In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans reflects on how an environmental success story - rescuing grizzlies from extinction - could be set back by the quest for oil.
Bear through a fish-eye lens
There's a tiny Wild West schoolhouse in a romantic setting in the Rocky mountains of Wyoming. It is just two rooms flying a small American flag in the loneliness at the edge of Yellowstone National Park.
Audra Morrow, the solitary teacher, has just four children in her school. She lives in a little log cabin a short walk away through the high brush and was happily making dinner for herself when she had the fright of her life.
There at her kitchen window was a huge grizzly bear on its hind legs, its paws resting against the window frame, snout pressed against the glass. Schoolmarm and grizzly stared at each other. The schoolmarm blinked first. Grizzlies, whose scientific name is ursus arctos horribilis, pack at least 500 pounds of muscle and bone in their 6ft plus frames. Muscling through the window would have been the work of a moment.
"We were literally nose to nose," Audra told me. "My dog was barking, I was screaming, and we were having no effect at all. The bear was a momma and she'd brought along two cubs, so there were three of them."
The scare, in fact, was a mark of success. Twenty-five years ago you would have been hard put to find a grizzly even if you'd gone looking. In the 19th Century they foraged throughout North America from the Great Plains to California and from Alaska to Mexico. There were tens of thousands of grizzlies on the plains when Lewis and Clark explored the continent in the early 19th Century, just as there were tens of thousands of buffalo.
By 1975, the grizzly was to be found in no more than 1-2% of its original habitat. There were only 200 in Yellowstone National Park and smaller numbers in pockets of Idaho, Montana and Washington. In short, if nothing had been done, the grizzly would be around today only courtesy of photographer and taxidermist.
The rescue began in July 1975, two years after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. That law was the most wide ranging and well-considered of any wildlife conservation effort anywhere in the world, the very best expression of America's idealism in protecting our natural heritage.
The grizzly is an icon, like the eagle and the buffalo, because it reminds Americans of the heroic past in which they wrung a civilization out a wilderness. Indeed, the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, believed that the grizzly on its hind legs was a better symbol of American vigour than the bald eagle.
Once the grizzly was listed on the country's endangered species list, it became an offence to "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, trap, capture or collect" the bear in designated areas. As a result, today there are reckoned to be 600 grizzlies in Yellowstone, growing at 4% a year.
It is the biggest success story yet for the nationwide act. And the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to celebrate that achievement by taking the grizzly off its endangered list, trusting individual states will take over as the bears' bodyguards.
The federal government promises to relist the grizzly if numbers go down again. Since the act, only about 15 species have been delisted out of 1,830 considered at risk, so not surprisingly the proposal is being hotly disputed.
Shock and awe
We might characterize the dispute by talking to another teacher, a mountaineering guide who also encountered a bear in the wilds. She is Louisa Willcox. "Twenty years ago I came upon the grizzly standing in a forest clearing. It was my first sight of this American icon. It was so inspiring," she told me.
Louisa, in her awe, stood still. It was as well she did not run. The experts advise that running away is likely to incite a predatory bear. You should stand your ground - some hope! - face the animal and converse in a firm low voice. Grizzlies, they acknowledge, can certainly be killers, but the experts also insist bears virtually never assault people without provocation.
Louisa was inspired enough to study the species. She has become one of the foremost experts, working out of Livingston, Montana, now for the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC). This pressure group has more than a million members dedicated to protecting the environment.
It is over the issue of delisting that Louisa parts company with Audra, our first teacher. Louisa very much opposes taking the bear off the endangered list. So does the Sierra Club, America's oldest grassroots environmental organization with 750,000 members. They believe it would put the grizzly on the path of extinction once again.
Audra doesn't want to bear to die out but she does fear the increasing numbers of them wandering out of Yellowstone Park. She doesn't obsess about her own little nightmare. Others have had scares too. A couple of fishermen nearby had a nasty experience when a big grizzly charged them, then followed their retreat to a car.
Johan Otter was bitten in the head
Audra herself never leaves home these days without a pepper spray, a surprisingly effective deterrent. "I am not a gun person," she told me "but now I have a loaded shotgun in the cabin." The school has put a fence to protect the children in the playground.
Defenders of the bear argue that attacks are very rare - 17 deaths in 20 years - and that sometimes people behave foolishly; the Los Angeles couple, for instance, who walked up to a bear feeding on summer berries, tried to drive him off, got mauled, then sued the Park Service for $2m for bad bear management.
Even so when they do happen, attacks are very scary and make big headlines. It made a major impact back in the 60s when on the hot and stormy night of 13 August 1967, two different grizzlies in two different tragedies killed two 19-year-old female backpackers.
