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Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West

Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West

by Michael J. Dax
Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West

Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West

by Michael J. Dax


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Environmentalists and the timber industry do not often collaborate, but in the years immediately following gray wolf reintroduction in the interior American West, a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana brought these odd bedfellows together. The partnership won praise from diverse interests across the country and in 2000 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a plan for reintroduction. When the Bush Administration took office, however, it promptly shelved the project.

In Grizzly West Michael J. Dax explores the political, cultural, and social forces at work in the West and around the country that gave rise to this innovative plan but also contributed to its downfall. Observers at the time blamed the project’s collapse on simple partisan politics, but Dax reveals how the American West’s changing culture and economy over the second half of the twentieth century dramatically affected this bold vision. He examines the growth of the New West’s political potency, while at the same time revealing the ways in which the Old West still holds a significant grip over the region’s politics. Grizzly West explores the great divide between the Old and the New West, one that has lasting consequences for the modern West and for our country's relationship with its wildlife.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803278547
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael J. Dax lives and writes in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

Grizzly West

A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West

By Michael J. Dax


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7854-7


Grizzly Americana

After tracking the bear for two days, William Wright finally spotted it a few hundred yards above the edge of a canyon, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. He was disappointed at the bear's diminutive size, but decided to kill it anyway. Wright positioned himself downhill from the bear so he would have the best possible shot. When he eventually reached the edge of the canyon, he looked into it and saw another bear — the biggest bear he had ever seen. This was the bear he had been tracking. Wright had to think for only a moment before deciding to kill them both. He repositioned himself, took aim at the larger of the two bears and pulled the trigger. Wright then turned to the other bear, which had stood erect to investigate the noise. He quickly aimed and pulled the trigger again. This bear, like the first, dropped without taking another step. As Wright began walking over to admire his kills, he heard rustling in the next ravine. When he looked up, he discovered the source of the racket was a sow grizzly and her two cubs. Once again, Wright instinctively dropped to his knee, reloaded, took aim and fired. He instantly downed the sow and only needed two more shots to kill the bewildered cubs. He had killed five bears with five shots in five minutes. According to Wright, "This was the greatest bag of grizzlies that I ever made single-handed."

Originally from New Hampshire, William H. Wright moved west at an early age with a desire for adventure. Ever since he was a child, grizzly bears had fascinated him, so when he moved to Washington, Wright dreamed of killing one of the great beasts for himself. He relocated to Spokane in 1883, and over the next six years he made some preliminary attempts at hunting grizzlies. However, when he moved to Missoula, Montana, in 1889, he had still never seen one. Nevertheless, his desire had not diminished, and he headed southwest into the Bitterroots the next summer with a string of packhorses and enough supplies to last the season. Although success did not come easily, by summer's end Wright had shot his first grizzly. Over the next few years, his hunting prowess improved immensely, and he became one of the region's most prolific grizzly hunters. In addition to his amazing account of five in five shots, Wright achieved other astounding feats of grizzly bear hunting. On a single trip in the Bitterroots in 1895 he shot thirteen grizzlies, and on an earlier hunt, he and a few friends killed four bears in a single evening. Despite these achievements, by 1897, Wright's curiosity and appreciation for grizzlies had overcome his desire to hunt them, and he exchanged his gun for a camera. Wright dedicated the remainder of his life to studying and protecting the bear, but he was the exception rather than the rule, and by the time he died in 1934, the Bitterroots were all but devoid of the great bear.

Despite grizzly bears' presence in the mountains and meadows of the Bitterroots since time immemorial, the region's grizzly population was practically nonexistent within four decades of Wright's arrival. Over that period, sport hunters like Wright, ranchers, and other settlers systematically eliminated the region's grizzly population. Although black bears proliferated in the area throughout the twentieth century, the last confirmed grizzly sighting in the Bitterroots had long passed by the mid-twentieth century. Such was the case across the Rocky Mountain West where pioneers sought to tame the land in the name of progress. As settlers poured into the region over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they transformed its more wild characteristics to make the region suitable for farming, ranching, logging, and mining, which meant pushing out much of the native wildlife. Although almost all species suffered, the potential threat to human supremacy that grizzly bears represented earned them a distinct reputation and distinguished them from other reviled species such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. By the eve of World War II, with the help of the government and its wise-use conservation policies, the West had methodically and unapologetically reduced or exterminated all of these major predators.

