Which bear is best? The brown bear, of course! (At least according to any loyal Brown student…) In this episode, hosts Aidan Calvelli ‘19 and Noah Cowan ‘19 explore the contentious politics surrounding grizzly bears, biology, and hunting tags in Grand Teton National Park, as well as Brown’s own history surrounding these most iconic of carnivores.
As you’ll learn in this episode, bears are cultural symbols in myriad ways… On the one hand, they’re fluffy, harmless toys for kids to play with; on the other, they’re fierce, formidable monsters. They’ve been used as circus animals and political symbols; school mascots and cartoon characters. There’s no denying it: there’s something about bears that captivates our imaginations, as well as our fears… Bears are deeply enmeshed in the political fabric of America, and today, you’ll find out why.
Special thanks to:
Steve Cain – A senior wildlife biologist from Grand Teton National Park. In this role, he directed wildlife research, conservation, and management for 25 years. His work focuses on black and grizzly bears, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and birds of prey.
Todd Wilkinson – A renowned environmental journalist, whose work has appeared in sources such as National Geographic and The Washington Post. He is also the author of several books, including Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth (1998), Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet (2013), and Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone.
Anna Gibson – A student at Brown and a local from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Her insights and research were integral to this episode.
Tobi Lepecki – A student at Brown, and the author of this episode.
Hosts: Aidan Calvelli and Noah Cowan
Podcast Associates: Isabelle Belleza, Ali Martinez, Kate Dario, Rachel Lim, Ella Rosenblatt, Moses Lurbur, Henry Peebles-Capin
Executive Producer: Emily Skahill
The story of bears and Brown University starts in 1904 when Theodore Francis Green (class of 1887) slapped the stuffed head of a brown bear on top of Faunce Arch.
Green, as governor and senator of Rhode Island, described his reasons as to why he thought Brown’s mascot should be a bear:
“While it may be somewhat unsociable and uncouth, it is good natured and clean. While courageous and ready to fight, it does not look for trouble for its own sake, nor is it bloodthirsty. It is not one of a herd, but acts independently. It is intelligent and capable of being educated (if caught young enough!) It is a good swimmer and a good digger, like an athlete who makes Phi Beta Kappa. Furthermore its color is brown; and its name is Brown.”
Despite how much T.F. Green apparently loved bears, however, his alma mater hasn’t always treated them well. For years, Brown University kept a live bear in a cage on the field during football games. Most “Brunos,” as we called them, were rented on a seasonal basis from a nearby zoo and retired after a year. But the first Bruno did not meet so kind a fate. When he retired, He was caged in Brown’s biology lab, where in 1921 got his snout into some chemicals, aand did not live to tell the tale.
Brown stopped using live bears as mascots in the 1960’s and replaced them with humans in bear costumes. This might be more humane, but it intimidates opposing teams far less effectively). Still, bears continue to be a big part of Brown iconography and identity. I for one, yell “go bruno” whenever I feel an upswell of school pride, and the only reason I go to the gym is so I can one day be as jacked as the bear statue outside the Nelson. Beyond my quirks, almost every Brown student has a strong opinion about Blueno, the big huge bear statue on campus, and the bookstore makes a killing selling apparel with the bear logo (at jacked-up prices, of course).
Looking beyond Brown, it’s clear that bear fascination is no minor phenomena. Throughout history and across the globe, bears have taken on great significance beyond the animal kingdom.
Bears are cultural symbols in myriad ways… On the one hand, they’re fluffy, harmless toys for kids to play with; on the other, they’re these fierce, formidable creatures. They’ve been used as circus animals and political symbols; school mascots and cartoon characters. California even had a skirmish in the 19th century called the Bear Flag Revolt!
They’re depicted as our friends and our enemies, heroes and villains. There’s no denying it: there’s something about bears that captivates our imaginations.
Today on BPRadio, we’re gonna talk about bears. We’re gonna ask you to bear with us for this, maybe because that’s gonna be the last bear pun we’re gonna make— we promise— and because it might seem an odd thing for a political podcast to cover. But as you’ll see, bears are deeply enmeshed in the political fabric of America. today we’re going to talk about why.
The bears that we’ve talked about so far have been Ursus arctos, or brown bears, which are found all over North America and Eurasia.
But the most iconic subspecies of brown bears is unequivocally the grizzly bear!
From around 50,000 years ago up until the 19th century, grizzly bears roamed in an area that covered all of the western United States and Canada, and as far down as Mexico. Now, they only occupy areas in north-western Canada and Alaska, the north and western parts of Montana and Idaho, and a tiny, northwestern corner of Wyoming.
This slice of Wyoming is the location of Yellowstone National Park. The park brings in over $600 million in economic benefits to the region every year. Any changes to its ecosystem and environment have wide reaching ecological and economic impact.
In 1974, grizzly bears were placed on the Endangered Species List because they were dangerously close to extinction. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, people aggressively hunted grizzlies because they saw them as a threat to their food and their safety. By the 70s, grizzlies had been eliminated from 98% of their original range on the US mainland.
Grizzlies enjoyed special protection status until 2017, when population levels rebounded, and states were allowed to sell a limited number of tags that would allow folks to hunt the bears.
This hunting doesn’t serve any biological purpose, says Steve Cain, who served as the senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park for 26 years.
CAIN: “In terms of where the hunt of grizzly bears is biologically necessary, I would be willing to say it’s not. It’s simply a matter of the states, which provide hunting, that’s one of the things they do. They want to be able to provide that recreational opportunity. It’s nothing like, for example, a mule deer herd that has gotten too large for the habitat. But people would argue there are too many bears and they’re radiating out into places where they shouldn’t be, and that’s why they want to hunt them. That’s an opinion, I suppose.”
The prospect of a grizzly hunt, immediately after the species came off the endangered species list, stirred up controversy in the Yellowstone region. When asked about his personal views regarding the hunt, Mr. Cain is careful to remain neutral:
CAIN: “I have to keep those views to myself because it’s a very controversial issue, and my job in the Grand Teton National Park Foundation is one in which we stay very neutral.”
That’s precisely because the controversy surrounding a hunt is immensely complicated. This weave of economics and politics that manifests in highly personal ways.
Boiled down, there are two sides to the debate: preservationists versus conservationists. Preservationists are environmentalists that strongly believe in the sanctity of nature. They believe that humans shouldn’t mess with their natural surroundings, and by extension, the bears that live there. Famous preservationists such as Jane Goodall have led the crusade against the planned hunting of the grizzlies by entering the lottery for the limited number of tags being sold to prevent people who actually want to hunt the bears from securing them.
However, there are also those environmentalists (the conservationists) who believe that low levels of hunting are acceptable for managing bear populations. Many of these conservationists are avid hunters themselves, and are upset by the federal court’s disruption of their local conservationist model of environmentalism. However, the tags to hunt the grizzlies were never sold because
~~~audio clip from local news~~~ (0:00-0:26)
This ruling did not come entirely out of the blue. The same judge who made it had previously delayed the planned hunting season of grizzlies twice before finally handing down the ruling permanently putting them back on the endangered species list. So it wasn’t unexpected, but the timing exacerbated the situation. Just ten days earlier, Wyoming locals news had exploded with the brutal death of a hunting guide, Mark Uptain, at the hands of grizzly bears:
~~~audio clip from local news~~~ (0:36-0:42 – 0:44-1:00)
Anna Gibson, a student here at Brown, and a lifetime resident of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, knew Mark Uptain’s family, and we talked to her about the impact this had on an already charged political and cultural issue:
GIBSON: “I think it’s pretty unique when something so catastrophic happens –– and I mean, catastrophic and brutal, honestly — because the word goes around really fast, and even if you don’t know the specific person who was involved in the specific incident, you definitely know people who know them. Word just spreads way faster than in other places where you have to read it from a news source. With the Uptain occurrence, specifically, I was in Rhode Island when it happened and I remember hearing about it within a couple hours. I think people used Mark Uptain’s attack as just an additional reason why the hunt should happen.”
It was undeniably a tragedy, as all sides are willing to admit, but, if there was ever a time that people wanted to hunt grizzlies, this was it. for the 22 grizzly tags that were going to be sold in Wyoming, over 7000 people applied. But now a federal judge has stopped all that, and people are really upset, not just because of the death of Mark Uptain, but also for political and economic reasons.
The political reasons are pretty straightforward; Wyoming is the most conservative state in the U.S., according to a recent Gallup poll (x). And people there don’t like the fact that a judge from the federal gubmint, let alone one in another state, can rule on what they believe to be a centrally- Wyoming issue. Federalism at its most pure..