Now the more recent fate of Timothy Treadwell is vivid in people's minds. He was the leading advocate of the bears as harmless. He lived among them for 13 summers in Alaska's Katmai National Park and made a point of advertising a spiritual relationship with them. On 15 October 2003, a 1,000-pounder dragged him out of his tent and ate him and then ate his girlfriend Amie.
Scavenge for food
Some wildlife experts like Alston Chase, the author of Playing God in Yellowstone Park, and the biologists Frank and John Craighead, are critical of the Park Service.
Their argument is that there is not enough natural food for any of the bears in Yellowstone - black bears, brown bears or grizzlies - so when the Park Service closed back country garbage dumps after the 1967 attacks, the bears were impelled to scavenge a wider area.
A black bear scavenges for food
They predicted at the time this would lead them into conflict with humans, with unhappy consequences for both species. The prediction proved all too true. From 1969 to 1972, more than 160 grizzlies had to be shot - leading to the panic that they were going to disappear altogether. This is precisely what the opponents of delisting fear will happen again. More bears wandering, more shootings, fewer bears surviving to continue the species...
But there's more on the agenda. The environmental lobbies are convinced that the Bush administration, beset by a deepening energy crisis, wants to delist the bear as part of its strategy to give oil and gas developers uncontrolled access to millions of acres of public land. The administration has already allowed numerous drilling projects in five areas of the Rocky Mountains where there is a diversity of rare wildlife.
It's not easy to decide between wildlife and energy, between the survival of the grizzly and the safety of people on the fringe of the wilderness. But long lines at the gas pumps, and three too many bears for dinner, make the circumstances for both delisters and developers just right.
Well, thank you for this highly informative article; I have no definitive comment on the issue of listing or de-listing at this time but my interest is now aroused and I intend to inform myself further as a result of Harold Evans commentary; instinctively one tends to side with maintaining procedures to protect this terrifyingly impressive creature, including sensible steps to provide sufficient natural foodstuffs but thanks for presenting the well-reasoned argument.
Bernard Hall, Gosport
Save the bears and their territory. Once we use up the bears' land, our energy crisis will still continue. The only difference is that in the future we'll have an energy crisis but no bears.
Judy, Atlanta GA USA
An article about bears? Or another badly disguised anti-American drone designed to attract the same old comments about Bush and Kyoto?
Marco Cesio, Surrey, UK
Once again, mankind puts itself at the top of the food chain. If the populace grows, more and more, its stands to reason there will be increased chances of humans crossing the path of bears and potentially, bear attacks. Sadly soon after that, there will be further outcry for bear culling. Our increasing demand for the earths resources and territorial space are pushing, or indeed killing out all natural wildlife inhabitants. Can we surely not see it is the human population that is out of control?
Jason Davies, Birmingham, UK
The prospects of the United States government adjusting the Endangered Species act for the benefit of corporations terrify me. The United States has such a vast array of natural beauty, and diversity, that I feel people take this for granted. I feel people won't notice what's happening until it is too late. And if the United States, a huge superpower cannot prove to be a powerful example in the preservation of our natural resources, who will? Falling back on old habits such as destroying our earth for oil, and polluting our air and water in the name of progress, we will destroy ourselves as fast as the fear and intimidation that is used to pass these bills will.
If the national parks are overcrowded then the obvious solution seems to be relocation of some of the bears. Many US states such as Wyoming, Nebraska or Idaho are practically empty. Bears are very versatile animals (as their skill with a trash can shows!). Move viable colonies of bears to some of the emptier parts of the states (whether national park or not) and let the bears get on with life. I'm sure they'll do pretty well.
Having spent many days camping and hiking in 'Bear Country' in the US and Canada, most recently in Katmai in Alaska, I have a wary respect for these magnificent creatures. It is true that bears will rarely attack humans without provocation, and it is almost always the humans themselves who invite the danger, such as the LA couple in your article. Nevertheless, these are wild, unpredictable animals, and there will always be the occasional random attack. The people who were mauled or killed by bears chose to take the small risk in return for spending time in the amazing wilderness these countries still have to offer. The governments of these countries must protect the wilderness, and all the creatures that live there and were there first, so that future generations can take the same pleasure. This must include restricting the areas in which oil exploration is allowed, or my children's children will never enjoy the sight of a grizzly in the wild, as I have.
Christine, Guildford, UK
The habitat that is left is all there is. There is no where left for these bears to go. I have had 3 encounters in my life and all were my fault. Most bear attacks are the same. When we go out in the bush we are in there living room. If people want to continue to have bears on this planet then space has to be made for them, it's as simple as that, and if people are concerned about a bear encounter and it's outcome then maybe they should just stay home.
