Exorcizing Wendigo to Save Grizzlies, Ourselves

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently aborted a planned trip to Montana to hear from farmers and ranchers seeking to boost federal budgets in order to kill more grizzlies, especially along the Rocky Mountain Front. Disappointed that Bernhardt didn’t show, Dave McEwen of the Montana Wool Growers Association announced that stockmen will travel to DC, saying: “Now we’re going to the head of the Department of Interior to get this funding taken care of.”

He added: “If Wildlife Services doesn’t do the work for the ag producers on private property, nobody will.”

By way of context, the “service” that Wildlife Service provides is killing animals that ranchers don’t want, especially carnivores. Here, Wildlife Services’ “work” means “killing.” McEwen and his group have long agitated for more funds for Wildlife Services to gun down more coyotes by helicopter.

Through a cost-sharing arrangement with Department of Agriculture, taxpayers foot much of the bill for the killing. Never mind the substantial ecological benefit of coyotes that enrich, for example, the diversity of birds by keeping in check smaller predators such as foxes. And never mind the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that killing coyotes simply makes them reproduce at higher rates.  Perversely, McEwen’s killing campaign serves to perpetuate his conflicts while impoverishing the rest of us.

Since wolves often kill coyotes, you might think McEwan would embrace their presence. Not so.  He brags that “we’ve taken a hard line against wolves,” going even further: “and we’re going to take one against grizzlies.

But wait: grizzlies are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, a statute that protects the interests of all Americans. The law prohibits killing grizzlies except in cases of self- defense, or where grizzlies have become so conditioned to human foods as to be dangerous.  Under the law, which has protected grizzlies more or less continuously since 1975, we have made considerable progress toward recovery, largely by killing fewer bears.

The public has responded with delight. Each summer, more and more families from all around the world flock to Yellowstone and Glacier Parks to catch a glimpse of a grizzly in the flesh – and alive. No one apparently asked them if they wanted more grizzlies slaughtered.

To some – the arrogant and self-entitled — public interest in publicly owned wildlife simply doesn’t matter. When grizzlies began showing up on his ranch, killing some sheep, McEwen was outraged that the government stopped his use of M44s–spring-loaded, baited sodium cyanide bombs that explode into the mouth of an animal when it pulls up on it. McEwan went on to say: “Basically what this is, is an infringement on private property rights,” in apparent ignorance of the fact that our society has a long tradition of curbing property owners when their actions demonstrably harm others, especially public welfare writ large.

Clearly, to some livestock producers the only good coyote, or wolf, or grizzly is a dead one, and the government’s only job is to serve their bottom line and their ideological demands. Subservient politicians accordingly dish up federal funding to exterminate animals that a few privileged ranchers consider to be “inconvenient.”

Current anti-carnivore policies–the product of taxpayer subsidies and privileged political access–have deep cultural and historical roots. Under the banner of Manifest Destiny, European settlers felt justified in slaughtering indigenous peoples and wildlife throughout North America.  Federal agents, precursors of today’s Wildlife Services’ executioners, were hired to exterminate the predators with beaks or canines that the settlers had somehow missed.

With low reproductive rates, grizzlies were no match for a war involving poison, traps, and guns. In a fleeting 60 years, a relatively few white men armed with guns and motivated by a passionate hatred for large predatory animals succeeded in wiping out grizzlies in 97% of their former range – in all but the most remote mountain refuges in the Northern Rockies.

A century later, some still entertain the regressive and delusional dream of restoring a predator-free West.

Privilege to Kill the Alien “Other”

Today, livestock operators are aided by ever more lethal gadgetry, including helicopters, high-powered rifles, drones, and M44s. No wonder grizzly bear recovery has been so slow. In more than 40 years of federal protection, we have only grown grizzly bear numbers from perhaps 1200 grizzlies at the time of listing under the ESA to roughly 1800 today — still far short of what scientists consider necessary for durable recovery.  Despite protections, humans still kill over 80% of all grizzlies that die.

