At a time when some particularly loud voices are calling for delisting grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act and lobbying for state-sanctioned trophy hunting, and when talk about the future of grizzly conservation seems particularly divisive, listening for positive attitudes towards grizzly bears feels increasingly important. What do grizzly bears mean to people personally? What do people value about sharing the landscape with them? And what do people hope visitors to Western communities understand about grizzlies in the ecosystem?
We can learn a lot by asking and listening to one another, and by elevating the voices of our neighbors to serve as antidotes to an anti-bear rhetoric commonly governed by politics, misunderstanding and fear, one that too often paints grizzlies as aggressors out to “eat our children.”
Because let’s be clear, for every voice that speaks of intolerance towards grizzly bears, or that seeks to rollback protective measures for the species, there are several alternative perspectives. These are the voices of people who believe that this unbound western landscape is big enough for us all — for bears and for people. Regardless of age or background, these are the voices of individuals that seek points of convergence, choose coexistence and envision a shared path forward for grizzly conservation. These are students, parents and community members. These are also the voices of artists, hunters, hikers, teachers, guides, scientists and business owners.
These are the voices of residents in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a community surrounded by a vast matrix of national forests, parks and state protected wildlands. It’s also a region embedded in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), one of the largest intact landscapes in the lower 48 and critical habitat for grizzly bear recovery today. Currently, there are around 700 grizzlies in the GYE.
Let’s hear from a few of them. (The people, of course.)
Grizzlies are the definition of wild. They have inspired humanity for millenia, evidenced by their impressive form featured on cave walls and canvas alike. Grizzly bears are a symbol of strength, power and, more scientifically, ecosystem health. To think that the earth can still support the needs of this keystone species means there is still hope for a world that includes humans and wilderness in-kind. ~ Lisa Simmons, Curator and Art Educator
Grizzly bears are the ancient teachers of the first peoples of this continent. They taught Native Americans about what plants were edible and medicinal, and indigenous peoples throughout their range learned from them. They are the quintessential wild animal, and they keep humans humble. I hope that visitors have enough curiosity to learn more about grizzlies, study them a little bit, read about them, and get beyond the terror of them that is so readily publicized. All grizzly bears are really asking of us is our respect, and our distance. When we pay attention to this, we realize they have a lot to teach us even today. ~ Benj Sinclair, Wildlands Educator
Grizzly bears are one of the few large endangered species that you can see in the wild. Grizzlies mean much more alive in the wild than they do hunted to local extinction. Wild spaces that are home to grizzlies and their community embody the true spirit of “Wilderness” denoted in the 1964 Wilderness Act: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Grizzly bears, as a conservation success, mean hope for species conservation and wildlife. ~ Trevor Bloom, Ecologist and Wildlife Guide at Guides of Jackson Hole
I value grizzly bears as top predators, as omnivores just like us, and as indicator species of how we’re doing at species and landscape-level conservation. ~ Naomi Heindel, Science Educator
[In this community] we love our bears! We are all just visitors, whether we’ve been here 30+ years, or one week as a tourist. We love grizzlies, we name them, we insta them, and actively seek out sightings. When we’re lucky, we stumble upon mamas with cubs along the road and marvel just as much, perhaps even more, than the short-time visitor. We are living in their world. ~ Chris Wilbrecht, Realtor
The value of grizzly bears to me personally includes all the life lessons that they exemplify through their fascinating behaviors that [I’ve witnessed] during the many hours I have observed them. The adults immediately command your respect while the cubs grab your heart. Interactions between sows and cubs give us a glimpse into the world of motherhood, sometimes incredibly intimate as when they are nursing. The coyness of a sow when being courted by a boar is both entertaining and interesting, as she might use a line of people and parked cars as a barrier between her and the male suitor as she crosses the road and momentarily escapes his constant focus.I could sit for hours upon hours just watching them being a bear. ~ Suzanne Daniel, Wildlife Photographer
When I hike, backpack or hunt in a landscape where there are no bears, it’s easy. No need for bear spray, bear-proof food containers, hanging meat in trees when carrying an elk hindquarter back to the trailhead. But I don’t live in the GYE for an easy life. I live here for a wild life. I do think that the vast majority of the people who live here feel the same. ~ Kevin Taylor, Wildlife Guide, Naturalist and Hunter
From my perspective as a mountain guide, grizzly gears represent the wild and untamed wilderness experience that we are seeking. In terms of the steep alpine terrain we work in, we don’t often see bears up high. But while we approach and descend, bears contribute to the challenge and reward of our goals. [ ] It’s always encouraging to see that the wild places we seek and love are thriving, healthy ecosystems as well. ~ Kai Girard, Mountain Guide
Grizzlies to me represent wilderness, the resilience of nature, and the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act. They are an emblem of the great gifts of nature and at the same time, a reminder of the responsibility that humans have to steward and safeguard habitat for all creatures big and small. ~ Kevin Krasnow, Educator and Ecologist
Young people have important things to say about grizzly bears, too. Brother and sister Eli and Tali share their thoughts about living with bears.
[The Tetons] are a special place because you get to see grizzlies once in a while. One of my earliest memories is of a grizzly bear walking through our campsite as we moved aside and watched. I felt amazed at how big it was. ~ Tali, age 9
I hope that visitors here learn that they should carry bear spray and make noise when they hike, and to not get too close to a grizzly bear. ~ Eli, age 5
Other local students in Jackson Hole add their ideas to the mix, teaching us about grizzlies and what they mean to western communities, and sharing some best practices for living and traveling in bear country.
I love [grizzly bears’] faces and the hump on their backs. I especially like seeing the cubs. Visitors should know that if you’re walking in willows or hiking on a trail, you should make noise and carry bear spray. ~ Wren, age 8.5
Grizzly bears eat almost anything, so they’re kind of like the clean-up crew. They help to keep everything balanced. I hope visitors learn that grizzly bears aren’t just a prop to put in your selfies. They’re animals, they’re living creatures! ~ Miles, age 9
Grizzly bears are cute – I love seeing the babies follow the mama around. [The babies] are learning lots about how bears are supposed to live: food, hunting skills, and to fear people. If you see one on the side of the road, you should give lots of space and stay in your car. ~Phoebe, age 11
Grizzly bears are powerful. You can see their muscles and bone as they walk! They’re majestic creatures! Visitors should know that griz aren’t to be messed with. Instead of being terrified, though, I hope visitors learn to appreciate what they’re seeing. ~ Madelyn, age 12
Whether 5 years old or 50, a longtime resident or only passing through, the resounding echo in each of these individual’s attitudes towards grizzly bears is impressive. Their words are a celebration of common ground and a demonstration of western values — of an outdoor lifestyle, access to open space, appreciation and respect for wild animals, and belief that these are important aspects of our heritage.
These are also values that we must collectively use our voices to protect. So let’s keep listening to our western neighbors. Let’s speak loudly and proudly on behalf of grizzly bears.