigs, or every sort of predator among the chickens eating them. These are the folks who call game wardens in a panic when they actually see an omnipresent mountain lion. This is the group that includes rich Clueless Urbanites who buy literal ranches, staffed by faux cowboys, imagining some sort of ensuing Disneyland full of fun and horseback riding up until “problems” occur, which may simply entail a long-range encounter with a grizzly bear.

An aside on Clueless Wimps

As a category, Uninformed Innocents also awkwardly includes a strange subset of largely out-of-state hunters who venture into grizzly bear habitat either not knowing that grizzlies are there, or so afraid, so unprepared, so ignorant of basic precautions and bear behavior as to guarantee hazardous encounters or inappropriate responses once one happens. A former boss of mine referred to them as Clueless Wimps. These are the ignoramuses from Nebraska who venture back in the dark from a hunt without carrying bear spray and, upon encountering a bear at some distance, can only think to “sling lead”—which often simply makes a tolerable situation into a bad one. These are the yahoos from Pennsylvania who gut-shoot an elk near dark, come back the next morning to find their presumed kill, and then decide any grizzly that’s appropriated the then-dead elk is a mortal threat. As often as not, these bad behaviors are aided and abetted by Recalcitrant Reprobates operating as local guides for such hunters. Clueless Wimps are perhaps a bit less innocent than other Uninformed Innocents, but certainly every bit as ignorant.

Affirmative Innovators

Affirmative Innovators are perhaps the most invested of any on the ground in developing, perfecting, and promoting practices that foster coexistence between people and carnivores. These are the folks that actually want large carnivores in the neighborhood, usually because they think it’s morally correct, but also because the presence of such animals invigorates and enriches their lives. This doesn’t mean that the presence of large potentially hazardous animals poses no challenges. Rather, Affirmative Innovators typically respond to challenges with commonsense and proven tools. The most creative and motivated of the lot innovate new methods and technologies. Some reach out to neighbors to cultivate tolerance and promote the adoption of preventative practices. Affirmative Innovators combine the virtues of pragmatism with a gift for creativity, nurtured by an expansive moral universe that accommodates wild animals and all of the accompanying richness, inconvenience, and even hazards.

An aside on Coexistence Professionals

Among Affirmative Innovators is an uncommon breed that identifies as Coexistence Professionals. These folks devote their professional lives to fostering the closest approximation we can hope for to peaceful coexistence between people and large carnivores. Coexistence Professionals typically focus on wolves and grizzly bears partly because these large carnivores are charismatic, endangered, yet colonizing new country; but more pragmatically, derivatively, because what little money there is to support coexistence work typically gets dumped on these two species.

Coexistence Professionals are rare enough, but effective Coexistence Professionals are rarer still. Not only are resources limited, so too are qualifying personalities. A truly effective professional needs to be highly skilled in coexistence techniques and, in addition, motivated, creative, modest, and respectful—on top of being knit-in to sustainable funding sources. Sustained motivation is needed simply because the work is hard, unending, and sometimes thankless. Modesty and respectfulness are requisite primarily because much of the work entails interaction with cantankerous people who easily take offense. And without obvious skill in the promulgated techniques, a Coexistence Professional is unlikely to be respected in turn. All-in-all, this combination of talents and traits is so scarce as to make numbers of effective Coexistence Professionals a major limiting factor.

An aside on Conscientious Conservationists

In keeping with a focus on rich land-owners, a final subpopulation of Affirmative Innovators is worth differentiating comprised of wealthy people I call Conscientious Conservationists. These folks stand in contrast too, although not exclusive of, Wannabe Cowboys. Unlike most Wannabe Cowboys, Conscientious Conservationists exert considerable effort and deploy substantial resources to foster coexistence with large predators. They are among the only livestock owners I know who have seriously considered getting rid of cows or sheep in places where landscape conditions guarantee chronic conflict, despite the most innovative of husbandry practices. But, then, most of these ostensible ranchers are so little dependent on income from livestock and so wealthy from other sources that they can afford such a move—one could argue, should consider such a move.

But There’s More

I’ve provided here a way of parsing out participants in the drama of people coexisting with large carnivores…at least according to a schematic that makes sense to me, with potential application to the northern US Rocky Mountains. But the real meat of the issue is then recognizing that these different participants respond differently to different modes of engagement, and that all of this coalesces in diagnostic ways to characterize specific landscapes.

In the second part of this series on contingencies of coexistence—to follow next week—I talk a bit more about relations between thematic participants and various broadly defined motivators, and how this maps onto literal landscapes, featuring the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, the Flathead-Mission Valleys, the East Front of the Montana Rockies, the Blackfoot Valley, the High Divide, and the east front of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

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