Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?

Photo by Denali National Park and Preserve | CC BY 2.0

Those people who were paying attention to the 2016 election will probably remember the furor surrounding a politically ill-advised quip by Hillary Clinton characterizing many of those who supported Trump as “a basket of deplorables who espouse racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic [and] Islamophobic sentiments.” She was pilloried for this single statement despite the fact that Trump made, and continues to make, a record-breaking number of grotesque misstatements, untruths, and lies. But this begs the question of whether Hillary’s description was, in fact, an accurate one, in contrast to much of what comes out of Trump’s mouth.

Basket of Deplorables, Indeed

Of direct relevance, I recently came across a peer-reviewed scientific article reporting a study in which the involved researchers directly tested the hypothesis that many of those who voted for Trump could, indeed, be legitimately described as “a basket of deplorables” [1]. They deployed a number of metrics that measured various prejudices, including flavors of racism, sexism, and other bigotry, as well as degree of support for authoritarian leaders and perpetuation of inequities that favored their ethnic ingroup. They then examined whether these measures differed between people who had voted for Trump versus Clinton—including the aggregate power of these measures to discriminate election results.

What they found is perhaps not surprising and a resounding affirmation of Clinton’s descriptor. Trump voters were far more Islamophobic, sexist, racist, and prejudiced against anyone perceived to be sexually deviant. They were also far more likely to support an authoritarian leader (e.g., Trump) as well as measures to secure their privileged group status, which aligned with the fact that they were more likely to be white, male, and self-identified Christians.

And the results of this research are not singular. There has been a veritable deluge of research published since the 2016 election aligning with the notion that Trump voters could, in the main, be fairly characterized as “a basket of deplorables.” A sampler includes research that found these folks to be, yes, more authoritarian in their views and invested in perpetuating inequities that favored their white male Christian ingroup [1,2,3,5,6]; chauvinistic and sexist, to the detriment of women [1,3,7]; prejudiced against minorities [1,3,8]; less well-informed, less able to reason, and thereby more easily manipulated [5,9]; motivated by perceived threats to their privileged status by burgeoning minorities [6,10,11]; prey to collective narcissism [8,11]; and, despite claims of being ‘real Americans’, by and large making fewer contributions to our nation-state [12].

And Then Guns…

Another well-documented dimension of all this pertains to gun ownership and trophy hunting. A recent report by the Pew Research Center [13] has yet again conclusively documented that Republicans and, more broadly, conservatives are far more likely than other Americans to own guns—often many guns. And this pattern closely maps onto the fact that, compared to any other demographic, a substantially larger percentage of white conservative males are likely to be besotted with guns, even unto considering gun ownership to be a core part of their identity. These illiberal white guys have an alarming tendency to always have a loaded, often concealed, firearm near at hand. And, empowered by the NRA, they are near monolithic in their support of Trump [14].

The tacit message is that a disproportionate number of white males arm themselves in paranoid reaction to (in their minds) a sinister world increasingly populated by Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, liberated women, homosexuals, and transgendered people, all of whom pose an economic, political, and even existential threat. Dare I say that our guns owners are disproportionately comprised of people who belong in “a basket of deplorables”? They certainly fit the profile.

And Hunters…

The extension to hunters is pretty straightforward. Although to my knowledge nobody has explicitly surveyed the American electorate to determine relations between participation in hunting and support for Trump, a strong connection has only two degrees of separation. By definition, virtually all hunters own guns and, from that, likely fall within the broad profile described by the Pew report I introduce immediately above. Moreover, routine government surveys confirm that hunters are almost wholly comprised of white guys who often live in rural areas [see this blog].

These men are also inclined to feature domination in their view of relations between humans and wildlife—most potently, by killing stuff [and this blog]. And their seminal iconography centers on a disturbing obsession with sexual potency manifest as collections of body parts from putatively virile animals such as bull elk and ferocious predators [and this blog again].  Perhaps, here again, white guys are compensating for an increasingly diminished sense of themselves and their potency through an alarming infatuation with killing things. A basket of deplorables? Hmm…

From all of this, I suspect that when you crank down the resolution of demographic categories, virtually every white gun-owning bigoted male hunter—and who bothered to vote—cast his ballot for Trump and warrants the descriptor ‘deplorable’.

And, So?

Well, that’s interesting, but what does it have to do with grizzly bears, more specifically, management and conservation of the few remaining grizzlies we have left in the contiguous United States? Given what I’ve described, it’s probably not too hard to connect the dots.

A Brief History

Grizzly bears in the contiguous US were given Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections over 40 years ago in response to on-going population declines that continued the slaughter perpetrated by Europeans between 1800 and 1940. Notably, these pre-ESA declines were under the auspices of management by the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. With ESA protections, authority for management was handed to the US Fish & Wildlife Service along with a mandate for recovery.

Since the mid-1980s, our two largest grizzly bear populations—in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems—have seen modest numeric increases. Shortly after these increases were detected, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, largely for perverse political reasons, started scheming to remove ESA protections. After several earlier attempts were thwarted by litigation brought by environmentalists, the Service finally succeeded in removing protections from the Yellowstone population in 2017. The upshot has been divestiture of authority back to the states under whose watch the grizzlies had become endangered in the first place.

Despite nation-wide public concerns, state managers have not only eagerly embraced management authority, but enthusiastically embarked on a grizzly bear trophy hunt. An outpouring of objections has been met by bland admonitions to just simply trust state wildlife managers.


