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When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Global temperatures are rising in a synchronous dance with glacier ablation and rising ocean levels. Hurricanes are strengthening, islands are drowning, droughts are worsening, and weather is gravitating towards extremes, at the same time that our modern version of the Know-Nothings is willfully denying the obvious. Meanwhile, an exceedingly few people are attacked by one of the trifling number of grizzly bears that have survived the onslaught of humanity. And of those exceedingly few people, fewer yet are killed. Fewer by orders of magnitude than those killed by surgical procedures, measles, lightning strikes, dog attacks, murderous white supremacists…and any other of a multitude of causes.

Yet you wouldn’t know this. Based on media coverage, the polemics of certain politicians, and the lament of privileged ranchers and hunters, you would think that grizzly bears are running amuck, killing all who venture near their malicious claws and teeth. Or, even among those inclined to be more temperate, you would think that grizzlies are the unmitigated malefactors, and the attacked humans, victims without exception.

Grizzly Bears Run Amuck?

Apropos, Mark Uptain and a sow and yearling grizzly were killed during September 2018 in the Teton Wilderness north of Jackson, Wyoming. Uptain was guiding a client from Florida named Corey Chubon on an elk hunt that was undoubtedly over-hyped and over-romanticized; which is to say, the reality of hunting in grizzly bear country among grizzly bears that were orienting evermore enthusiastically—even necessarily—towards exploiting the remains of elk killed by hunters such as Chubon was almost certainly not duly advertised. But more on such things later.

Regardless of relevant details, the headlines blazoned across the masthead of newspapers and news feeds nationwide was that a cowboy-outfitter had been savagely mauled and killed by a grizzly bear driven by aberrant impulses. The cowboy connection was presumably made self-evident by the circulated photos of Uptain adorned with cowboy regalia. Moreover, the involved bear was represented as one of an increasing multitude being inflicted upon the economically hard-pressed rural residents of Wyoming by unfeeling environmentalists and the federal judges they had seduced with their seditious arguments to retain Endangered Species Protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

More to the point here, Mark Uptain and Corey Chubon were the axiomatic victims. The female grizzly bear and her yearling cub were the unmitigated perpetrators. Victimhood had been ascertained, and blame duly allocated—a verdict rendered by humans, not bears. It is, of course, the ineluctable nature of our human constructions that all phenomena organize around a human-, not ursine-, centered universe.

Heightening the emotions, Uptain had a wife and children. By the few available indications, Uptain was a loving father and husband. But, likewise, the female grizzly was very likely a doting nurturing mother, even though we don’t know much about her, her cub, their histories, their lives, and how they were known and identified within the community of bears. More specifically, there was probably some degree of affective and behavioral symmetry among those that died that day in September or soon after.

Myths of Good and Bad

We humans seem to be cognitively slaved to narrative representations of the world around us. We live virtual realities constructed of stories that are invariably dramas full of saints and sinners motivated by virtue and villainy. These sometimes Manichean morality plays are infused with assumptions about right and wrong, good and bad. And, of course, the best of these dramas have culpable villains that inflict harm on innocent victims.

Emblematic of this trope, news articles and the obituary for Mark Uptain elevated him to the pantheon of heroes while relegating the involved bears to the realm of aberrancy, including: “[Mark] had a chance to save himself after being attacked first and surviving that attack, but the bear went after the hunter, so Mark re engaged the bear… Mark went Mike Tyson on that bear, standing toe to toe and fighting a sow grizzly with a yearling cub with her,” and, of the bear, “this is aberrant behavior,” and more. The emotional tenor evokes Custer’s troops fighting pitiless Indians, or stalwart Red Coats holding off the ferocious Zulus at Rorke’s Drift.

The problem is that, despite the protestations of religious true believers, morality is a human construction. Perceptions of good and bad are invented and evolve in the context of human communities inchoately intent upon curbing behaviors that compromise group survival and well-being. Despite pretensions to the absolute, morality ends up being relative, dynamic, and negotiated—hardly a basis for inviolate universal strictures.

Evidence of this can be found in widely varied notions of morality among human communities whether historical or contemporary. Even Christians can’t agree among themselves on the moral tenets of the Bible, much less Christians with Muslims, or Muslims with Hindus, or Jews with Buddhists, ad nauseam through all the permutations of each—much less any of these with Animists and Zoroastrians.