And as for the economic reasons we mentioned, well…
Wyoming is, after all, the cowboy state, and there is a significant amount of fear from ranchers over what an ever increasing bear population means for their livelihoods.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has stated that there were nearly a million dollars in property lost, solely in cattle and sheep, in 2018 due to grizzly bears (x). While grizzly attacks on humans are relatively infrequent, even compared to other wild and domestic animals, grizzly attacks on livestock have a serious, measurable cost.
Like a lot of things in American politics, the fight over what to do with the grizzly population in Wyoming is complicated. But a lot of it boils down to the money. Not only money lost from grizzly attacks on livestock, but money that could have been gained from allowing a hunt.
The main argument of conservationist environmentalists is that hunting in such protected spaces as national parks is good because the money raised from selling licenses goes back into funding conservation in those parks.
But there are also economic reasons to uphold the ban against grizzly hunts: The Yellowstone region pulls in over a billion dollars in tourism revenue a year, a significant portion of which comes from viewing the main attraction of the parks, bears and wolves (x). Not to mention, the amount of time and money it’s taken to recover bear populations from near-extinction in the 1970s. Here’s Cain again:
CAIN: “I think one thing people should be aware of is the extreme lengths that humans went to to recover the population in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of investment in financial dollars as well as time. And it took, you know, thirty or forty, fifty years to get there. So it’s not a small amount of effort that it takes for grizzly bears to live with people, but when they do, for example in Yellowstone, it is something that Americans should be proud of. Because it’s emblematic of the priority that humans have given to a species, to go through the efforts that we have to ensure that they stay on the landscape. And that’s one of the reasons that hunting is so controversial, because it’s taken a lot of years, a lot of money, and a lot of effort in general to recover them and people don’t want to see that trend reversed.”
At its core, the preservationist argument is about humans and our relationship with the environment. Like Cain says,
CAIN: “The real challenge wherever grizzly bears live is how to coexist with them on the landscape. And I think that the Yellowstone ecosystem has been tremendously successful in doing that, and that’s why the population recovered and is as healthy as it is, given all the other challenges it faces.”
Anna sees this too. Though people have to take extra precautions against bears, like packing out food and carrying bear spray, the ability for people and bears to exist in the same environment — no matter how tentative the equilibrium — is indicative of something much greater. It’s a matter of choices and priorities.
GIBSON: “Across the board, within the national parks and outside the national parks, we’ve done a really great job of protecting the bears. I remember even when I was a kid, and you could literally just leave food out anywhere. Just watching that evolve over my life time has been pretty incredible, so I definitely agree with Steve — I think that this area has done an especially incredible job of figuring out how to coexist with bears even though it’s really hard to do. Basically ever bear that’s born in this area is given a number. Essentially, the idea of giving them a number rather than a name is to keep a little distance emotionally between us and them. It’s sort of been interesting to me watching the numbers turn into really endearing names for them. For example, 399 — she’s had several different litters of cubs and she’s very well respected. You hear 399 and people’s eyes light up and they want to go into the park to see her.”
Todd Wilkinson, a renowned environmental journalist says, (and I quote): “Families decades into the future will together remark, “Do you remember when we saw those cgrizzlies in Yellowstone [or Jackson Hole]”? I have spoken with many people who say the moments they had watching grizzlies were Greater Yellowstone were some of the best in their lives. With locals they have come to realize that grizzlies, when afforded respect for their space, are not the odious deadly beasts they’ve been portrayed to be. They make the backcountry feel wilder, more exciting and in recent years the local tourist economies have realized that bears are worth far more alive than dead to the economy and frankly, it’s a cool thing to say you live in one of the rare places in the world that is showing how to co-exist with carnivores.”
As a longtime resident of Jackson Hole, Anna’s grown up knowing people on both sides of this equation – the preservationists who argue against hunting grizzlies, and the conservationists who favor the hunt.
GIBSON: “It was really challenging for me to even begin to think that I understood the situation. I don’t think that I was educated enough on either side to take a stance. But I’d also heard snip-its from people on both sides, from people who are a part of some very well esteemed environmental or animal protection agencies, and on the other side, from members of Wyoming Game and Fish. Based on the research that I had the chance to do, and the people I spoke to, I felt pretty well convinced that at least for the time-being, not having a hunt was the best option. I think that biologically speaking, there’s no reason that the bears need to be hunted. And also, spending a lot of time in Jackson, I’ve come to really appreciate the way that people revere them. People come here to see the bears, and the moose, and the elk — that’s one thing that the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are most known for. That’s the livelihood of the community I grew up in. So I think it’s important to respect them and treat them with a lot of care.”