Even so, for some, grizzlies are not being killed fast enough. In another quip, McEwen declared that “grizzlies have more rights than we do,” which is code for his aggrievement at being deprived of unfettered opportunity to destroy anything and everything that he considers bothersome or threatening.

Trump’s demonization of minorities is uncannily like McEwan’s demonization of predators—along with their prescriptive responses. According to both, only by cleansing the land of the alien “other” can Americans prosper and be safe. For those who think this parallel is unwarranted, consider these statements made by participants in public hearings that were held when reintroduction of grizzlies was being considered for the Selway Bitterroot Recovery Area in Idaho. One local rancher likened reintroducing grizzlies to unleashing rapists, child molesters, and murderers on a poor unsuspecting public. Another responded by remarking: “in the old days when someone came into our town with a proposal like this, we had a simple solution: get a rope.” And another said: “we are still losing the Civil War,” implying that those we have oppressed and persecuted – human or animal – must be kept under tyrannical control lest they rise up and take revenge.

Similarly, at a hearing years ago on wolf management in Cody, Wyoming, outfitter and rancher Wes Livingston told me: “we can’t do anything about the weather or beef prices, but we all have guns and can kill a wolf.” His remark was the clearest explanation I’ve heard for the continued persecution of wolves and grizzlies. Simply put, these animals are convenient scapegoats for a dominant but terrified white culture.

As a woman speaking up for wolves that night, I too seemed a threat. My remarks and those of other wolf advocates were drowned out with catcalls and jeers from the men in cowboy garb who crowded the room. I was glad I was careful where I parked my car.

In fact, as an advocate for large carnivores for nearly 4 decades, I found that thinly veiled threats of violence were all too commonplace. On good days, my testimony was met with eye rolling, crossed arms and other dismissive body language by the assembled white men, many in cowboy hats, who worked for the livestock or hunting industries or for various government agencies.  And I was not the only one subject to intimidation. The few government officials who called for restraint or failed to jump when told to were treated similarly.

More than any other federal agency, Wildlife Services is enslaved to the interests of the livestock industry.  It is staffed by people who are not only experts at killing animals, but also covering their tracks, rightly concluding that most Americans would be horrified at the extent of the agency’s carnage and collateral damage. Wildlife Services hopes to survive increased public scrutiny by keeping their head down and relying on livestock groups to work political channels on their behalf.  Thus, McEwen’s recent trip to DC to lobby for more money to support their killing.

Over the years, I have worked closely with ranchers who are proud to share the landscape with large carnivores and committed to avoiding conflicts–without bragging or begging for government handouts.  (I have written about some of them in another essay). But I have never been able to communicate with the McEwens of the world who seem driven by fear, greed, and even hatred.

The Cree story of Wendigo helped me to understand why.

Of Wendigo and Greed’s Deadly Grip

In Algonquin culture, the monster Wendigo is considered “the evil spirit that devours mankind.” In most versions of the legend, a human becomes a Wendigo after his or her spirit is corrupted by greed or weakened by extreme hunger, cold, or isolation. Possessing superhuman strength and stamina, Wendigo stalks, overpowers, and devours its victims.

In some versions of the legend, like the one I used to tell, a shaman with special skill is needed to dispatch Wendigo. Kids’ eyes widen when I introduce Wendigo — a skeletal figure with glowing eyes, pointy teeth and wispy hair. A shaman named Duck Egg has to act fast, or all will be lost, including a sick little girl in the village and a fox who has fallen prey to the powers of Wendigo. In an instant, Duck Egg conjures a suckhole of hot tallow that Wendigo falls into, melting his heart. Duck Egg saves the day and cures the girl and the fox.

Ojibwa scholar Basil H. Johnston gives as vivid a description of Wendigo as any Hollywood production, writing: “The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out over its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into the sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody… Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.”

Doubtless, Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with Wendigo as a symbol of our internal struggle of life and light over death and darkness. Like Hungry Ghosts in Buddhist tradition, the Wendigo is the embodiment of gluttony and excess, voracious but never satisfied.

