Tuesday, May 10, 2016


At last night’s Valier town council meeting a guest speaker was Mike Krings, the Montana Fish Game and Wildlife Game Warden responsible for the grizzlies that are suddenly taking an interest in Valier.  Also, the black  bears that stroll through now and then.  Blacks are pretty easy to run off — more or less like big greedy dogs.  It’s not that grizzlies are so malicious and carnivorous, because in their natural state they are neither.  But when they are looking for food and have an idea you’ve been hoarding some at your house, they are big and strong enough to knock down a door, adept at using their six inch claws, and not controlled by rational thought.  Grizzly bears think with their emotions and reflexes.  They generally don’t repent.

They are still charismatic megamammals who can support the trophy industry by providing symbolic proof of power and domination, mostly for the testosterone-needy.  The following is my testimony to the Federal Fish and Game Service that wants to delist Yellowstone grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act.  Testimony is closed at the end of business this day.  More info at the end of quoting myself.  Or here’s a link to an article by Doug Peacock, defender of grizzlies. 


I’ve hugged a lot of grizzly bears because when they’re dead and you’re ready to skin them, you can only move them by getting a good grip.  I was married to a taxidermist.  I know a lot about the economics of the trophy business, the psychology of guys who fly-in across the continent to prove their balls.  Since we had a museum with a mounted rearing roaring griz, I know a lot about people who think it is a feat to steal the rubber tongue as though the bear were alive.  Since Bob Scriver was also a sculptor who made a portrait of Gentle Ben, I know a little about griz show biz.  Quite a lot like politics.

Recently when I was out at the trash roll-off, Shannon came alongside, excited to tell us about the griz hanging around Valier a few miles out.  He’d been about fifteen feet away from it and went back to get his wife, who longs to see a griz. The Hutterites on the rez have been complaining about griz in their cows, but the Blackfeet Fish and Game haven’t been able to shoot it yet.  The idea is to pick off “bad” habituated bears, not trophy bears.  And a little shooting might not be a bad thing — keep all bears wary.

I know very little about Yellowstone grizzlies.  I know quite a lot about Glacier Park grizzlies.  When you live in Heart Butte, where I taught on the high east slope of the rez, they teach you to pound on the side of a dumpster before you throw in your trash, so as to spook the bears out first.  Often we could see griz going along peacefully on the side of Heart Butte.
Chuck Jonkel -- his tracks are still warm.

I used to sneak into the Montana Bear and Wolf meetings of professionals when Jonkel was active.  You had to have some kind of a contact to find them, because the general public is so irrational in a dozen different ways, ranging from believing that bears love them the way they love bears, to seeing them as devils in fur that should be eliminated, to wanting a bear rug in their rumpus room to prove their testosterone level — until they stub their toe on the bear’s open mouth.

I helped make a diorama about a grizzly turning over high mountain rocks in order to catch the small mammals that live there.  Those small marmots and pikas are already endangered by climate change.  The temps are too warm, the snow is too scarce, the seasons are out of synchrony.  Bears eat them.  Of course, bears eat as much vegetable matter as animal prey — those big claws are garden rakes.  The vegetation is also changing.

I think it’s too early to legalize bear hunting.  I think people are reacting to the change in their businesses (like the dearth of skiing) and bad general economics by demanding new ways to make money.  This pressure is going to continue for decades.  Commodification of game animals is always a political plus for some people, and an atrocity to other people.  It’s hard to steer a sensible middle-course and it’s scary when the bears are coming to town.  But I think it’s important to hold the line a while longer until we know more about managing grizzlies than shooting and bear spray.


This is not a brilliant piece of writing, but I hope it is grounded in reality.  Last night we considered the reality of Valier, and reflected on what we could do to uninvite grizzlies.  It came down to using traps judiciously and probably to eliminating the brush along Lake Francis.  Like earlier humans, streams and lakes are travel maps, and for bears stands of willow and other brush are motels, good places to bed down through the day.  Which is all fine unless you happen to be camping here and your kids go exploring.  Or if you’ve been fishing from your boat and have your catch nearby while reloading the boat to go home.

Of course, we who live here are divided in our reactions.  Some have come thinking they are living in an idyllic place where nature is benign.  Maybe most have come from farms where bears were shot to protect livestock.  And a few have come here to hole up and ignore everything, even bear scat in their front yard and the neighbor’s dog going crazy at night.  And there are always the old ladies who want to feed everything.  (I feed the cats in the garage which they access through a cat-sized hole.)

Krings, a young man in uniform with his sleeves rolled up, reeled out one bear story after another, trying to get us to see the patterns and strategies.  Placing a bear trap is not an easy or cheap thing to do.  Lots of things can go wrong — from Krings’ point of view one of them being rebukes from his bosses who can take on the attitudes of bears.  In the end Leo, one of the town’s employees (recently the recipient of an award for handling water systems skillfully), went out to scout around.  Billy Gobert, our sheriff’s deputy went along.  Bear sightings go through the sheriff’s 911 phone line.  

It’s unusual to see bears this early and this far away from the East Front.  They are neither Yellowstone bears nor Glacier Park bears, but from the crucial habitat formed along the Rockies by continguous rez, wilderness, national forests, and high ranches.  Both national parks are too much like small islands to sustain a healthy population.  Right now it appears that the mature bears are dominating the best habitat and the younger bears are out roaming in the places where humans have moved in.  Something similar has been happening with cougars.  But if the mature bears are a narrow cohort, aging together, there may be an impending population collapse. 

Running Eagle Falls

I’m thinking I should keep a can of bear spray alongside my kitchen fire extinguisher but I’m more likely to need it for drunks than bears.  When I lived in East Glacier I used to hike around Two Medicine lake and often saw grizzlies busy tearing up rotten logs or browsing for berries.  I gave them lots of room, they did the same, and it wasn’t a problem. 

This last week there were two human fatalities.  One was the first of the usual series of people falling in Glacier Park, this time over the cliff that produces Running Eagle Falls, and the other was in the campground at Lake Francis.  Not a bear victim, it was an older man driving home after being presumed recovered from surgery, but who threw a clot that killed him.

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