Such was the case across the West and the country at large. Over the nineteenth century, Euro-Americans doggedly pursued taming the wild character of the region, asserting their dominance over the landscape. Killing grizzly bears was a small but essential piece of a much larger campaign to ensure the nation's supremacy over man and nature. By the end of the century, conservationists like chief forester Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt introduced the principles of conservation and wise use to the country, which had been extracting its natural resources at a hell-fire pace. Wise use — the idea that natural resources should be managed sustainably so that future generations would have similar opportunities to benefit from the land's abundance — became the dominant ethic governing the nation's natural resources. However, this utilitarian philosophy justified actions in terms of economic and tangible benefits and left the reigning ideology largely intact. Predators like grizzlies threatened both people and their livelihoods, and the federal government actively pursued their destruction, forcing the country's grizzly population toward the brink of extinction.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, the persecution of grizzly bears continued unabated. However, in the postwar era, grizzly bears' status in the American mind began to improve. As more Americans traveled westward, visiting national parks, grizzlies became major attractions for eastern and European tourists. Combined with the emerging environmental movement, many Americans quit viewing the bear as a burden to progress and economic stability that needed to be eradicated, regarding it instead as a national treasure that deserved to be protected. Additionally, as pop culture increasingly appropriated the bear for its purposes, grizzlies were recast as friendly, not ferocious. By the time Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, grizzly bears had become an iconic symbol of the American West, earning themselves protection under the new law and cementing the vast transformation in image and treatment they had achieved over the previous century. In this way, grizzlies provide an ideal lens through which to examine and understand the significance and scope of the nation's transition from conservation to environmentalism.

Like so many pieces of western history, Euro-Americans' relationship with the grizzly can be traced back to Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. When the group saw its first grizzly bear on October 20, 1804, in present-day North Dakota, it made history. No Euro-American had ever before documented a grizzly bear sighting, so for all intents and purposes, it was history's first. Peter Cruzatte, the expedition's hunter, took the first shot at the bear, and after firing, he promptly became the first American to run from a grizzly, forgetting both his hatchet and gun in the process. Cruzatte survived the ordeal, but his close call had little effect in dissuading the party from shooting at more bears along the way. Over the course of the trip, the expedition saw dozens of grizzlies, many of which it killed. Even after a few more close calls in which wounded bears chased after their attackers, the expedition could not help but try to kill as many bears as possible. The enormous bear fascinated them, as it would many Americans over the next two hundred years, but the ideology that drove their interest dictated that they kill as many bears as possible. In these interactions, one can see the conflicting forces of fear and the desire to dominate and subdue nature that would govern Americans' relationship with the bear over the next 150 years. Historian Dan Flores identified in these interactions an "optimistic arrogance, coupled with a typical American faith in scientific technology's ability to prevail." While a modern observer may be left perplexed at the Corps's unyielding thirst for killing bears, it was this exact attitude that epitomized how Americans would interact with wildlife, especially apex carnivores, over the remainder of the nineteenth century.

By the time they reached the Bitterroots, the Corps's desire to kill the great bear had not diminished, and while passing through the Bitterroots, both westward and eastward, they shot multiple grizzlies. On their way to the Pacific Ocean, the explorers stayed at Traveler's Rest, a few miles south of present-day Missoula, at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains. While camped, the expedition shot two bears of undetermined species that very possibly could have been grizzlies. As they left their campsite, they passed a tree from which the hide of a grizzly hung — most likely placed there by local Indians. On their return trip, the expedition killed six grizzlies in the vicinity of present-day Kamiah, Idaho, on the western edge of today's Clearwater National Forest. Without a doubt, when Lewis and Clark passed through the Bitterroots and over Lolo Pass at the dawn of the nineteenth century, grizzly bears occupied the region in significant numbers. Yet within the next century, the bears' status as lords of the West had been usurped by a population of settlers that was successfully waging a campaign for their total annihilation.

In contrast to the hostile position that Lewis and Clark and later Euro-Americans assumed in relation to the grizzly bear, Native American tribes throughout the West that had lived among the bear for thousands of years had a much different relationship with them. Meriwether Lewis himself commented in his journal that the Shoshone considered killing a grizzly to be a great honor, and they wore the bear's claws around their necks so that its spiritual power would transfer to them. The Navajo of the Southwest never dared attack a grizzly unprovoked, fearing its retribution. However, if a bear killed a Navajo, an armed party would find the den of the guilty bear, and before killing it, would perform an elaborate ceremony asking the bear's forgiveness in advance. Other tribes frequently depicted bears as essentially human and valued them at the individual level, not just as a population. A story from a California tribe tells of a bear playing a friendly game of cat and mouse with a man who was scared for his life. The short tale assigns the bear a sense of humor not often associated with wild animals and demonstrates the high regard with which this tribe held the bear. More relevant to how Native populations in the Bitterroot viewed the bear, a Nez Perce legend suggests that the famous Lolo Trail, which the Corps of Discovery used to cross the formidable mountain range, was established when a grizzly bear guided a lost boy through those mountains. That the Nez Perce credited a grizzly bear with this important discovery clearly indicates the high esteem in which they held the bear. Every tribe that encountered grizzlies did so in a slightly different manner, and many did, in fact, kill them, but none of these tribes either questioned the right of the bear to exist or sought its absolute destruction.

Nevertheless, Indians' relationship with the bear had little impact on how Americans viewed the great beast. In 1815 George Ord, a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, using Lewis and Clark's field reports as his basis, assigned the grizzly its scientific name, Ursus horribilis. While Ord had never seen the bear himself, the species name horribilis helped solidify the bear's negative reputation, and future generations of Americans would use this moniker as ammunition to justify the bear's destruction. While this name was not wholly deserved, grizzlies, more than any other nonhuman species, challenged Americans' westward expansion and few saw any room for the great bear in what they envisioned for the region's future.