The Wendigo legends are, in essence, cautionary tales about the problems of isolation and greed, and the need for moderation and self-control to sustain a healthy society. In boreal ecosystems where the potential for starvation in winter was all too real, the tale of Wendigo warns against cannibalism. But the lasting power of the story rests on its universality. All of us can become Wendigo if we indulge in selfish contagious behaviors that, if unchecked, consume natural and human communities in what some medical practitioners have called “Wendigo Psychosis.”

Wendigo works as a metaphor, applying to any person, idea, or movement infected by a corrosive drive toward self-aggrandizing greed and excessive consumption. Native scholars have made the case that Manifest Destiny and colonialism are collective forms of Wendigo Psychosis that destroy other species and cultures while feeding on itself.

Ojibwa scholar Johnston observed that a new breed of Wendigo appeared in recent times. Multi-national corporations have taken over our communities like the cannibals of Indian legend. Driven by a blind pursuit of profit, the multi-nationals devour resources and even each other, not for need but greed.

The Wendigo tale gives hope that we can correct course, even in the direst circumstances. The medicine involves slaying the monster, not accommodating it. I clearly use the term Wendigo here metaphorically rather than literally. In no way do I sanction violence against people. Yet I do contend that conjuring a metaphorical vat of hot tallow—in the forms of laws and other societal constraints—is  often vital to restoring the health of a sick society.

In fact, our environmental laws are built on the notion that unfettered greed and consumption can betray our responsibility to each other and to other species we share this planet with. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), for example, calls for us to respect nonhuman species and curb the destructive and selfish behaviors that threaten them and, ultimately, ourselves.

The Endangered Species Act: Exorcizing Wendigo to Save Species   

The ESA is our most powerful articulation of a shared moral commitment to ensuring the health and recovery of endangered species. In codifying the principle of reverence for other species, the law represents a direct rebuttal to the ethos of Manifest Destiny. Importantly, the ESA places a premium on science while giving all citizens a seat at the table, including the right to sue the government to enforce the law.

The ESA serves the role of Duck Egg by constraining short-sighted and destructive behaviors – a notion that enjoys widespread public support in the wake of the massive environmental damage and species extinctions that have occurred during the last two centuries.

In the case of grizzlies, federal protections have been vital to stopping what had been a freefall decline towards extirpation. When grizzlies were listed in 1975, experts were predicting imminent loss of most grizzlies in lower 48 states because of excessive killing and habitat destruction. Like good first aid, ESA protections stopped the hemorrhaging—by banning trophy hunting, imposing steep penalties on poachers, and instituting rules to keep human foods and other attractants out of grizzlies’ reach.

Another key step involved closing down grazing allotments on public lands where domestic sheep were grazed. Like so many other predators, bears cannot resist the siren call of helpless domesticated sheep, invariably ending in grizzlies being killed in retaliation. With the advice of scientists and financial help from nongovernmental organizations, the Forest Service eliminated almost all sheep grazing on public lands in core grizzly bear habitat – and voila, the black holes for bears vanished.

Taken together, these steps brought bears back from the brink.

Only recently has the ESA become engulfed in our national partisan politics.  Indeed, the Act passed nearly unanimously by Congress and was signed into law by a Republican President, Richard Nixon. But now a deadly minority has been agitating to reverse recent gains, banking on help from a presidential administration that shares their hostility toward the “other.”

The ESA is, more than ever, at the nexus of a culture war.  To those clinging to the ethos of Manifest Destiny, the ESA represents Dante’s 9th circle of hell. To the Act’s supporters, the statute provides a safety net for nonhuman life and a more level playing field for the public in decision-making processes.

Polling data suggests where the war is headed. Increasing urbanization and levels of education are elevating sympathy for nature and deepening a commitment to protect it. The number of hunters has declined substantially – by 20% in the last 30 years, according to one study — while less lethal activities such as wildlife watching has grown by 37% during this same period.

