Confined to less than 2 percent of their original habitat and threatened by the effects of development, population growth, and climate change, grizzly bears are facing a dismal future. Despite this, the grizzly, as much a biological wonder as a national symbol, is facing possible delisting from the Endangered Species Act.
As an intern for People and Carnivores, a project of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative that aims to mitigate human-carnivore conflicts, I am investigating the complexities surrounding the status of the grizzly bear in the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem. The primary question: do we delist the grizzly bear or maintain its federal protection under the Endangered Species Act?
I am but one of a multitude of people grappling with this question. Ranchers, county commissioners, NGO members, outfitters, journalists, scientists and various other individuals all have a stake in the grizzly bear’s status. Through my work, I have been fortunate to gain insight into this complex web of interactions by interviewing some of the key players. The questions I ask focus on how people view the challenges facing grizzly bears, the threats to grizzly bears and their habitat, the effects of various groups on grizzly bear management, states’ ability to successfully spearhead grizzly bear management, and the role of science – among other topics.
The responses to these questions have been very telling of how these participants’ values, perspectives, worldviews and narratives shape their positions. By sorting through the points of convergence and divergence, I hope to gain a better understanding of these views and values to both inform and improve the development of future conservation strategies.
The most interesting aspect of my work so far has been identifying if and how certain viewpoints align. This debate—like so many others involving conflicting interests—has been depicted as black and white, pitting ranchers and hunters against conservationists and environmentalists. Though some individuals believe this issue is overtly polarized, I have found that people from these “opposing” camps have a lot more in common with each other than they realize. For example, ranchers and conservationists—portrayed as having incompatible goals and visions—both have an appreciation for the land and hope to conserve its resources in a sustainable manner.
So the disagreement between these groups results not from differences in their ideologies of conservation, but rather from how to uphold those ideals, or in this case, how to best manage the land. Given the underlying commonalities, it seems collaboration between these groups would be simple. What I have come to realize, however, is that differences in personalities and agendas foreclose almost any possibility of collaboration.
And, unfortunately, it becomes very easy to forget the outcome of this debate will ultimately affect the grizzly bears. Instead, they become lost in this mire of politics and opinions, no longer viewed as living organisms but rather as vehicles to propel individual agendas.
I have another month with People and Carnivores, and I am excited to dig further into this issue. I hope that by gaining a better understanding of the underlying social and political complexities, I will not only be able to contribute to the wellbeing of the grizzly bear, but also facilitate much needed dialogue among the individuals entrusted with the safekeeping of the species.
Breanna Lujan is a rising fourth year Environmental Studies major at Yale College. She is concentrating on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, especially as these topics pertain to environmental policies in Brazil.