Management by Deplorables

Trust is not warranted for several good reasons. The most succinct is simply that management of our iconic Yellowstone grizzlies is now firmly in the hands of ‘a basket of deplorables’. To wit…

Wyoming contains most of the grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This state’s wildlife managers are also the most enthusiastic promoters of sport hunting that will, as I write, prospectively kill at least 22 grizzlies.

So let’s look a little more closely at Wyoming. Here, as pretty much everywhere in the West, state wildlife managers are slaved to the interests of sport hunters and, less directly, livestock producers. Enslavement to hunters arises from financial dependencies and cultural affinities. Most funding for Wyoming Game & Fish Department comes directly or indirectly from hunters and gun owners, either through sales of hunting and fishing licenses or federal grants derived from nationwide taxes on the sales of arms and ammunition. Culturally, ties arise from a pervasive and avid shared interest in hunting among agency personnel and members of the governing Commission, almost all of whom are…white males. And just about all the hunters in Wyoming are—you guessed it—white males (see this blog again).

It is no surprise, then, that decision-making by state wildlife managers channels the interests of hunters, most of whom want to see grizzly bears hunted. But, notably, nearly 70% of the American public opposes hunting Yellowstone’s grizzlies versus only 20% who are supportive [15]. In fact, as I noted in an earlier piece, around 70% of Americans consider sport hunting of any sort to be unethical. Even more disturbing, over 99% of adult Americans became disenfranchised overnight from any say whatsoever in management of Yellowstone grizzlies when ESA protections were removed in August 2017. This alone is problematic on the grounds of equal representation.

The Political Context

But the larger social political context of Wyoming guarantees disregard for any sensibilities other than those of largely conservative Trump-voting hunters in management of Yellowstone grizzly bears (see above).

The 2016 presidential vote alone is signifying. Over 67% of the 255,849 people who voted in Wyoming cast their ballot for Trump. Averaged over the tristate region containing the Yellowstone ecosystem, the figure was 60%. This is 30% more Trump voters than the national average, which aligns with the fact that, demographically, the region is 40% more (non-Hispanic) white.

Compounding these election-specific results, 72% of all state legislators in the tristate region are Republicans, with the skew even more extreme in Wyoming where Republicans comprise a stultifying 87% of the total. Parenthetically, women comprise only 23% of all legislators regionally. And, of the 10 national representatives, 9 are Republicans (4 Representatives and 3 Senators)—and only 1 is a woman.

Regardless of the broader and perhaps more diverse complexion of political perspectives among the populace of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, a distinctly partisan and increasingly extreme rendering is guaranteed by the gutting of political diversity and morality implicit to the dominance of a political party (i.e., Republican) so manifestly indifferent to democratic and representational norms. Lest you forget, it is self-ascribed Republicans who have the most authoritarian inclinations and subscribe most enthusiastically to racial, ethnic, and sexual prejudices.

Remedial Civics

It is perhaps emblematic of the extent to which my faith in fundamental human decency has been shaken lately—along with my reckoning of support for basic democratic principles among my fellow citizens—that I take the space here to recite some fundamental tenets of a dignified human existence.

Prejudice against others because they are of a different race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or sexual identification is not virtuous. Nor is it praiseworthy to maintain privileged access to resources, opportunity, and power at a cost to most other people. Women should not be viewed by men as chattels or in any other way as beings of lesser rank. More practically, despotic authoritarian governments and regimes are, in fact, hugely destructive to human well-being. I would hope that all this goes without saying, but the current reign of Deplorables has sincerely made me wonder.

Deplorables Über Alles

Taking these tenets as given, that are a few conclusions that arise from the thesis I present here of direct relevance to grizzly bears and the people who care about them—and, moreover, of relevance to anyone who cares about a charitable democracy.

The institution of wildlife management in the United States is an embodiment of the deplorable traits highlighted by the Trump election, and none more so than the  Wyoming Game & Fish and Idaho Fish & Game Departments. They are run by and answer to ‘customers’ and Commissioners who are poster children for the Deplorables basket. Even more egregiously, these agencies are fundamentally despotic, unrepresentative, and indifferent to the interests and values of a super-majority of Americans—especially all of those that the Deplorables love to hate. As an upshot, the 70% plus of people, nationally, who value grizzlies simply because they exist, or because they are captivated by the bear’s magic, have absolutely no voice in how Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are currently managed.

And I say this recognizing that wildlife management agencies are full of the proverbial “nice guys” who are, unfortunately, nice guys who love guns, kill animals to prop up their egos, manifest bigotry and sexism, and happily disenfranchise people who are different. Ironically, there are many of the disenfranchised who fall prey to the “the nice guy fallacy,” captivated as they are by superficial appearances and unable to apprehend structural, institutional, and deeper psychological patterns.

Disserving the Public Trust

The states of Wyoming and Idaho are not worthy of, nor capable of fulfilling, the national public trust, especially in management of an iconic beloved animal such as Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Perhaps as much to the point, the citizens of these two states, expressed as an aggregate modality, apparently do not have the kind of civic virtue and democratic character needed to foster the institutions required to implement national trust responsibilities. Without intending to sound too harsh, such responsibilities, symbolized by conservation of our internationally cherished grizzlies, require much more empathy and incorruptibility than we can expect from the basket of deplorables currently in charge Wyoming’s and Idaho’s political apparatus.

The citizens and politicians of these two states have rendered a verdict on themselves with their ardent support for Trump, not only in the 2016 election, but in the time since. And it is not flattering—nor does it inspire trust.

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