Proponents of Manifest Destiny still have an edge in western states founded on the exploitation of our natural resources, but that too is changing. McEwen’s hyperbolic language guarantees headlines while disguising the powerful undertow of social transformation underway.

In my experience, anti-carnivore views tend to be far more extreme among leaders of stockgrower groups than among the more accommodating rank and file. For example, years ago leaders of Montana Stockgrowers dynamited an effort to expand federal funding for coexistence — which had broad support among ranchers and environmentalists — by insisting that the funds be used for killing carnivores, not just reducing conflicts.

Toward a Bipartisan Approach to Coexistence

Yet even as McEwen and others work their allies to kill more bears, other politicians are exploring a gentler, more bipartisan approach. The conservative Wyoming Senator John Barrasso and the liberal New Jersey Senator Cory Booker have recently co-sponsored “Promoting Resourceful and Effective Deterrents Against Threats Or Risks involving Species (PREDATORS) Act” (S. 2194). The bill is exciting interest from those on both sides of the aisle who want to solve real problems rather than take an ideological stance.

Montana’s Grizzly Bear Conservation and Management Advisory Council is also a promising development. This council, comprised of concerned citizens representing a spectrum of interests, will begin meeting next month to start a conversation focused on finding common ground for advancing grizzly bear management, conservation, and coexistence.

These efforts come at a critical time of mounting human-grizzly bear conflicts driven by losses of native bear foods caused, in turn, by a host of anthropogenic changes, including warming temperatures. Although grizzlies are foraging ever closer to livestock and residences, peoples’ responses have mostly been accommodating and compassionate.

But a relatively few loud Wendigos are resisting, hanging onto unsustainable and self-immolating systems that have long lined their pockets and served their ideological agenda.   A similar contest of values is playing out on a far larger scale as millions around the world protest the unwillingness of governments to meaningfully address the climate crisis.

Grizzlies, the Planet Are Running Out of Time

A new generation of activists are demanding change and challenging the forces of institutionalized greed as never before.  The global climate strikes, which have been taking place in more than 150 countries, were scheduled ahead of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and the Climate Action Summit on September 23rd.

The protests have been organized by young people around the world who are part of the “Fridays for Future” campaign, which has seen students walk out of their schools on Fridays to demand an end to use of fossil fuels and actions that “ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart.”

These young Duck Eggs come in the nick of time. Every day, we read about another environmental catastrophe, the consequence of climate change, pollution, exploitation, and greed. The collapse of the Great Barrier reef. The unprecedented burning of boreal forests. The accelerated melt of ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica.

Wildlife are our canary in the coal mine, signaling our broader impact on the planet. According to a recent UN report, ecosystems are unravelling globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and species extinctions are accelerating. The report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than have been lost in several million years.

Now is no time to dither. A selfish minority will always seek to enrich themselves from public resources while harming the interests and the health of a community that is globally melded as never before. If we are to have a future, we need the skill and compassion of many Duck Eggs to metaphorically exorcize the monster.

For grizzlies, we should eliminate Wildlife Services, while creating new financial and other incentives to advance coexistence, such as those offered in the PREDATORS Act. We should reimagine grizzly bear recovery and reconnect ecosystems to allow grizzlies to adjust to the ongoing ravages of climate change.

Livestock operators who disagree with McEwen and his ilk should consider dropping their membership in traditional agricultural groups that espouse anti-carnivore views, while endorsing groups that foster sustainable relations with the rest of society. One such group, Western Landowners Alliance, recently released a report that featured methods for reducing conflicts with large carnivores.

We must purge the Wendigos lurking in our institutions and in ourselves if we are to ensure that future generations will have anything approximating a healthy planet, let along the chance to see the Great Bear in the wild. The spirit and skill of Duck Egg can show us how.

Many thanks to storyteller extraordinaire Laura Simms for introducing me to the Cree story “Curing Fox Wendigo.”

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.