Nonetheless, morality is a key resource informing our notions of justice. And invariably, “justice” is a lot about authoritatively constructing victimhood and blame. She is the perpetrator, he is the victim, the harm is death, and the remedy is execution. A bear killed a human without any cause we would credit. Thus, the bears warranted death, even a cub that was judged “not a passive bystander.” Such seems to be the nature of human jurisprudence.

And, Then, Human Arrogance

Without intending to flog the horse, all of this Platonic arm-waving is a human invention bolstered by pretensions of divine revelation. No other animals but humans go around foisting notions of “justice” and “culpability” on others of the same species or, more certainly, others of a different evolutionary lineage. But one peculiar consequence of our devotion to shared narratives of moral absolutes is that we humans readily project these maxims onto non-humans along with our notions of virtue, villainy, victimhood, and blame.

Which brings me back to grizzly bears attacking people. Almost invariably—albeit often tacitly—such bears are perpetrators of harm against human victims. Every once in a while a female protecting her cubs may benefit from a different narrative—as an exception, not a rule. But imagine trying to convince a bear that it is a culpable perpetrator of harm in transgression of transcendent norms, and the involved human an innocent victim, when it, the bear, is seeking food while simultaneously protecting a cub. Language alone would probably be an impediment, much less shared notions of morality and “proper” conduct.

I can’t help but think of the inane but tragic first encounter between Europeans and Pueblo Indians at Cibola in 1540. Coronado and his entourage of Spaniards appeared out of nowhere, pallid and clad in strange costumes, shortly after which they sent forth a herald who thrice read in Spanish the Requerimento, proclaiming that the Indians were heretofore spared from eternal damnation and a benighted secular existence, but only if they immediately submitted to the regal authority of a Spanish king in Madrid and the spiritual authority of a Pope in Rome. For the Pueblo Indians, the language must have been incomprehensible, the invoked concepts terminally alien, and the audacity completely mystifying. Reasonably enough, they told the Spaniards to go away. Yet for the Spaniards, it was all presumed to be incontrovertible and self-evident—and a basis for then proceeding to slaughter the reticent Indians and appropriate all of their food.

These humans could have just as well been from different planets, if not galaxies. Then imagine our presumption, if not inanity, imposing arcane cultural, moral, and judicial notions on a grizzly bear.

Cause and Effect

The upshot of all this is that we serve no practical purpose other than sustaining our collective outrage when we impose a moral judicial frame on instances where grizzly bears attack humans. We certainly don’t foster the kind of understanding that might lead to useful changes in our behavior, especially if we are indeed serious about promoting human safety and peaceful coexistence with bears.

And many of the factors contributing to the death of Mark Uptain are unambiguous.

Human Factors—Part One

Mark Uptain was alone with Corey Chobun on the windy day when the attack occurred, nearly 24-hours after Chobun had fatally wounded a bull elk with “poor shot” from a crossbow late the previous day. Neither man had a gun on them, although a 10 mm Glock was on a pack on the ground nearby—which, even if used, is judged adequate for defense by some standards, inadequate by others, especially in contrast to a .44 magnum or larger. Only Uptain had pepper spray in a holster on his person. Chobun had set his aside because “it was uncomfortable” while he was on horseback. Chobun also did not know how to operate the Glock, which was relevant, because he was closer to the gun, tried to operate it, mistakenly ejected the ammunition clip, and then threw the gun at Uptain.

The two men had started to field dress the elk, having removed the gut, and progressed with quartering the animal when the female grizzly arrived from downwind, downhill, and from behind cover. They were both apparently focused on the elk and neither was on guard with some sort of potential defense against a bear attracted to what was described as pervasive “blood and struggle and debris from the elk dying.”

Human Factors—Part Two

All of this occurred against a backdrop and history of grizzly bears orienting ever-more aggressively to eating the remains of elk killed by hunters in the Teton Wilderness. This fact was—and is—well-known to the outfitters and guides that operate in this region. Martin Outfitters, for whom Mark Uptain worked, has a Facebook site upon which several incidents are described involving guides in the company’s employ who confronted grizzlies over hunter-killed remains and aggressively displaced them. Grizzly bear-hunter-guide encounters were not a one-off phenomenon, nor were they rare.

Moreover, this increasing orientation of grizzlies towards eating meat was well-documented [1, 2, 3]. Theoretically, this information that could have forewarned Wyoming’s wildlife and wildlands managers of emerging risks to elk hunters. Several research papers published prior to 2016 had shown that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem were eating more meat synchronous with loss of seeds from whitebark pine, with most of the dietary shift occurring between 2000 and 2010 [1, 2]. The fat-rich whitebark pine seeds had been a critically important food during August-October, especially for female grizzlies [4], prior to near extirpation of mature pine trees by an onslaught of bark beetles unleashed by a warming climate [5]. More specific to the attack locale, a research project focused on the nearby Togwotee Pass area, and reported during 2012, had shown that female grizzlies were almost exclusively consuming the remains of elk rather than the increasingly rare seeds of whitebark pine [3].

But what is most striking and overlooked about this incident is the larger managerial and normative context within which it occurred. Yellowstone’s grizzly bear researchers and managers have been in a willful, even aggressive, state of denial about the implications of dietary shifts among bears driven largely by anthropogenic causes such as climate warming. Instead, they are slaved to the narrative that all of the increasing encounters and conflicts between humans and bears are driven by ever-more bears in ever more places. Yet data collected by government biologists show that the population has been static for the last 15 plus years.

This willful ignorance and denial is a natural outgrowth of an obsessive focus by bear managers—none more so than in Wyoming—on promoting narratives and promulgating propaganda that supports removal of Endangered Species Protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population and then instituting a trophy hunt, as was planned for fall of 2018, but preemptively halted by a federal court judge in Missoula, Montana.

The upshot is that managers have failed to critically scrutinize their management protocols, including regulations and guidelines governing behaviors of hunters on grizzly bear range—simply because it would be inconvenient to their dominant narrative. As a corollary, the politically well-connected outfitters and guides in Wyoming have been militantly resistant to any management impositions that would curb their prerogatives or cut into their profits. In other words, Mark Uptain and Corey Chobun were operating in a void of prudent oversight and directives.

Bear Factors

Insofar as the involved bears are concerned, little can be known with certainty, but much can be surmised with confidence.

The involved bear was a female with a yearling cub. Female grizzlies are aggressive in their defense of cubs. The bears were certainly in a state of hyperphagia and, because of that, focused on gorging to accumulate body fat that would see them through the dearth of hibernation and the following spring. Pine seeds were no longer as abundant in the environs, which meant that meat was a logical high-quality dietary alternative for them. Grizzlies have an acute sense of smell, which meant that, if downwind, the bears would have detected the scent of a dead elk from perhaps a long distance away. Grizzlies also invariably respond aggressively to belligerence from a human when defending their space, offspring, or “desired” food. By all indications, Mark Uptain attempted to intimidate the sow as she approached and then fought her once the attack began—for whatever reasons might have motivated him. Grizzlies are usually deterred by deployment of pepper spray during aggressive close encounters. Pepper spray was not deployed prior to contact. And firearms can often lethally terminate a bear attack provided that the gun is of sufficient power and the person deploying it trained in its use. But a firearm was not readily available nor used.

By all indications, nothing about the bears’ behavior was aberrant or abnormal. Unusual, yes, but only in the trite sense that grizzly bear attacks are rare and, of those, resulting human fatalities rarer still.

The Issue of Responsibility

There is no doubt that trauma inflicted by the involved grizzly bear(s) was the direct cause of Mark Uptain’s death. But proximal causation is not equivalent to a verdict of responsibility or blame. In fact, returning to near where I started this piece, responsibility and blame are axiomatically rooted in morality and related notions of culpability that only legitimately apply to humans. Grizzlies are not criminal. Grizzlies are not negligent. Grizzlies are not irresponsible. Grizzlies are not willfully ignorant. People are the only candidates.

More to the point, it is only through the judicious and insightful allocation of responsibility that we humans have the opportunity to change our choices and behaviors so as to more likely obtain desired outcomes—in the this case reducing the likelihood that a tragedy such as Mark Uptain’s would occur again. Humans are the focus, not bears. Bears are not going to read or adhere to rules or regulations. Bears cannot be herded into classrooms and taught how to “better” behave—at least by our standards.

Responsibility

So, what about responsibility for the human choices that led to Mark Uptain’s death?