Catherine Crewe, Victoria, B.C. Canada
The Bush administration is currently attempting to gut the Endangered Species Act so developers and mining/oil prospectors can make more money. The recovery of the grizzly is a testament to the fact that the Act can help species survive and even rebound from man's destructive forces. God help us, the bears, and all the other creatures that will be trying to make it through the next 3.5 years.
Edie, Davis, CA, USA
How US-centric this report is. Grizzly and black bears have been living in Canada, in large unthreatened populations, nowhere near extinction, all the time.
Clarence Simmons, Victoria, Canada
I live in black bear country. And we where city people before coming here. I new there where bears here and am learning to live with them. People are pushing wildlife out what do you expect the bears to do go on vacation get real learn about them. Last nite I had one in our back yard and this is in a city of 15,000 people.
Johann Camplin, Elliot Lake Canada
On a recent visit to Yellowstone we were VERY disappointed at not having spotted even a single bear. We had to visit a small park in Idaho on the return trip to see 20 bears in a confined space!! It is time for all Americans (especially the government) to turn to alternative energy sources, solar power, wind power, hydrogen cars etc. Stop supporting the fat cats in the oil industry and relying on imported oil and gas. I for one intend to build and environmentally friendly house for the future and invest in a new technology car. Come on everyone do it for yourself and for our beautiful country and precious wildlife.
Margaret Carr, Boise, ID
I had a friend who worked on the Alaskan pipeline in the 70's. Bears were a constant, but manageable threat. Only untrained or unskilled people had problems. This was more the fault of the human then the bear. The "delisters" are hunters and they enjoy a most favoured position with the current administration. I wouldn't bet on the bears.
Brian , San Diego, US
I'm a Brit living here, and went to Montana's Glacier Park this summer. A grizzly walked across the road behind us after we had just stopped in a lay-by to admire the view. These bears are HUGE and terrifying. The wardens told us we were lucky he didn't attack us as they gorge themselves all summer to build up as much fat as possible for winter. When we went to a local restaurant in Libby, Montana everyone had a scary story to tell about grizzlies. It's one place I won't be moving to. It's the same old story, man's incursion into the wild, who has priority?
Les Strongman, Minneapolis USA
Bush and his plunder capital buddies aided and abetted by a world full of voracious, consumers are destroying the planet.
If you love God, you will love all of his creation and, like Noah, seek to safeguard and steward it.... all of it. No, this does not mean we have to become vegetarian lotus eaters. Yes, it does mean we have to live within our ecological means, devouring less and, not least, limiting our own out-of-control numbers.
I'm for the bears. They should not be delisted until the Grizzlies population centres converge. Also, people who move out west should realize that they are going to come across animals who are truly wild and will view them as a possible meal. Thanks.
Neal Simpkins, Valley Forge PA
Cars are responsible for many more deaths than bears each year, including gruesome multi-victim tragedies. Shouldn't we let the bears live and destroy the dangerous motor vehicles instead? It would save many more lives.
Environmentalist, Toronto, Canada
What drivel. They are certainly not nearly extinct in this country. Grizzly bears are very common in our Rocky Mountain National Parks, plus Northern British Columbia, Alberta etc. Just because the USA do not have our populations of Grizzlies, although they are certainly not short of them in Alaska, there is no need for scare tactics.
Terry Gardner, Salmon Arm BC Canada
If the US government is willing to sacrifice soldiers for oil I don't doubt for a moment that they'll sacrifice bears. Perhaps if people were to drive smaller, more economical cards instead of gas guzzling SUVs this problem could be avoided but as usual the selfishness of people is killing off a species.
Having recently visited the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and BC in Canada it is apparent that black and grizzly bear territory is being encroached upon by the development of land for residencies (in the article above it is for oil refineries). Bears are roaming animals by their nature and they will often walk the same trails as the generations before them. All of sudden these bears find a suburb of luxury houses in their path (or an oil plant!), often inhabited by out-of-towners with little idea of how they should respond to a bear encounter (particularly a mother accompanied by cubs). Bear attacks on humans are rare but are also increasing and will continue to do so while we encroach upon their territory. Sadly though, it will not be the bears who win in the long-run and the future survival of these beautiful animals is endangered. These 'wilderness' towns are surrounded by truly stunning scenery (or valuable natural resource) and are desirable places to live so towns will continue to expand while there is planning permission to do so. Personally, I'm rooting for Team Grizzly.