What the debate about grizzly bears teaches us about politics
David Thoreson Photos
This week, while watching an online panel about grizzly bears, I noticed something that encapsulates a larger issue in this country.
Grizzly bears aren’t COVID vaccines or abortion, but in the Northern Rocky Mountains, they are a culture war issue. I’m a sociologist, and I study wildlife conflicts as a way to understand political conflicts in this country.
To start, the panel included two scientists (one who had a long career in government and has ties to a hunter-conservationist group) and a wildlife photographer, with a guest appearance in a recorded video by Jane Goodall.
It did not include any members of two other major stakeholder groups, Native Americans or ranchers.
For Native Americans, grizzly bears are an environmental justice issue. A recent court case that put the bears back on the endangered species list after they were removed from it was called Crow Indian Tribe v. United States. But far too often, Native communities are excluded from public discourse about the bears.
Ranchers live, work, and raise their families among grizzly bears. Even though grizzly mauling is relatively rare, it is still something they must worry about regularly. Livestock depredation is another concern for them.
Government bear managers, hunters, environmentalists, Native Americans, and ranchers don’t all see eye to eye, but all have a valid stake in the issue. So they all need a seat at the table.
But far too often, we don’t even acknowledge that people we may disagree with politically have a valid stake in the issues we’re debating. Instead, I observe people arguing their point by trying to de-legitimize the opposition.
That’s what happened on the panel. One of the panelists said that ranchers are compensated for livestock depredation by grizzly bears. Bear lovers in the audience who may not know any ranchers personally might hear that and think: What are ranchers even complaining about?
But ranchers are only compensated for confirmed losses. Sometimes the grizzly bear eats all the evidence, and the loss cannot be confirmed. Also, ranchers care about their cows — they don’t want cows torn apart by a bear, even if they are paid back.
This only serves to poison the debate. If they think depredation is a non-issue, pro-bear activists get angrier because they think ranchers oppose saving grizzly bears for no reason. Then ranchers get angrier because they feel like they are being bullied and gaslit.
When we don’t understand the many different sides of political debates, we make finding solutions harder than it already is. We inflame conflicts unnecessarily without even knowing that is what we are doing.
Sometimes we overlook potential allies too. I observe some hunting groups and pro-bear activists on the same side of some issues — both often oppose unrestricted hunting of large predators, for example. But they act separately, without awareness of one another. Pro-bear activists sometimes recognize Native Americans as allies, but often misunderstand Native Americans’ stake in the issue.
There are alternatives. In 2019 and 2020, the state of Montana organized an 18-member citizen council that represented a wide range of stakeholder groups in the state. The council used consensus-based decision-making to write a document to guide the state’s grizzly bear policy.
Resolving political conflicts is not easy in a country as diverse as ours. Different people have opposing values and interests, and it’s difficult to find shared solutions that are fair to all. However, excluding stakeholders from the table and failing to listen to one another is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
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