Thursday, June 02, 2016


Grizzly management in Montana (necessarily in Montana because that’s where the grizzes are) is very much like the story about the wise but blind men deciding what an elephant is.  Each had a different idea because each had hold of a different part of the animal:  a fly whisk, a hose, four trees, two fans.  In fact, there seems to be war among the wise men when it comes to bears.  

I could not understand the term “Wildlife Services”, not even the fact that it is a United States bureaucratic entity, a subcategory of the USDA and APHIS until I saw the organizational chart.  To them a grizzly bear is an agricultural issue about protecting product (livestock) from depredation.  The bureaucratic flow chart includes rabies, genetically altered seeds, insects, birds on airport runways.  

More traditionally, grizzly bears in the Montana bureaucracy are dealt with by “Montana Fish Game and Parks”, in which wilderness with its attractions includes big game but must also deal with safety for people who are hiking or fishing.  Much of it is a boundary problem, defining and maintaining territory.  But that it is based on recreation income is not usually mentioned.  A brief effort to figure out how much a grizzly sighting is worth to the tourism industry crashed when an anti-grizz rancher offered to write them a check per dead bear.

Then there’s the reservation where the BIA has to deal with fish and game, but collaborating with the Blackfeet Tribe, which contains many points of view, now including the traditional culture and the glamorous contemporary virtual memes that have developed about the spiritual and psychological dimensions of charismatic mega-mammals.  Bears suggest humans and humans identify with bears, always have, especially when the bear stands up.  Some famous writing has been about bears: novels, poems, short stories.

Weaving through this are the bear biologists, both hands-on, and those who study not just the molecular and tissue constituents of a bear body and life path but also the "intraguild predations" of the bears in their ecology.  (It means predators who compete for prey and who will make lunch of their competitors.)  Physiologists are very interested in things like hibernation, bear gestation, and how bears handle fat.

There is a thriving market for bear parts used in Asian crypto-medical practices.  A certain kind of person wants to hunt bears and then keep the trophies in their house.  Not many people want a bear coat these days, but a bear carcass CAN be commodified.

Not many people want bears prowling their streets at night, though many of the East Slope towns have always co-existed with bears.  But it's a great commodity for those who market fear.

Order has been kept in the Western world for centuries by devising written rules for human behavior in the form of laws and regulations.  They generally address problems and thus include assumptions about what IS a problem and also the dimensions of response to it.  We classify crimes as disorderly conduct, misdemeanor, felony and capital — and we impose a certain level of obligation on non-criminal people to not provoke, over-react, or misinterpret what happens.  Also, there is a cultural level of manners and wise withdrawal.  We draw boundaries and say,  “Inside you can do this, but outside you must do that.”  So hunters bait bears to come out of protected parks so they can be shot.  But that’s also in a code with penalties.

Bears have their own culture, responding to the ecology and what they learn from each other, particularly their mothers.  A change in memes can be as violently forced as the sudden closing of the big hotel dumps in National Parks, or as clever as teaching cubs how to lift latches on shed doors.  Sub-practices of bears responding to their knowledge of "what works" means that a Yellowstone bear is subtly different from a Yaak bear. A bear specialist from over West tells me that "his" bears in the Selkirk were smaller but with nastier tempers than bears around here. 

The interface between the individual bear’s experience and its ecology, particularly that of the humans and their structures, has a lot to do with what happens.  I have a vivid memory of  driving along a stretch of highway out of Montana to the West, a place where the timber had been cut back along the roadway.  A bear was sitting on its butt with its “arms” relaxed and head up, just watching the traffic.  It was so easy to see that he was thinking “where are all these big shiny wheely things going and how to they travel so quickly?”

Of course, we love to watch bears and one of their uses is in zoos and circuses, which is better than watching bear-baiting, once considered to be legitimate entertainment.  Now we just video them for YouTube and consider it very funny if they try to do something like humans but fail.

Neurologists are opening up the parallel ecological evolutions of bears and humans in terms of “wiring.”  We are "intraguild predators", though we don’t eat many bears these days.  And what is that killing frenzy that can explode both bears and humans into destruction?  Road rage.  Spaniel rage.  Something snaps in the brain.

Teddy bear after brain surgery.  None was found.

These are all generalizations.  Game wardens work with specific bears in specific circumstances, each one unique.  Their tools, from helicopters to foot snares, and their methods often have a militaristic feel from carrying sidearms and wearing uniforms.  Much of their work belongs to the “Theory of Mind,” understanding how a bear thinks in the same terms as trying to understand what an enemy is planning on the field.  Terrain, strategy, logistics, are necessary and some things come directly from the battlefield, like shooting a bear from a helicopter, a bear that can be found because it is wearing a radio collar that will show up on a computer map as well as a handheld antenna.  

The technology of the tranquillizer gun is as demanding of skill as any other weapon.  No drug is entirely predictable.  Children die from an anesthetic when they are having their tonsils removed.  For a while when street drugs were so popular, there was an idea that “angel dust”-- which was the same as the ketamine used to tranquillize bears and which people knew was hallucinogenic -- was making bears psychotic and more dangerous.  It wasn’t so much resolved as it was irresolvable.

Tranq guns are propelled by compressed air, once to propel the dart and — in some models — again to make the syringe plunger inject the liquid.  Compressed air can’t be regulated in the way that a bullet can be made standard by controlling the gunpowder load, so sometimes the dart will fall short and other times, completely penetrate the animal, through and through.  It’s very hard to get accuracy on the target location.  The Portland Zoo veterinarian used a tranq gun to try to address health issues on a giraffe.  He accidentally hit the major nerve through the animal’s thigh and caused that giraffe to limp for the rest of its life.  He wept.

Variation in the chemistry of animals means that the amount necessary, the depth of the unconsciousness, the time lags in how quickly the drug works and how long the animal will stay “under,” can only be approximated.  Transportation of an inert animal can be problematic, esp. when using a sling to air lift them.  Animals can die simply from being handled, but not usually bears, I think.

Tranquilizer pistol kit

When we started researching tranq guns at animal control, I called an advertiser in Texas.  It turned out that he ran a ranch that sold hunting of African animals.  He had a pretty cavalier atttitude:  "Come on down and try out our gun!  If we make any serious mistakes, we'll have 'em for dinner!"  The absolute opposite would be the megamammal cuddlers of some humane groups.

The media is a mess.  They are worse at handling bear stories than they are at not taking a distorting attitude about pets for the sake of a story.  Often they are joking or childish.  But then, they have the same bureaucracy problem of the split between the culture and knowledge of office dwellers -- who demand profit -- versus whose whose experience is directly, sensorily, immediately based on the events. 

Dealing with bureaucratic but emotional issues like “de-listing,” “threatened,” and “extinction”, I hurry to turn out as much reading and writing as I can before the internet and free blogging get closed down.  Many powerful but unacknowledged forces are at work.  The main player governing all else is the surface of the planet and the inevitable morphing flow of life finding its own survival paths, not always the ones humans would prefer.  Maybe not humans at all.  "Intraguild predation."  Hmmm.

No comments: