Sunday, June 05, 2016


When one strips away all the sides of the grizzly issue, it turns out to have very little to do with personal danger, livestock losses, or romantic notions about what a bear is.  In the end the issue is land, which is the most basic form of wealth.  Money was invented to be an aspect of land.  Land is food, water, and development.  If a little fish called “snail darter” can stop a dam being built, what could a grizzly bear do?

Some years ago I heard people talking about a rare worm, several feet long, white and smelling like lilies.  They were last seen in the Palouse country in Washington State, then completely extinct for decades and then recently spotted again in the Palouse.  Some years ago people here in Montana talked about the worm in the Sweetgrass Hills, revealed when a backhoe was digging a grave.  They live several feet down.  The Sweetgrass Hills are a refugia, spared when the glaciers ground their way down the continent.  Many rare species of several kinds still hang on there.  They are a potential bonanza for anyone seeking endangered species.

I talked about the worm on an environmental listserv.  A man interested in such things immediately noticed and notified the “Worm Man.”  On 6-26-05 I posted here about his visit, which was confusing because at first a local rancher welcomed him, even offered him a place to stay, but in the interval before he arrived, she changed her mind completely, was “not home.”  It took me a while to realize that someone had talked to her about the Endangered Species Act.  She was very much afraid — with justification — that making a fuss about this worm could mean real trouble for her ranch.  Now she’s after the bears and getting a lot more sympathy.

The "Worm Man's" wife sent this hostess gift.

There are two kinds of development in play on the East Slope of the Rockies.  One is local, small in scale, personally meaningful, and marginally profitable.  The other is international corporations, sometimes devastating in scale and effects, nearly uncontrollable and completely secretive.  Before frakking got to the Blackfeet reservation, the corporations paid a respected tribal woman several hundred dollars each time she got the owner of an oil well to sign a release permitting frakking.  

No one had done frakking here yet, but the elderly well owners dated back to the first oil wells.  Not only were they more vulnerable to the idea of frakking than their inheritors would be, but they were likely to have as many as a hundred inheritors far more environmentally alert than grandma.  The tribal woman called me to brag about this income source she had discovered.  She’d spent her whole life working for the BIA in city offices, not considering environmental matters back on the rez.  The old people figured she understood white schemes and trusted her.  But I blasted her with outrage for being a pawn in the Big Swindle that began with the discovery of the North American continent and I never heard from her again.

For a while nations controlled the land within their borders — sort of anyway — even though the Western half of Canada, “Rupert’s Land,” was simply the Hudson’s Bay Company.  But now the treaties and boundaries are work for lawyers and accountants at headquarters moved to tax-free, secrecy-maintaining island countries.  (Not submerged by rising sea levels yet.)  I'd say they were out of the reach of the government, except that it seems obvious that they have infiltrated the government, shutting out democracy.  With unimaginable amounts of venture capital and sly backroom deals — not hard since so many corporate boards overlap — the plans for pipelines, high tension electrical transmission lines, open pit mining, oil-carrying railroads, are underway already by the time the lobbyists and lawyers start adjusting the laws to suit themselves.

Tony Bynum photo -- used with permisssion, maybe collusion.

Land use law is a mighty hot topic, endangering our national parks, our clean water, and a host of other things too hard to think about.  One might say “a can of worms.”  Trust me, as soon as the fire in the Tar Sands started, someone was sitting in a corporate office thinking, “How can we turn this into profit?  Will the government give us aid?  If we can write off all the machinery, is that going to mean we can buy state-of-the-art new stuff and will that mean more profit?  How will this affect the refinery glut that keeps prices low?”  And “letting the air quality people in there was a big mistake — detecting lead in the air over burned lands means trouble — restrictions.”

Quarrelling over the dearness or danger of grizzlies is a great camouflage and distraction for land deals, public or private, all on paper and registered somewhere -- we don’t know where -- impossible to find.  Maybe some whistle blower will reveal it all, but if Japan owns ranches and Canada owns mining companies and the industrious but sequestered Hutterites own big pieces of the prairie pie, it will take more than one guy with a head for figures who knows how to hack emails. 

It will take a shift in culture on the scale of a religious revelation.  Luckily, it’s already underway and the energy is building in spite of all the pessimists.  We are getting closer and closer to seeing the planet as one unit when we begin to worry about endangered marine species and dead zones in the oceans.  The proliferation of octopuses, wolves of the sea, is parallel to grizzly overpopulation; or maybe Crown of Thorns starfish that are eating the reefs that protect fishes and beaches.  Broken ecology.

Artist Nickolay Lamm’s depiction of a polar-grizzly hybrid
Read more:

“Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008. The survival and the protection of the polar bear habitat are urgent issues for WWF.”  (World Wide Fund for Nature, which addresses habitat as well as creatures.)  In its own strategy for survival, the polar bears have been interbreeding with grizzly bears.  Speciation is a way of surviving by adapting.

Some think that the next survival evolution for humans will be awareness and understanding.  If there can be a cell that detects when food is present, why can’t there be a cell that detects when agreement is possible?  Or will we become callous, protecting only ourselves whether violently or by paper means?  We seem to be exposed to violence from grizzlies, but overlook the danger from humans who can write laws and regulations. I’m not a neoliberal or an anarchist.  Nor do I share the enthusiasm of the LL Bean-wearing environmental NGO bureaucrats who think they can write a perfect law.  The ranchers are only cat's paws.

Tony, East Glacier, MT

This question is close to the bottom line of the grizzly debate: which international corporations want to repeal the Endangered Species Act and why?  


Janis Aimee said...

Thanks for the great series on bears. I'm not so interested in bears, per se, but the way you tell the 'stories' are so interesting and engaging that I just kept on reading. I thought several times - 'why are you reading about bears!?' And...just kept on reading because it was 'good', and of course, about way more than bears. I've read many of your posts over the months - sometimes I forget and go looking for you - and I read and read... I'm also 'prompted' to remember to find your blog again by my son, Tony Bynum. He's a BIG fan of yours. Thanks again! Your fan in Olympia WA - janis

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Janis. Tony told me you were a fan. I so appreciate your praise since you must be pretty special to have produced a son like Tony. And then, his photos are marvelous. Not just transcendently beautiful, but often from a point of view about the world that I share -- and I think you do as well.