Much like the indigenous peoples who experienced similar treatment by Euro-Americans, grizzlies originally inhabited the forests of Asia and began migrating across the Bering Land Bridge roughly fifty thousand years ago. Somewhere in this process, they adapted to their new home, which was unlike the forests of Asia, and evolved from carnivores to omnivores. Today grizzlies range in size depending on food sources, with bears living in coastal regions being larger than inland bears because of the availability of fish and richer vegetation. Those in the Northern Rockies typically range from 300 to 450 pounds, with males weighing in at the upper end of that range. In the Northern Rockies, grizzlies rely heavily on fruits, insects, nuts, and roots for the majority of their diet. They are opportunistic foragers, and while they will prey on elk and deer calves in the spring, they do not hunt for most of their food in a traditional sense.

Even so, as more Americans poured west after Lewis and Clark's return, interactions between humans and bears increased. Sensationalist stories of these incidents proliferated, and the grizzly's reputation as a menacing beast quickly grew into legend. In his 1836 book Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains, Washington Irving recounted a handful of instances in which his party encountered one of these infamous bears. On one occasion, a hunter named William Cannon was returning to camp with meat from a buffalo he had just shot. While passing through a narrow ravine, Cannon turned to find a grizzly bear in hot pursuit of him and the fresh meat he was toting. Having heard that the bear was invulnerable, Cannon did not even consider trying to shoot it and instead ran for his life. The panicked hunter climbed a tree, where he spent the night, unsure if his assailant lay waiting for him. But when he awoke, the bear was gone and Cannon returned to camp without further incident.

In another account, famed western writer George Frederick Ruxton relayed the story of an episode in which mountain man Hugh Glass found himself at the mercy of a ferocious grizzly. Glass and his partner had come across the bear while traveling through the Black Hills, and once spotted, both men took a shot at the bear. Unfortunately for them, the shots had little effect beyond incensing the grizzly and persuading it to charge the ill-prepared attackers. Both men ran, naturally, but Glass tripped on a rock, and by the time he arose, the bear was towering over him on its hind legs, snarling and baring its teeth. Glass's companion shot at the bear again, but his shot failed to discourage the bear's attack. Glass pulled his knife and as the bear fell on him, Glass stabbed the bear repeatedly while the two wrestled each other, fighting for their lives. Glass's companion ran back to camp to get help, and when the group returned, they found a severely wounded Glass lying next to the dead bear, which had more than twenty lacerations in addition to the three gunshot wounds.

Both of these stories sensationalized the ferocity of the great bear, stressed the danger that all humans faced while in its presence, and helped perpetuate the notion that the only good bear was a dead bear. As settlers continued to move westward and establish permanent homes — ranching, logging, and farming — any tolerance for these threatening animals evaporated. Grizzlies' size and potential lethality threatened human primacy leading settlers to kill grizzly bears out of a practical need for personal safety as well as ideological dominance. Additionally, because grizzlies preyed on livestock and competed with humans for other food sources, the need for their destruction contained an economic component as well. Aided by lurid tales recounted in dime novels, however, these real concerns developed larger-than-life dimensions, and grizzlies quickly gained reputations for being far more rapacious than they actually were. The fact that grizzlies often scavenged for food undermined their reputation even further. Americans considered such behavior dishonorable, so destroying them assumed a moral dimension that invigorated the campaign against them. As the nineteenth century wore on, fear and hatred led the settlers' crusade to transcend practicality and become culturally ingrained to the extent that the destruction of every last bear became crucial. And so, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Americans' relationship with the grizzly accorded with a model that unashamedly required the bear's unconditional annihilation.

Eventually the market economy and government policies evolved to accommodate this cultural development. Grizzly bear hides were never a prized commodity like the pelts of bison or beaver, but because settlers killed them en masse their hides made it to market anyway, fetching as much as four dollars per hide, and local governments found ways of encouraging grizzly hunters. Between 1827 and 1859, Hudson's Bay Company outposts in the Northwest shipped almost 3,800 grizzly hides to eastern markets. A Rocky Mountain trapper named George C. Yount, who first began trapping in 1826, bragged that he "often killed as many as five or six [grizzlies] in one day." Although this campaign hardly needed any encouragement, in 1893, the territories of Arizona and New Mexico passed a law that allowed counties to offer bounties on a number of animals, including grizzly bears. The U.S. Biological Survey, which was the federal agency tasked with eradicating predators in the West for the benefit of ranchers, occasionally targeted bears, but mostly focused on wolves. Just the same, the poison its agents used to lace bait stations intended for wolves killed curious grizzlies just as effectively, and within the first few decades of the twentieth century, their populations had plunged.


Excerpted from Grizzly West by Michael J. Dax. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Maps,
List of Abbreviations,
1. Grizzly Americana,
2. Endangered Species, Environmental Politics, and the American West,
3. Wolf Recovery Sets the Stage,
4. The Advent of the ROOTS Coalition and the Environmental Impact Statement,
5. Environmental Resistance,
6. Ethical Controversies and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement,
7. The Divided West,
8. Triumph and Collapse,

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