Monday, May 30, 2016


Grizzly bears do not read.  They know nothing about laws.  What they know about boundaries is not on our maps.

Grizzly bears are individuals.  We write laws and draw boundaries for the “aggregate.”  Bob used to make jokes about the waterfowl laws that said, “no more than X number of ducks may be shot in the aggregate.”  He’d ask,  “Where is the aggregate on a duck?”  It’s the bear biologists and wardens who learn individual bears and try to figure out what specifically needs to be done.

Grizzly bears are omnivorous, opportunistic, seasonal, and habitat-controlled.  The map of the interior of a grizz body and brain is about these things and requires those who study them to think in other ways than print, mostly using their own similar but not-the-same senses.  But we are becoming technically clever:  radio collars, ear tags, hair and feces analysis.  Maybe not so clever when studying the economic, political, and legendary terrain of bear knowledge, which is generally recorded in print.

Formal enforceable laws about bears suffer from the same layered complexification as about humans in the West.  The first consideration is keeping bears out of dense human populations where they could create havoc.  That’s part of the second desiderata, which is keeping them away from scattered human households and domestic animals.  Politically, one must observe at least eight layers of laws: land ownership, private rights and the jurisdictions of towns, counties, states, federal, international treaties, and tribe.  And we're close to the Canadian border, which means Alberta law.

Psychologically, there are also layers to consider.  One is the individual belief that people are living in an earlier century and decade when bears were not regulated, because people come to the West to escape modern life.  Another is the Western belief that landowners are the kings of their land, going back to early European concepts.  Some go to the realm of myth and legend, transcending reality in order to merge with the juju of kissing bears, claiming privileged virtual worlds.  (The bears know nothing about this level of existence.)  Domestic bears are an oxymoron, because though individuals can with great effort be shaped and forced into templates of pet-dom and money-making stunts, in time their feral nature will break through.    An animal without the environment that created it is no longer an animal, but a kind of meat robot full of brain-wired workarounds.

Many people understand ecology very little, because we are still thinking in terms of individual standalone objects.  Little kids learn to read by using booklets that ask,  “What does a pig say?  What does a duck say?”  In my academic ag family, I had little booklets that taught the species of sheep, goats, pigs, horses, goats, cows.  Most are named according to the places they were developed: Dorset, Suffolk, Belgian, Hampshire, because they adapted to the conditions in that place and to the uses that justified their economic costs.

There are sub-categories of grizz according to their places, mostly big federally defined reserves: national parks, national forests.  Yellowstone bears, Glacier bears, and now beginning to be “prairie bears.”  What are the uses, the ecological relationships, that justify the cost and effort of protecting bear populations in these places?  I would propose that a major one is the control of hubris in human beings.  This is closely related to the indigenous (“Indian”) claim of spiritual resources.  In our greed society these kinds of wealth count for very little unless we can hunt, photograph, and otherwise market them.

Bob Marshall Wilderness: the Chinese Wall

But there are other economic and political forces in play.  Greed for resources.  Ranches and mining that depend on advantages gained by cheap fees for federal land use that were meant to encourage the settlement of the West for the sake of their tax income.  These areas are where state and federal most often conflict.

In the beginning of the protected species idea and first laws addressing it, there was a memorable cartoon in the New Yorker.  One little fish says to the other, “I’m not surprised that I could put an entire dam on hold — I’m just surprised to find out I’m a snail darter.”  Often little remnant or evolving creatures become the concern of people who could be described as “stopping progress.”  Now the law includes the concept of “takings,” in which one sues on the basis of governments preventing one from profiting by development.  It’s more common in the cities but it’s not about anything that actually exists — only about what COULD presumably result in profit.

Thinkers are beginning to propose that the historically happenstance “states” or even reservations are so arbitrary — think of the boundaries that are straight lines — that they need to be redrawn according to the ecology of the continent but also the phenomenon of the scattered population now piling up along the coasts and thickening into cities dependent on huge amounts of power, water, and proper sewage treatment.  I personally believe this is an excellent idea, but suggesting that gets a reaction sort of like eliminating all football teams:  very emotional, a kind of patriotism.  

The argument of the thinkers is that it has mostly already happened along the major commercial and travel corridors, so that we have megacities on the coasts and through the valleys.  As the ocean rises (which is not just theoretical since island nations are now submerged and arctic coastal natives are having to move inland), this will also force realignment and allocation.  New York City has already had to devise ways to close entrances to the subway in case of floods, which have already happened.

I expect major population collapses in the coming years, hopefully after I’m gone, most likely in Asian cities first.  Mosquitoes are not the only vectors.  The accumulation of unnatural molecules and garbage gyres may cause the scales to tip subtly, quietly, until we realize that responses like diabetes or HIV or autism are shortening lives drastically, maybe catastrophically.

Even now efforts to protect charismatic megamammals, and bugs as small and charming as the mission blue butterflies in the hills of Berkeley, remaps the insides of our heads.  The secret to managing animals is always managing the habitat, and all habitats are connected to what is around them and woven into them, like the habitats of humans.

Those who are pushing back against regulations often have good reasons.  They must state their positions strongly and emotionally in order to preserve their own space and terms of survival.  Demonizing them won’t do any good nor will despair.  Close cooperation and understanding are what will create an ecology of the mind that preserves what we love.

No comments: