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Collective Narcissism and the Plight of Brown Bears in Europe and America

In common with the rest of humanity, American’s often engage in bombastic displays of national chauvinism. At its most negative, some scholars have likened this impulse to collective narcissism [1]: “…an inflated, unrealistic view of the national ingroup’s greatness contingent on external recognition.” Perhaps out of political necessity, those intent on mobilizing the American public fall prey to different flavors of chauvinism. Politicians such as President Obama did, and do so, in a more cerebral and tempered way. Politicians such as Trump and his rabid followers exhibit narcissism as crass vitriolic spew. Of parenthetical relevance, adherence to collective narcissism was a powerful predictor of presidential voting patterns during 2016, with those scoring higher on this psychopathologic impulse more likely to vote for Trump [2]. Among them could be counted virtually all of the white male trophy hunters.

Strangely enough, management of grizzly bears in the contiguous US has seen its own displays of collective narcissism, usually in the form of inflated claims by state and federal grizzly bear managers. Most notably, these proclamations of ingroup greatness include assertions about the prowess and accomplishments of bear managers, even unto taking full credit for the presumed ‘recovery’ of threatened grizzly bear populations. Given such claims, implacable logic leads to the related presumed need to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections, as has been recently done for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. In keeping with the tenets of collective narcissism, such avowals are a predictable response of ingroup members (i.e., grizzly bear managers and trophy-hunting allies) to mounting external political threats, as in the current contentious debates and related litigation surrounding grizzly bear management—including embedded definitions of ‘success.’

‘Success’ is, indeed, a remarkably fungible, easily politicized, and invariably relative notion. Success to one person can be failure to another—as in judgements of grizzly bear recovery. And, importantly, not all reckonings of success are morally equivalent. At times, some have judged the genocidal cleansing of an alien outgroup to be ‘success’. To others, ‘success’ is betokened by the harmonious coexistence of diverse ethnic, racial, and sexual groups. I have no doubt which is the more virtuous form of ‘success.’

A Comparative History of Extirpations

Leaving all this aside for the moment, it is interesting to examine the comparative outcomes of grizzly and brown bear management in Europe and the United States during the last 50 or so years with definitions of success in mind—noting that brown/grizzly bears are all of the same species, Ursus arctos. This comparison is especially intriguing because we Americans have a chronic tendency to reckon ourselves superior in virtually all ways to everyone else in the world, including the benighted socialist-leaning Europeans burdened with universal health care.

Starting with Europe…

In aid of such a comparison, a group of authors led by Jörg Albrecht recently published a paper in Scientific Reports [3] summarizing the long-term decline and recent recovery of brown bears in Europe. Remarkably, this research draws on a wealth of paleontological data to reconstruct this history as far back as 10,000 years BC. As a point of contrast, I’ve drawn on my own more modest research [4] reconstructing the distribution of grizzly bears in the contiguous US circa 1800 and, then, the rapid following extirpations and more recent minor gains.

The series of maps immediately below summarize Albrecht’s work in a more visually-friendly form than you will find in his paper. Everything in dark green represents the modeled distribution of brown bears at a given point in time, with the corresponding time period given in the upper left corner and the percent loss of total distribution from circa 10,000 BC given in dark red in the lower right. I’ve also shown for several time periods the spatial patterns of factors that are candidate drivers of concurrent extirpations.

Albrecht and his authors argue that, overall, declines were a function of lethal humans interacting with climate change and intrinsic environmental factors. In keeping with this thesis, humans seemed to have had a greater impact on bears in areas dominated by dry relatively unproductive leathery-leaved scrub vegetation (i.e., schlerophyllous Mediterranean scrub) during 7,000-3,000 BC (B), and comparatively infertile oak-dominated environments during 3,000-0 BC (C), the time period of Roman conquests. Following these two epochs (D), human densities, as such, seemed to be a major driver of bear extirpations, concentrated largely in Western Europe—in what is now France, Italy, Ireland, and Great Britain.

This remarkable reconstruction suggests that human-driven attrition of brown bears began upwards of 9,000 years ago (7,000 BC), but accelerated after the turn of the last millennium. Even so, brown bears persisted in roughly 57% of their ancestral range between 1500 and 1800 AD, and struggled on in as much as 32% of pasts haunts through the lethal 20th Century (F). Since then, brown bears have made an astounding recovery, reclaiming near 8% of their ancient distribution, a point I will return to shortly.

Continuing with the United States…

The next series of maps in the figure immediately below similarly summarize the history of grizzly bears in the contiguous US. The information here is a bit more replete than what I provide for Europe, including a detailed reconstruction of grizzly bear distribution circa 1800 (A), differentiating core (red) from peripheral (salmon) range, and well as inhospitable hot deserts (in gray). Following that, in each of the subsequent maps, I’ve provided an estimate of total grizzly bears numbers at each time step in the upper right, the time step itself in the lower left, and the approximate percent loss of numbers and range compared to circa 1800 in the lower right. As in the maps for Europe, bear distribution for each period is shown in dark green. Cumulative losses are shown in yellow.

