The fear narrative: a barrier for grizzly bears

The fear narrative: a barrier for grizzly bears

Conservation Northwest / Dec 31, 2019 / British Columbia, First Nations, Grizzly Bears, North Cascades

If our neighbors up north can coexist with grizzly bears, why can’t we?

By Joe Scott, International Programs Director

While the majority of Washingtonians support restoring grizzly bears to the backcountry of the North Cascades, opposition remains. And though we know that these bears will benefit the North Cascades Ecosystem while restoring a missing piece of our regional natural heritage, some opponents seem to believe only gloom and doom will follow the return of a functioning grizzly population.

A grizzly bear in central British Columbia. Photo: Jeremy Williams

I understand concerns recreationists might have about venturing into grizzly bear habitat. I also empathize with ranchers and the agricultural community, who often view grizzlies as another species that will bring conflict with crops or livestock, or otherwise complicate their operations. However, these narratives are based more on fear than science, and misinformation rather than reality.

When it comes to bear safety and awareness, knowledge trumps fear.

In Yellowstone National Park, where there are more than 700 grizzlies, there’s a 1 in 2.7 million chance you’ll be attacked by one. Simple, straightforward precautions are effective for avoiding or resolving conflicts with both grizzly and black bears, including hiking in groups, making noise in confined, brushy areas to avoid startling bears, carrying bear spray, and safely consuming and storing food and toiletries.

Check out this video by my friend Chris Morgan for more bear safety tips

Not everyone wants to hike in groups, and for some outdoor users, such as hunters, making lots of noise just isn’t an option. In all but the most grizzly-dense bear country, folks should feel comfortable continuing to work and play in bear habitat with simple precautions. And knowing how to understand bear behavior and body language is a valuable addition to basic bear awareness.

Wildlife watchers, hikers, hunters and anglers and others recreationists who frequent the North Cascades should feel comfortable continuing to work and play in grizzly bear habitat with simple precautions. Photo: Chase Gunnell

If you’re concerned about livestock, we produced an entire video about the relationship between ranchers and grizzly bears in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, and steps these ranchers are using to avoid conflicts. In summary, livestock depredations by grizzlies are rare and often preventable.

But the biggest barrier to grizzly bear recovery is the characterization of the effort as another attempt of urban elites and the government to recover “predators” at the expense of rural communities and livestock interests.

It’s “Us versus Them” again.

But what if there was an alternate universe where such assumptions weren’t frontloaded into the grizzly bear recovery effort—where minds are a bit more open and unbiased, and grizzly bears aren’t something to be reflexively feared, triggering another round of culture war?

What would the grizzly bear discussion look like?

It turns out, we don’t need to invent such a universe—there’s one just to the north of us, and it’s called Canada. In my two decades of working for grizzly bear recovery with governments and First Nations in Canada, I’ve seen the striking difference in attitudes toward grizzly bears there versus Washington state first-hand. And perhaps we can learn from communities in Canada who not only coexist with these animals, but often see them as a necessary part of their environment as well.

Grizzly bears in central British Columbia. Photo: Jeremy Williams

Canadians generally don’t think seeing a grizzly means you’re going to be mauled by it. Healthy respect, yes. Trembling fear, not so much. After all, with an estimated 15,000 grizzlies in British Columbia (B.C.) alone, that would equate to an awful lot of collective dread in the province.

In my experience, for the most part in Canada, grizzly bears are associated with healthy ecosystems, wild places and economically-vibrant communities. They are assumed to live everywhere that suitable, secure habitat exists.

The grizzly bear populations of southern British Columbia are also endangered, and we’re working to recover them through our Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative. Map: Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative

The grizzly has always been a part of the environment, as well as the natural and cultural heritage of rural areas across central British Columbia. It’s more commonly expressed as “they were here before us and we can live with them.”

In Canada, fear isn’t the basis for judging grizzly bear conservation and recovery (where needed, such as in the B.C. portion of the North Cascades and the southern Coast Range). I’m not saying all Canadians are fearless of grizzlies. I am saying fear isn’t the overarching concern in communities adjacent to (or even in the middle of) grizzly bear habitat. Even in cattle country, which is a lot more expansive in British Columbia and Alberta than Washington, there just isn’t much angst about grizzlies.

Where some Washingtonians see a monster lurking in the forest waiting to pounce, Canadians see an indispensable icon. They even relish encounters with these wild neighbors. Where some Washingtonians see a threat to their traditional lifestyles and rural economies, most Canadians see a critter that goes hand in hand with both. Where some Washingtonians dismiss the science that underpins grizzly bear ecology, Canadians embrace it and use it to plan for coexistence.

Such comparisons are verifiable. The Sea to Sky Land & Resource Management Plan (LRMP)—an overarching community planning document signed by the B.C. government in 2007—mandates the recovery of threatened grizzly bears over a huge swath of southwest B.C. The LRMP covers the recreation and resource meccas of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton, among others, and some of the highest human population densities in western Canada.

As if to underline the self-imposed LRMP direction, all those communities passed resolutions a few years ago expressing their unambiguous desire to see grizzly bears recovered in southwest B.C. So did the half-dozen First Nations that ring the area. The bears are threatened from past overhunting and habitat loss but are making a comeback.

This display tells the cultural significance of grizzly bears to the St’át’imc people of British Columbia. Photo: Joe Scott

The iconic stature and respect for the grizzly is perhaps best understood through the eyes of B.C.’s extensive Indigenous communities, in which the grizzly is seen as an irreplaceable cultural keystone. First Nations people in B.C. variously recognize the bear as their teacher, grandfather, big brother, model mother, spirit power and protector.

“The grizzly taught us what to eat and when to eat it,” a St’át’imc elder told me. Doesn’t sound like a human-bear competition to me.

Hear more perspectives from First Nations leaders in this video!

But grizzlies shouldn’t be idolized, and Canadians aren’t better than Americans in any way. Maybe it’s just that in Canada, they’ve lived uninterrupted with grizzly bears since humans and bears first made contact. The culture of coexistence never faded.

The good news for Washington is that we know coexistence with grizzly bears is possible. Not only is that demonstrated in Canada, but we see it every day in Montana and Wyoming. And we’re lucky to live in a state that overwhelmingly supports grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades—including those who live in and around the recovery zone.

The avalanche chutes, alpine meadows and subalpine forests of areas like the Glacier Peak Wilderness provide prime grizzly bear habitat. Photo: Chase Gunnell

A poll conducted in 2016 found that Washingtonians who want to see grizzly bears recovered in the North Cascades stretch across political lines—with support from 89 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans, and 74 percent of independents. And while opponents do pose a threat to saving this wild icon, broad support and my experience in Canada makes me optimistic that a future with a healthy population of North Cascades grizzlies is possible.

Perhaps those who are afraid of grizzly bears and oppose their recovery could try substituting the word “respect” for “fear”  when talking and listening about grizzlies.

Why? Because Washingtonians have a unique opportunity unavailable to the majority of the rest of Americans—to restore the grizzly and all it represents in our wilderness areas.

This is the last native species present before European colonization still missing from the North Cascades, one of the wildest areas left in the lower 48 state. And we have a chance to restore them before it’s too late.

It’d be a shame to squander what is desired by most Washington residents because of misinformation and fear.

A grizzly mother and cubs in north-central British Columbia. Photo: Jeremy Williams for the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative