“Are people more important than the grizzly bear? Only from the point of view of some people.” –Edward Abbey
PUBLISHED: THE HILL: Changing America by Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor May 8, 2020
The monarch of North American wildlife is at a crossroads.
When Lewis and Clark “discovered” the American West in the early 19th century there were rumors that mammoths still roamed the outback. There was a mystique of the land generated by a wilderness that no white men had ever seen. Fear, and awe, glistened off the fur of one of the most formidable predators on earth. The fauna in those days was commensurate with the utter respect the continent’s first nations had for the grizzly. The native tribes saw the grizzly as a grandfather, an unmatched power as close to a deity as a creature can get.
There were perhaps as many as 100,000 of them marauding the wilds as the supreme carnivore of North America. Today they number less than 1,000 in the lower 48 states.
By contrast, Alaska alone allows 1,000 legal hunts every year for trophies, where as many as 13,000 still roam, some say twice that number. But after all that the world’s wildlife has been through in recent years, where more than 60 percent of the world’s animal populations have vanished, how can we even begin to entertain the murder of our premier predator for $15,000?
Once upon a time there were cave bears and giant short-faced bears that weighed up to 2,000 pounds, with long legs, dwarfing anything on Earth today, the largest bear that ever lived. Bears were revered in Paleolithic France and Spain and as far away as the Ainu of Japan in their lomante ritual. The Mansi of Central Asia called the bear the “Master of the Forest.” Bears are still honored by many north Eurasian peoples such as the Sami and Finns in pre-Christian pagan ceremonies. In Moldova, the bear dance symbolized the purification and fertility of the soil for the coming year. The stories of bears intermarrying and breeding with humans from the Modoc of California, to the Finnish epic Kalevala, to the Yupiks of Siberia is proof of the unique influence bears have had on the imagination and cosmology of peoples of the northern hemisphere, arguably more than any other kind of animal. Among the Finno Ugrian tribes the bear was considered half human. Indeed, if one has encountered a bear rearing on its hind legs, its bipedality is awe inspiring. The Vikings esteemed the bear so much that its skin and its spirit were worn in battle for protection. Berserkers they were called, ber — bear — and serkr — shirt. At critical moments in battle, some believed they could turn themselves into bears. We owe the bears of the world an enormous debt.
As agriculture started taking over the world, man’s mystical ties to these beings started to diminish. Even the ancient Greeks considered bears sacred beings, but the Romans persecuted them relentlessly for entertainment. Europeans and Americans in the last few centuries have disposed of entire populations. That has been our legacy to wildlife. The Church, with its short-sighted ideas of humanity having dominion over life, went a long way to desacralize animals of all kinds. What will remain of these formidable beings in 50 years’ time will mark our legacy to the planet. The prehistoric bears are gone but luckily, we still have the fantastic presence of the grizzly to be thankful for, the monarch of North America until you get to the Arctic where their cousins, the polar bear reigns supreme.
It was only in 1975 that the grizzly was put on the Endangered Species list, which certain political persuasions and special interests would like to undo, all for the sake of mining, oil, ranching and trophy hunters.
To come close but not too near these great giants is by far the greatest encounter one can have in America. Everything else, except for the majestic sweep of America’s now dwindling wilds, is Disneyland.
We were on our way to Brooks Falls in southeast Alaska where grizzlies look for salmon in those famous cascades now synonymous with grizzlies. We had been walking for a few hundred yards on a path through the forest when we encountered five cubs only about 30 feet from us. They hadn’t seen us. And on the other side of the forest their mother came ambling along looking for her babies. We immediately put distance between ourselves and the cubs and started walking away, as the mother caught up with her youngsters. There had been no sign of aggression. We posed no threat to her family and in the midst of summer fishing season, her cubs were thankfully all the mother had on her mind.
There are about 700 grizzles in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Between 1985 and 2010 there were no human fatalities, but as human population and ranching has expanded, hunters, even Fish and Game in Montana, have seized on opportunities to shoot grizzlies in deference to the livestock industry. The grizzly is being scapegoated much as the wolf has been for generations. Grizzly impacts on cows are few and far between and inconsequential to the future of cows. The bloodlust that decimated the grizzles in the 19th century still inhabits fringe groups as well as those who see the bears as vermin and not the sacred being it is considered among Native Americans.
Photo credit ©Cyril Christo