In brief, the extirpation of grizzly bears, almost wholly by well-armed lethal Europeans, was breathtakingly rapid. In the first 50 years we had lost 12% of all grizzlies. During the next 60 years we lost roughly 81% of the approximate 1800 AD total. After that, all the smaller remnant populations were eliminated, leaving us by 1960 with most grizzly bears in the places we currently have them—Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide. Total population losses during a 150-year period amounted to 98%. Since the institution of ESA protections, gains have amounted to a trivial 1-2% of what we had at the time of first encounters between grizzly bears and newly fledged Americans.

Matchup: Europe v the United States

As means of facilitating the comparison of what happened in Europe with what happened in the contiguous US, I’ve put estimated brown/grizzly bear numbers through time in graphical form, standardized as a proportion of ancestral numbers or distributions. You can find the graph immediately below. Because the time scale of reconstructions is so radically different, I expanded the history of brown bears in Europe to fit a time frame better suited to the history of grizzlies in the US, which you can find in the top inset graph. The history of grizzly bear numbers in the US is shown in orange; that of brown bears in Europe, in burgundy. In anticipation of those who might protest that the history of brown bears in Russia distorts things, I’ve also shown trends for bears in Europe minus Russia—as a burgundy dashed line. Finally, the bright red dashed line in the bottom graph shows rates of decline or increase in brown bear distributions.

This graphical comparison highlights a number of instructive contrasts. First, brown bear declines in Europe were far more gradual and much less extreme than in the contiguous US. Moreover, cumulative losses in the US far exceeded those in Europe. Of perhaps greatest relevance, gains since roughly 1970 have been 4 to 8-fold greater in Europe than in the US, amounting to 8% of ancestral distributions in Europe as opposed to only 1% of historical populations and 2% of historical range in the US. Perhaps needless to say, the differences in ‘recovery’ between Europe and the US are stark, with Europe clearly putting the US to shame.

This difference is all the more remarkable when you contrast gains for brown bears in Europe with gains for grizzly bears in the US in relation to human population densities—which is what I’ve done in the following figure. Here, again, bear distribution is in dark green, whereas ever-higher densities of humans are shown as progressively darker shades of yellow→ orange→ red→ burgundy. The color scheme for human densities is the same for Europe and the US.

The pattern is so obvious as to hardly warrant elaboration. European brown bears have persisted and made gains in the face of orders-of-magnitude greater human densities. We, by contrast, are pathetic. We lament that we simply can’t have any more grizzlies because we’ve reached the limits of remote areas where they can live. Nonsense, if not BS.

[You can see all of the above in animated form by clicking on this Youtube link]

A Legacy of Lethality

A simple explanation for the discrepancy in histories and aspirations between the US and Europe is to be found in human lethality. Lethality can be understood, more technically, as the odds that a bear will die (i.e., be killed) given an encounter with a human (see this web page for more detail on this notion). Almost certainly, Americans, on average, are far more lethal to bears than are Europeans—on average. And, certainly, trophy hunters and ranchers in the US near where grizzlies live are astronomically more lethal.

Importantly, Americans don’t need to be more lethal. Our lethality is almost wholly a derivative of our attitudes, worldviews, and—if you will—psychoses. Most of the world marvels at our infatuation with guns and violence, far in excess of any other developed nation on Earth. By some reckonings, we are collectively insane. And this predictably spills over into how, as a modality, we relate to grizzly bears. Unfortunately, much of our regressive violent impulses are codified in our institution of wildlife management, especially as manifest by state agencies. (For more on this see this blog on demographics and this blog on culture/iconography of hunters and wildlife managers).

Some American apologists for the status quo might argue that European brown bears are so much more timid than North American grizzlies. Perhaps, a bit, but not anywhere near enough more timid to explain the dramatic differences in numbers of brown bears able to live near teeming masses of humanity in Europe. For goodness sake, there are in excess of 7,000 brown bears in the Carpathian Mountains and near 4,000 bears in the Dinaric-Pindus Alps a bit farther south [5]. That’s in contrast to a mere (approximate) 1,800 grizzlies in the entirety of the contiguous US. Without intending to belabor the obvious, these large numbers of European brown bears are living in the midst of human densities 4-6 times higher than areas where grizzly bears currently roam. Using Europe as the standard, we could have grizzly bears most places where we have sufficiently productive habitat in the western contiguous US—which amounts to a lot of country (see this web page for a map of potential habitat).

My conclusion? When it comes to management and recovery of grizzly bears, we Americans are lamentable, especially in comparison to denizens of most European countries. If ever there was an instance (among many) where we have no business bragging, it is in how we conceive of recovering and coexisting with grizzly bears.

Put another way, our history with grizzly bears throws into relief (yet again) our national chauvinism, even collective narcissism, especially when attributed appropriately as a distinguishing feature of those holding a stranglehold on wildlife management in this country, virtually all of whom also voted for the most narcissistic human being to ever sit in the Oval Office.

More articles by:

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

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