Grizzly bear managers and researchers are responsible for their willful ignorance regarding implications of dietary shifts among Yellowstone grizzly bears.

Grizzly bear managers are also responsible for their willful failure to promulgate meaningful rules and guidelines designed to increase the safety of hunters in grizzly bear range. For example, they could have mandated that pepper spray be carried and that all guides and hunters be trained in its effective use. Government managers could have also required that the ratio of guides to hunters increase and that there always be one well-trained person in an over-watch position while an elk carcass is being field dressed. Hunting might have been disallowed after early afternoon to avoid situations where an elk is killed, left out overnight, and then sought out the next morning, as in the Uptain case. Or, of relevance to other incidents, hunters might have been required to abandon any carcass possessed by a grizzly bear.

Certain of the outfitters are culpable for actively resisting government oversight and related, perhaps inconvenient, changes in their practices that would increase the safety of their guides and clients, many of which I outlined directly above.

Martin Outfitting, Mark Uptain’s employer, is responsible for not providing an additional guide, and for not instituting protocols that would have increased the safety of both Uptain and Chobun. Lamenting that Mark Uptain was “my right-hand man” after the fact of his death, as was done by the owner of Martin Outfitting, does not excuse negligence.

Uptain is responsible for letting a client with a crossbow take a shot at an elk comparatively late in the day.

Chobun is responsible for having taken and made a poor shot with his crossbow.

Uptain is responsible for going out after an elk killed the day before, almost certainly knowing that odds were high that a grizzly bear would have found it or would be hot on its scent trail.

Uptain is responsible for not ensuring that Chobun took an effective over-watch position, was adequately armed, and was sufficiently trained for response to an aggressive encounter with a grizzly bear.

Uptain is responsible for removing his sidearm while gutting and field-dressing an elk that had spewed a massive amount of blood.

Chobun is responsible for not having his pepper spray readily at hand while Uptain field-dressed the elk.

The Politics of Culpability and Blame

Deborah Stone wrote a somewhat arcane but seminal article in 1989 entitled “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas.” In it she made several critical observations, notably: “Conditions come to be defined as problems through the strategic portrayal of causal stories.” She also observes that “Causal stories [are] fought for, defended, and sustained.” Her basic point is that narratives about causation, culpability, and blame are invariably political. Whichever story “wins” will dictate policy agendas and, through that, who gets what, when, and where. Or, more to the point here, whichever story about Mark Uptain’s tragic death prevails will determine who is or is not held accountable and, through that, whether any changes in human choices and behaviors are authoritatively demanded.

Emphatically, I am not unsympathetic to the suffering of Mark Uptain’s friends and family. I have lost family members. I have also had good friends attacked and even killed by grizzly bears. I know how it feels. But that is not the point here. Related, I run the risk of being dismissed out of hand by those invested in defending the current dominant causal story as someone who “blames the victim”—which amounts to little more than an impulsive psychological reflex of denial. By some indications, I also run the risk of receiving literal death threats from the more thuggish hunters and outfitters living out Hollywood-fed cowboy fantasies in which violence is the solution to most perceived problems—which is its own tacit commentary.

Yet I have been alarmed and distressed by the vacuity of much of what has been written about the Uptain incident; the unexamined, unreflexive, and unhelpful blame of the involved bears; the degree to which the incident has been apparently treated by some as an opportunity to position themselves as experts; the related degree to which certain journalists have patently exploited the incident to make a name and advance a career; the extent to which those who were instrumental in causing Uptain’s death—bear managers and backcountry outfitters—have escaped any legitimate scrutiny; and the venality of Wyoming politicians and wildlife managers who have exploited this tragedy to aggressively promote a political agenda that is about little more than appropriating power and, through that, killing more bears*—not improving human well-being.

More to the point, the current official narrative, aided and abetted by news coverage notably in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, allows numerous people to dodge their legitimate responsibility in Mark Uptain’s death. This dominant narrative furthermore impedes deliberations that could, in fact, lead to increased human safety, as well as improved human-grizzly bear coexistence.

[*For more on why hunting or killing more grizzlies likely won’t reduce human-bear conflicts, see this blog. If there are those who would like to slaughter grizzlies or even eliminate them from most of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, try convincing the 90% of Americans who want to have grizzly bears present and protected throughout the Ecosystem, and the 70% who consider trophy hunting unethical, even immoral.]

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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