About 40 years ago, my friend the author Edward Abbey gave me a National Rifle Association (NRA) sticker to paste on the back window of my pickup. After all, he’d been an NRA member for years and we both were hunters who supported gun rights and owned a number of firearms.
I never got around to putting that sticker on. In the rambling decades between then and now, Ed’s and my attitude toward guns didn’t change much. My feelings about the NRA, however, have chilled considerably.
Increasingly, the NRA has become the big boy who thinks he can run over anyone and dominate partisan issues—they are widely criticized by environmentalists and Democrats as bullies. And the issues are no longer just those of the Second Amendment, though gun rights remain a primary test of political loyalty. As reported in The New York Times last fall, the NRA is now focused on immigration, race, health care.
The NRA is also actively trying to influence wildlife and wilderness issues, which happens to be my center of interest. Last spring the NRA, welded at the hip with Safari Club International (a privileged group of mostly wealthy hunters dedicated to killing large and rare animals), backed a successful bill to permit extreme killing methods of wolves and grizzlies on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, including the gunning down of animals from planes and slaughtering wolf pups and bear cubs in their birthing dens.
These two lobbying groups oppose protecting the severely endangered California condors, which biologists believe are sickened and killed by poisonous lead bullet fragments left in the hunter-felled game animals that the scavenging birds eat. Yet the NRA and the Safari Club pooh-poohed the notion that ingesting lead fragments threatens condors and claimed instead that their human members “will be impaired if they are no longer able to shoot lead bullets.”
Similarly, the NRA and Safari Club recently supported a controversial trophy hunt for elephants in Zimbabwe, coinciding with the Trump administration’s decision to overturn an Obama-era ban on elephant trophies. Managed trophy hunting “would not have an adverse effect on the species,” the groups said, “but can further efforts to conserve the species in the wild.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to allow the import of elephant trophies was praised by both groups but drew harsh criticism from animal-rights advocates on all sides of the political spectrum.
At this writing, the House Committee on Natural Resources passed H.R. 3668, the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act. Democrats Abroad said, “(SHARE) is a nightmare for human life, wildlife, and public lands. The bill is chock-full of anti-wildlife, anti-Endangered Species Act, and anti-public lands provisions that would undermine wildlife conservation and put imperiled species in greater danger.” Of course, the NRA got an easy-to-buy gun silencer deal stuck into this shithouse of a bill.
So, it was no surprise when the NRA and Safari Club asked to intervene in a lawsuit over the fate of Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly bear population. Their intent is to support the federal decision to remove the bears’ Endangered Species Act protections and allow trophy hunting of Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
Five NRA and Safari Club members said, in affidavits submitted by their attorneys, that hunting grizzlies would help the region's economy, allow states to better manage the animals, and improve public safety. These five outfitters and big game hunters claim their interests would be harmed if they could not have the opportunity to hunt Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
The core argument is public safety: that hunting bears will make people safer by instilling in grizzlies a fear of humans. These groups claim that Yellowstone’s grizzlies have become too aggressive, and that a fear of people would make bears shy and more subordinate, thus benefiting public safety. The unexamined assumption is that bears learn by being shot at.
The success of the NRA and SCI’s argument, assuming the NRA and Safari Club are allowed to fully make their case in court, will depend on what the judges make of the scientific plausibility of the “shy” bear theory, and the bear-expertise credibility of the five witnesses who filed declarations.
I disagree strongly with the NRA and SCI’s contention that there is any credible evidence whatsoever that hunting makes grizzlies shy, wary of humans, and therefore less aggressive and safer around humans.
And there is legitimate doubt that trophy grizzly hunting around Yellowstone is, in truth, good for the economy, and or that the state management is more effective than federal oversight when it comes to endangered species like the grizzly bear.
Finally, I question the grizzly-expertise of the five men who submitted affidavits to the court. The shy bear argument, which I’ve been hearing in Montana bars for 50 years, is good-old-boy folklore. These men are no doubt competent backcountry professionals, but I do not believe that trophy hunting— especially the guided type characteristic of Safari Club hunting—makes one an “expert” on grizzly bears. My own encounters with wild bears have made me believe that, in fact, the opposite is true: The key to safely dealing with wild grizzlies is behaving non-aggressively.
Does Hunting Make Bears Fear Humans?
Grizzly bear biologist David Mattson, who worked for two decades with the federal Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Study Team, recently wrote an article in the Grizzly Times saying he had undertaken a “thorough review of the evidence (or lack thereof),” and found “no empirical support for this proposition. There is essentially no evidence that a sport hunt instills fear in grizzlies. The proposition also defies logic and everything that we otherwise know about grizzly bears. If nothing else, how can a dead bear learn anything?”
Mattson goes on to point out that there has been no research on the American grizzly and hunting: “Another important point to make up front is that we know virtually nothing about the behavioral and motivational responses of bears to hunting, certainly little that is grounded in research. The closest we come is a study out of Scandinavia showing that hunted brown bears increased their nighttime activity, with little obvious relevance to whether humans were thereby safer.”
What most bear expertsl agree on is that American brown bears are genetically inclined to deal aggressively with perceived threats; this is evolved behavior, presumably learned on the treeless periglacial of the Arctic during the Late Pleistocene, by mothers defending their cubs from many larger, now-extinct predators.
So the NRA and Safari Club theory that hunting—as a perceived threat—thereby installs fear in bears is counterintuitive. Mattson believes the reverse may be true, that “grizzlies can become less reactive to people, not as a result of heightened fear, but rather as a result of the opposite. These fundamentals alone call into question the logic of using hunting to increase human safety.”
My own 50 years of experience with Yellowstone’s wild grizzlies supports Mattson’s position.
Before 1968, I didn’t know squat about grizzly bears, despite having spent a summer in Alaska. Fresh home from two tours as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam, I had gone to Yellowstone to camp out and heal from a malaria attack. There, quite accidentally, I ran into a whole bunch of bears.
Here is one of my earliest encounters, from the preface of Grizzly Years:
“The big bear stopped thirty feet in front of me. I slowly worked my hand into my bag and gradually pulled out the Magnum. I peered down the gun barrel into the dull red eyes of the huge grizzly. He gnashed his jaws and lowered his ears. The hair on his hump stood up. We stared at each other for what might have been seconds but felt like hours. I knew once again that I was not going to pull the trigger. My shooting days were over. I lowered the pistol. The giant bear flicked his ears and looked off to the side. I took a step backward and turned my head towards the trees. I felt something pass between us. The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow. I caught myself breathing heavily again, the flush of blood hot on my face. I felt my life had been touched by enormous power and mystery.”
That was the last time I carried a firearm into grizzly country. I found you didn’t need them. I believe to this day that a gun will get you into more trouble than it will get you out of in bear habitat.
But inexperience continued to land me in the briar patch. In my early years, I got too close to grizzlies, over a hundred encounters where both the bear and myself noticed each other. I say “too close” because my intent was to not have the bears know I was around; in those situations, I stood my ground and the grizzlies usually—but not always—ran away.
Far more dangerously, I got charged by grizzlies a few dozen times, about half of them were serious encounters: typically mothers with cubs or yearlings, often from nearby daybeds where they were sleeping out the middle of days. This is the source of almost all human mauling by bears (carcasses are also dangerous); attacks are by mothers near or on daybeds where you can get too close and carelessly invade the space she feels she needs for her cub’s safety. The sow only cares for her cub’s safety. As long as you are perceived to be a threat, she will continue to charge and if you do anything stupid, like run or try to climb a tree, she may start chewing on you. If you fight back, the mother griz will keep attacking you until you are no longer seen as a threat to her young. You could die.
The advice to “play dead” during a grizzly attack is sound. Many a victim of a mauling saved his or her life by ceasing to resist the attack, by relaxing. Tough advice but it works. Remember, the mother grizzly isn’t there to hurt or kill you, just to make sure her cub is safe.
More than a dozen different sow grizzlies have aggressively charged me. (None completed her charge; no wild bear has ever touched me.) A few mother grizzlies started the charge, then quickly veered off and ran away without breaking stride. More often, charging bears came directly at me, and then skidded to a stop. One sow grizzly stopped so close (probably six feet) she appeared to lean forward and sniff my pant leg.
During the course of all these grizzly charges, my behavior was as non-aggressive as possible: I stood my ground without moving a muscle or blinking an eye; I looked off to the side (a frontal orientation can be confrontational to a grizzly). I also held my arms off to the side (to make yourself look bigger?) and talked softly to the bear, hoping to present no threat whatsoever to her cubs. It’s worked every time—so far.
My most recent encounter with a mother grizzly was last June, when my daughter and I were sheltering behind a Buick-sized huge boulder on a high butte in Yellowstone. It was our last hike together before I walked her down the aisle later that summer. It was a blustery, windy day; we couldn’t hear a thing. All of a sudden, the look on my daughter’s face changed and I followed her gaze. There, some 50 feet away, a mother grizzly and her yearling cub were coming over the top of the hillside.
We all saw each other at the same time. The mother bear quickly reared onto her hind legs, smacked her lips, slobbered, and looked all around. I whispered to Laurel, “Don’t move.” We never moved an inch. Eventually, after a few minutes, the bear calmed down. Then, the bears slowly walked past us and sat down on the edge of a cliff 30 feet away, where the mother began nursing the cub. This went on for about five minutes. The sow grizzly appeared to graze (it could have been displacement behavior, where the nervous mom just pretended to feed) along the lip of the cliff and the cub started to approach us, not unlike a curious puppy, coming way too close, maybe within 15 to 20 feet. I stopped his advance by flipping my palm, a gesture I made up in the moment, not knowing if it would work. Laurel quietly recorded a short piece of video on her phone. In the distance, I could hear the bellows and roars of a mating pair of grizzlies far below, indicating the female in front of us had likely retreated to this high ground to keep her cub away from aggressive male bears who sometimes kill them.
This moment was saturated with wild trust, and sharing it with Laurel etched it forever in my memory. Such intimate encounters with grizzlies are rare with inland bears, like the grizzlies in Glacier and Yellowstone parks, but it does happen along salmon streams in places like Alaska and British Columbia, where a mother grizzly once left her three cubs sitting next to me on the bank of the Nakinaw River while she went fishing, caught a salmon, and brought it back to her waiting cubs. The popular thinking on this is that bear mothers trust humans because male grizzlies tend to avoid us.
This spectrum of grizzly behavior hints at a deeper social structure than bears have previously been given credit for. All wild bears in a region appear to know each other and where they rank in a larger social hierarchy. Wild grizzlies are capable of responding to non-aggressive human behavior in surprising ways; we need to give them a chance. The simplistic notion that hunting and shooting grizzlies makes the bears fear humans is flat wrong. Probably David Mattson is right and the opposite is true.
Will Hunting Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears Help the Region’s Economy?
There are a number of economic studies analyzing tourism in and around Yellowstone, revealing who spends the most money and why. The National Park Service informs us through its surveys that most Yellowstone visitors list viewing wildlife, especially grizzlies and wolves, as the primary reason for their visits. Mountain West News reported in August 2017 that “Yellowstone Park tourists spent (last year) an estimated $680 million in gateway communities in Montana and Wyoming.”
By contrast, proposed resident grizzly bear hunting licenses in Wyoming would cost $600 per season. It doesn’t sound like much of a comparison except for the small consolation that trophy bear hunters, like Safari Club members, tend to be well heeled and book the most expensive lodges.
Will the States Be Better than the Feds at Managing Bears?
The NRA and Safari Club’s argument that the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are better fit than the feds to manage trophy animals is disingenuous. It has nothing to do with wildlife management competency, and everything to do with their larger political agenda.
The first objective of these two trophy hunting groups is to kill grizzlies, and the states—especially Wyoming—will help them achieve this goal in record time. (In my own state, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has decided to put off a trophy grizzly hunt for 2018.)
My specific distrust of turning brown bear management over to the states arises from how notoriously slow the departments have been to investigate and prosecute obvious cases of poaching, protecting illegal killers who—when caught—claim they felt threatened in some way—the “self-defense” argument. Subsequent prosecution is slack or non-existent. To justify this lax enforcement, the state game managers say that if they prosecute poaching too aggressively, their sources of information about bear-mortality reporting will dry up. Still, if delisting survives its legal challenges and a hunting season is opened, illegal killing of grizzlies will become much easier (with or without a license) and will loom as the primary threat to Yellowstone’s entire bear population.
Far more transparent and important, I think, is the issue of public lands. The NRA and the Safari Club have not bothered to intervene in this regional hunting squabble because they believe the local state game departments of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho will better manage the region’s critters than would a federal agency.
I believe these national groups have become involved with the fate of grizzlies in order to serve a broader agenda: converting public land to private ownership. To put it bluntly, stealing the land that belongs to all of us and delivering it to the private sector for financial exploitation. They would auction off the vast wild lands of the Bureau of Land Management, national forests, and wildlife refuges, and open national monuments and even the national parks to resource extraction.
All public lands are threatened by this so-called “states rights” movement.: It’s not just the Yellowstone ecosystem and Bear’s Ears mesas that are imperiled, but also the underlying philosophy and concepts that made these places possible in the first place. The Wilderness, Endangered Species, and Antiquities acts are all under siege. The NRA and Safari Club agendas on wildlife and wilderness issues at their core are driven by the desire to dismantle our wild heritage.
The Problem with Grizzly Bear Experts
In the early ’80s, I served as an expert witness on grizzly bears for Glacier National Park in federal court. The judge asked me and the other expert witness how many (defined as different bears per day) grizzlies we had seen in our lives, and because I had watched grizzly bears at Yellowstone’s garbage dumps and at salmon streams as well as in berry patches and meadows, my answer was over a thousand. Does that make me an expert? Maybe for the purposes of that particular court, but otherwise I have my doubts. At the time, I let it go, not questioning the court’s opinion. But what teaches a person the most about grizzly behavior? Probably watching wild bears go about their natural business, without disturbing the animal’s activity? Nature is a great classroom. Salmon streams are good, but you can also learn a great deal by watching bears in meadows and berry patches. My own early education was slow, hampered by greenness and bear-illiteracy.
I’ve spent time with Yellowstone’s grizzlies each year for the past five decades, beginning in 1968. The first 15 years were the most intense, during which time I filmed bears full-time in the Yellowstone and Glacier National Park ecosystems. Typically, I’d spend the first six weeks of spring in Yellowstone, and then come back for October. The rest of the season, I filmed in Glacier and worked seasonal jobs for the park service.
Much of the time, I worked alone, lugging my heavy 16mm camera gear around in a backpack, camping in the backcountry for stretches of up to a couple weeks at a time.
The goal was to film wild grizzlies close up but not so close the bears would be spooked by the camera noise; I wanted to capture natural grizzly behavior without the bears becoming aware of my presence. Of course, I didn’t always succeed.
My strategy for finding grizzlies in Yellowstone was split between two general approaches: I could go out into good spring habitat, find a set of fresh bear tracks and follow them to where the grizzly was feeding. Sometimes, this took days of tracking to catch up with the bear. Compared with today, grizzlies were scarce in Yellowstone during the ’70s—something everyone agrees on.
The other, more efficient strategy was to set up on a hill or promontory where bears were likely to come by and just wait. It helped if there were winter-killed elk or bison carcasses nearby.
Using such methods, spread over three decades, I managed to sneak up on at least 200 unsuspecting grizzlies in and around Yellowstone and Glacier parks, to distances within about one hundred yards. Most of those approached were captured on film, which is now archived at Texas Tech.
Here I want to say something about hunting. I don’t think dispatching brown bears with a weapon capable of bringing down a B-52 is very challenging. Because I could have shot any of those bears, I have always suspected grizzlies are easy to hunt. Easy, say, compared to black bears, who are spooky forest creatures and a test for a fair chase (no baits or dogs) hunter. Grizzlies, by contrast, are open country animals and their dominance at the top of the food chain means they don’t automatically run away.
But does tracking down a wild griz with a camera equate with trophy hunting? Absolutely not, as any Safari Club International member would point out. Why? I didn’t pull the trigger. There was no kill. Without the kill, there is no authentic hunt.
Here is a crucial distinction between me and trophy hunters. I don’t hunt predators. I wouldn’t shoot a bear for a cool million. I am not one of them.
How do you justify killing an innocent animal of exceptional carriage that you don’t intend to eat and who poses no threat to you? A few trophy hunters try to answer this question; most see no problem, they kill the big grizzly or the lion with a huge mane just because they can. There are arguments: money for permits and licenses can be spent on conservation. You may trophy hunt because it runs in the family. Or because male archetypes like Teddy Roosevelt did it.
When we think of trophy hunters, the photo of Donald Trump Jr. holding a freshly severed elephant tail may come to mind, but I recognize a few other types, often deeply skilled in ways of the wild and dedicated to a fair chase. The ones I know tend to be bow hunters. These people are probably the exception: They know why they are out there and are grounded in their own ethic.
Of those Safari Club members who have shown any curiosity at all about their deadly sport, it’s probably fair to say the bulk have drawn their killer philosophies from mid-20th century sources, especially a little book called Meditations on Hunting, written in 1942 by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, which is quoted so often in the literature of trophy hunting that it has assumed near-religious status.
Ortega tells us death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting. In short, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.
For Ortega’s privileged sportsman, the animal’s death is a “sign” that the hunt was “authentic” and “real.” This European view of killing and the hunt owes nothing to the roughly 300 thousand years of Homo sapiens wildlife experience: After all, we evolved our own human intelligence chasing animals all through the Pleistocene, in habitats whose remnants today we call the wilderness.
Throw in some colonial dominion over the beasts, a little Hemingway, and you find a tremendous amount of masculine bullshit in consideration of what constitutes an “authentic” experience in outdoor blood sports. Ortega celebrates the “exemplary moral spirit of the sporting hunter” who hunts for “diversion.” He looks down on the “utilitarian” hunter, like “Paleolithic man,” and “the poacher of any epoch” or individuals like myself who hunt for food.
For the record, I do hunt, mostly game birds and the occasional deer. I eat what I kill and have many guns. I don’t hunt predators on principal or trophy-sized animals (for practical and culinary reasons). Each year as I grow older, I find myself backing off a bit. But there is a legitimate debate in the bedrock question: Why do we hunt or, more specifically, why trophy hunt?
David Mattson has his suspicions: "Those who promote hunting as a means of increasing human safety are probably using the argument simply as cover for getting rid of grizzly bears that they see as an inconvenience or an affront to their personal ideologies… or promote hunting primarily as a means of inflating a shriveled ego through killing something as powerful as a grizzly bear.” Mattson continues, “Perhaps those promoting the sport hunting of grizzlies are doing so out of a visceral place of fear and a derivative need to dominate and subjugate anything that subjectively threatens them.”
Despite a few female members, groups like the Safari Club are rooted in masculine institutions of patriarchy and clanship. Within the fraternal organization, intense competition abounds. If your buddy bags a huge kudu or leopard head, you’d better get a bigger one. This deadly rivalry about who gets the best trophy is regarded as either the purest form of sport, as seen by Safari Club, or one of the worst contests of our society, as viewed by people like myself. The payoff or price of the kill, in either case, is pretty much as Mattson suggests: a boost in the frail male ego.
My own feeling is that the time for these ceremonial executions is over. We lost our authenticity somewhere in the colonial past. We don’t need a Yellowstone grizzly hunt.
The man holding the cut-off elephant tail may take exception to Mattson’s musings, but we are decades down the road from the faded photos of TR’s rhino in 1909 or Hemingway’s lion shot in 1934. The year 2018 finds us much deeper into the climate change game than anyone wants to talk about and also smack dab in the early-middle of the 6th Great Extinction. These often endangered and expendable trophy creatures could use a break from recreational killing.
The first critters to go in a great extinction tend to be the big ones, especially the large rare mammals favored by trophy hunters. This endangered species list does not exclude two-legged primates; the hot winds of change are coming for us all.