A little wooden grizzly bear overlooks my keyboard as I write this. It’s a hit on Zoom.
Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, the bear grips a salmon in its jaws. Its right side benefits from the wood grain, flecked with tiny marks that replicate a real bear’s rippling fur.
Its left profile, however, is painted with the symbology of its Salish artist, like a totem pole. I hold the little grizzly up to my webinar camera right-side first, displaying a creature most of my University of Montana Lifelong Learning Institute students think they’re familiar with. Then I flip it around, turning the bear into a mystical being. I can see the aahs in the gallery view.
This little classroom presentation parlor trick sets up the bigger discussion these students have come for. They want to know what to think about grizzly bears. I don’t have any answers; I want them to ask better questions.
The grizzly bear was the eighth candidate to win protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It’s one of nearly 2,000 plants and animals that have been saved from extinction by the law’s aegis. But, unlike the formerly endangered/now recovered bald eagle, the grizzly bear has not yet joined the tiny percentage of protected creatures that have graduated from ESA oversight.
Is that OK? Your answer depends on what you think the bear is. In the United States, wildlife belongs to the public trust, meaning wild grizzlies belong to the nation as a whole. Does belonging mean controlling? Do you want to possess something that, to survive, needs the right to occasionally eat you alive?
In the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, we mounted a government-sponsored effort to eradicate grizzly bears from the western United States because we considered them a menace and a pest to higher economic uses of the landscape, such as ranching. As the forces of climate change grow more apparent, that ambition takes another shape. Have we over-presumed our ability to control nature?
When the grizzly got its threatened status under the ESA, the lower 48 states held less than 500 grizzly bears—down from an estimated 50,000 at the time when Lewis and Clark first encountered them in 1805. By 2020, that population had grown to nearly 2,000. Is that enough? What measuring stick would you use?
To add some deadline pressure to your answer, consider that we humans keep rearranging the wild places grizzlies depend on, just as their numbers have gained momentum. Once the remote habitat is gone, the bears either go with it or move into what we consider our space—our pastures, chicken coops, and driveways. The grizzly’s multifaceted existence comes into sharp relief when your favorite spirit animal is taking a nap under your child’s trampoline in the backyard (yes, I have the pictures).
Take my little wooden bear. Its decoration represents a concept repeated in Indigenous cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere where Ursus arctos exist (and historically, brown or grizzly bears have lived from the Arctic Circle to everywhere south, such as Mexico and Morocco and Mongolia). In all those places, humans noticed bears disappeared for part of the year. What we now call hibernation, our ancestors considered communing with the spirit world as an intercessor for earthly issues. Scholars such as David Rockwell, Barbara Tedlock and David Quammen have recorded the remarkable similarities among cultures around the globe regarding great bears. They can be more than one thing at a time.
In fact, mythological bears embody more character traits than almost any other single entity. Even within the same culture, they contain multitudes. For example, in the “Why” stories of Kootenai Native American people, the bear is the leader of the council of animals, the outsider, the giver of wisdom, the most rude and obnoxious of the animals, the most dangerous, and the most compassionate.
Shakespearian scholar Linda Woodbridge observed that the Bard’s most famous stage direction, “exit, pursued by a bear” from The Winter’s Tale, has no real function in the play except to mark the abrupt shift in tone.
“On the face of it, it’s absurd, and nobody has ever quite decided if Shakespeare meant it to be absurd, or if it’s just a strange lapse of good taste,” Woodbridge told me. “About half the time, it’s played for laughs—although a character does get eaten by the bear, albeit offstage (after he is “pursued”). The best construction we can put on it is that Shakespeare is highlighting the transition between tragedy and comedy by staging an episode that is tragic in involving the death of a quite decent character, but comic in being, well, absurd. (No bears figure anyplace else in the story, which is otherwise a tale of marital jealousy).”
I drew on that same duality for the title of my book, The Grizzly in the Driveway. In the summer of 2019, two separate grizzly bears showed up in the driveways of two communities on either side of the Continental Divide in Montana. The one near Browning, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, prompted so much fear and anger from local ranchers that they demanded, and got, a visit from the United States secretary of the interior to plead their case for the prompt removal of dangerous predators from their midst. The grizzly, locally known as Marsha, had never been known to attack livestock or pilfer human food, but was still labeled a lethal threat. One rancher claimed the sound of her baby’s crying “brought in a grizzly 10 feet from my house.”
Eighty air miles to the west in Condon, Montana, the second driveway-prowling grizzly bear earned so much local affection that residents named her Windfall. They shot video of the sow and her cubs in their yards and shared the images by cellphone. They also did not report her increasingly brazen raids on chicken coops, unsecured garbage, and pet food bowls to the state bear managers. When the grizzly finally became so habituated to human food sources that biologists had to kill her and relocate her cubs for public safety, 29 people co-signed a letter to the editor apologizing “because this gracious and now grieving community had failed her.”
Two kinds of grizzly bears roam the world. One came with creation, an apex predator in the league with lions and tigers and orcas. The second is a creature of human imagination, living in dreams and nightmares and legends. It also inhabits law books and policy manuals: an impressionistic collection of behaviors and demographics and recovery criteria defining a living organism for human management.
Which grizzly do you believe in? Which bear do you fear? Letting the grizzly bear thrive may cost a tourist his life or a rancher her livelihood. Before you answer, make sure you know what question you’re asking.
Robert Chaney is a reporter for the Missoulian and the author of “The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West,” (University of Washington Press, 2021). A lifelong Montanan, he covers science and the environment.