Most Yellowstone grizzlies are up and about now, including Grand Teton’s celebrity matron “399,” who at 23 is truly an ancient bear. Emerging after seeming death, bears embody the miracle that is spring. After dozing for months in dens without eating, drinking or defecating, they arise as specimens of health, having lost fat but little bone strength or muscle mass.
Mother bears tend to come out later because cubs born last winter are still tiny and vulnerable. Truth be told, today all grizzlies are vulnerable. Humans are responsible for nearly 90 percent of all grizzly bear deaths in the Northern Rockies. This spring, three grizzlies have already been killed in Wyoming. This comes on the heels of record-breaking deaths (71 grizzlies) during 2018. In fact, for the last 15 years death rates have been so high that the Yellowstone population has essentially stopped growing and may even be declining.
Nonetheless, the Safari Club and NRA, along with Wyoming and Idaho, still push for removal of federal endangered species protections for grizzlies and for instituting a trophy hunt. All have appealed the court ruling last fall that restored Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone grizzlies.
Conservation icon Aldo Leopold, considered the father of modern wildlife management and the American Wilderness System, would have a lot to say about this if he were still alive. Aldo’s writings are relevant as we navigate today’s challenges. Importantly, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to change his mind when presented with new evidence. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of predators.
By the late 1920s, when Leopold’s career began, well-armed European settlers intent on domesticating North America had nearly wiped out the grizzly, wolf, and buffalo. Wildlife and wildlands everywhere were in trouble.
Like others of his generation, Leopold started out seeing wolves and mountain lions as “vermin” but came to understand that such apex predators diversify and stabilize ecosystems. He emerged as one of the first scientists of the twentieth century to assert the value of predators and to advocate for saving all the pieces of ecological systems, a notion that would later become the backbone of the ESA.
At the start of his career, the field of wildlife management did not exist. Indeed, Leopold would become the first professor in the country to teach what was then called “game management.”
As the profession developed, he made sure that carnivores were a valued part of the picture. In 1930, he helped shape the first “American Game Policy,” which went unaltered for more than 40 years. In his introduction to the policy, Aldo wrote that he hoped Americans might avoid “the ruthless suppression of predators which goes with game management in most European countries… Its standards were set before biological science was born. Our standards can be better.”
Leopold saw the need for a national constituency to protect nature. If left to their own devises, self-serving and parochial locals would spell the end of wilderness and wildlife. One of his most powerful and lasting messages was this: wildlife does not belong to the wealthy or any single special-interest group, but to all of us.
Still, as the nation grew, so did the toll on wildlife and wildlands. To counter this trend, Leopold offered a philosophic frame called the Land Ethic, famously writing: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Leopold scholar J. Baird Callicott applied Leopold’s land ethic to resolving conflicts over land uses. As a logical derivative, Callicott proposed that transcendent values should outweigh baser ones centered on greed and ego-gratification.
Recent research by Mike Manfredo and a slew of co-authors shows a substantial increase in transcendent values across America. The researchers document a significant 6percent decline during the last 14 years in numbers of people who ascribe to “Traditionalist” views of wildlife, and a corresponding 5percent increase in numbers ascribing to “Mutualist” perspectives. Traditionalists tend to see wildlife as objects to be dominated and used—a relic of Manifest Destiny—whereas Mutualists tend to see wildlife as an extension of their social network, and, as such, prioritize moral obligations and environmental protection. Not surprisingly, Traditionalists are far more likely to hunt. By contrast, Mutualists are far more likely to engage in less lethal activities such as wildlife watching.
Consistent with other research, Manfredo and his team attributed the burgeoning of Mutualists across the country to increasing urbanization and levels of education. The percentage of people who hunt has correspondingly declined from 13 percent of adult males during 1990 to only 9 percent of the same during 2016, representing an absolute drop of 20 percent in numbers of hunters.
During the same period the percentage of people interested in watching wildlife grew by 37 percent — and the trend is expected to continue. Traditionalists still have an edge in our extraction-oriented Northern Rockies region, but that too is changing. This shift explains both the enormous national appeal of the ESA and the mounting conflicts within the region between Mutualists and others who are invested in the status quo based on exploitation of natural resources.
There is no denying the explosion of national public interest in recovering iconic species such as wolves and grizzly bears. Families are flocking in record numbers to national parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier in hopes of glimpsing a grizzly or wolf. The ESA gives these families — and citizens across the country — authoritative standing to participate in management of these imperiled species. The law levels the playing field by empowering a national constituency and curbing excesses of state game managers, while requiring the use of the best available science to recover threatened species.
Needless to say, Traditionalists are gripping ever more tightly onto power arrangements that have long benefited them over the interests of the broader public. Trophy hunting groups hold special animosity for large carnivores, but also disproportional sway over game management agencies that depend financially on hunter license fees and taxes on ammunition and firearms.
Leopold’s writings should give trophy hunters pause. In his classic Sand County Almanac, he was especially disturbed by “the trophy-hunter who never grows up,” who, in order “to enjoy…must possess, invade, appropriate.” In a recent interview posted on Grizzly Times, his daughter, Estella, said that her father would roll over in his grave at the notion of a trophy hunt of grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone.
Hearteningly, hunters who consider themselves “Leopoldians” see hunting as, perhaps more than anything, a window into the beauty of the natural world. They are challenging the ethos of collecting trophies while advocating conservation of predators, wilderness, and a more ethical approach to hunting.
Fortunately, today’s Leopoldians include not only hunters, but also teachers, lawyers, elected officials, and Rotarians. And brainy, concerned people inside and outside government are coming up with innovative ways to reform our institutions of wildlife management, particularly in the western states, to better reflect the values of the broader public, not just a privileged few.
They come perhaps in the nick of time. Mounting evidence shows the unprecedented and devastating impact of humans on the species who share this fragile globe with us. We have entered, scientists say, the Sixth Great Extinction—caused by us. According to science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, we are poised to lose 20 to 50percent of all the biota on Earth by the end of the 21st century. Such losses have not occurred for at least 60 million years—200,000 times longer than the Industrial Revolution has lasted. We humans are tantamount to the impact of a giant asteroid.
Leopold could not have foreseen today’s harmful trends that are seemingly on steroids. Nor could he have anticipated how resource agencies would become so deeply entrenched in harmful patterns, reinforced by perverse and ossified narratives, financial incentives and cultures. Still, Leopold’s personal evolution is instructive. His views changed radically with new information and an enlightened ethic.
Now more than ever, we need a Leopoldian revolution of attitude—one characterized by love for this beleaguered planet and, closer to home, our iconic grizzlies. Grizzly 399 is alive, but near the end of her life, and perhaps her genetic line. Grizzly 610, her only daughter known to have successfully raised offspring, was not seen last year and is perhaps dead, as are at least 8 of 399’s cubs. For all that 399 has proven to be a great mom, she may not in the end even replace herself in the population. The story of her family reminds us of our power of life and death over grizzlies — and the planet.
State game managers need to question their current alliance with trophy hunters who espouse killing for fun, rather than with the broader citizenry that seeks to keep grizzlies alive. It is not too late for all of us to change.
Working for Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Louisa Willcox has advocated for grizzly bear preservation for over 30 years. She and a handful of others have prevented Yellowstone grizzly bear delisting for over two decades. She was also a leader in a successful campaign to prevent a massive gold mine from being developed next to Yellowstone. Willcox has a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a master’s degree in forest policy from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 2014, she was given a lifetime achievement award from Yale. Willcox resides in Livingston, Montana.