Back to Stories

Grizzlies Deserve More Than Bullets

In this op-ed, longtime Bozeman conservationist Phil Knight argues against sport hunting of Greater Yellowstone's wildest icons

The Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is one of just two viable bear concentrations in the Lower 48.   Photo by Phil Knight
The Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is one of just two viable bear concentrations in the Lower 48. Photo by Phil Knight
In the spring of 1982, fresh off the train from Connecticut, I headed out for my first backpacking trip in the Rockies. My hiking buddy failed to show up so I went solo. Of course, I was petrified of bears, and I was pretty clueless, a real greenhorn.

My first night camping in the Yellowstone backcountry I slept hardly a wink, thinking every noise was a bear sneaking into my camp. Next morning I headed deeper into the wilderness. Cresting a ridge, I stopped to look across a vast green valley. I spotted some movement.

Raising my binoculars I saw two grizzly bears. I watched in awe and gratitude as they made their way across the valley, completely unaware of me. Later I found their fresh tracks in the spring snow on the trail and decided I would turn around and go a different direction.

I had just seen one per cent of the entire population of grizzly bears then still persisting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In 1982 there may have been two hundred grizzlies in a population that was just starting to recover from their low of about 130 bears when they were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Today there are over seven hundred grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone. And, as of August 1, 2017, Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are no longer protected under the Act, pending the outcome of several lawsuits challenging the delisting.

Federal wildlife managers have deemed the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population “recovered.” Thus they no longer enjoy federal protection outside the national parks. But are they really recovered?

Doug Peacock, grizzly bear advocate, filmmaker, author and researcher, wrote in June that “the population of Yellowstone (grizzly) bears has not increased for 15 years and has probably declined since 2007 – coincidentally the date of the commencement of sudden death of whitebark pine trees in Yellowstone.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already handed over bear management to the states once before, in 2007. A decade ago, the decision was reversed by a court decision that said the agency did not fully consider the loss of whitebark pine on bear reproduction and mortality related to the collapse of that food source, thus elevating conflicts with humans.

Many biologists and conservationists question the decision to delist grizzly bears. I will not get into too much detail here, since numerous legal challenges to delisting are playing out in court.

However, these bears have many things going against them. Climate change is starting to wreak havoc on their ecosystem, and can only get worse. The grizzlies of Greater Yellowstone are an “island” population denied the luxury of dispersing to other ecosystems or interbreeding with other bears populations.

Human population and associated development is exploding in Greater Yellowstone, the fastest-growing region in the US.  Bears in the heart of the ecosystem already have lost whitebark pine and cutthroat trout, and are forced to hunt more elk and deer for protein, bringing them into more conflict with humans, including hunters with guns.

And now, with delisting, the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are chomping at the bit to open a trophy-hunting season on grizzly bears, one of the rarest mammals in the Lower 48 (while British Columbia is phasing out trophy hunting of brown bears). Come on. is this really the best we can do?

Grizzlies to me and many others are the embodiment of wildness. They encapsulate much of what we admire, and yes much of what we fear, about wilderness and big wild animals. 

When I saw those two grizzlies in 1982, I knew instinctually that I was in the presence of something rare – free roaming, untamed, dangerous animals living self-determined lives in the land where they belong. I was humbled, scared, and intimidated, but I was also thrilled and excited. This was a half hour I would remember all of my life.

Of what value are wild bears? Aren’t they just a dangerous nuisance? They injure, kill and even eat people. Why not hunt them, put the fear of god in them again, and make some money off of them? Give people a challenge?  Offer hunters a chance to bag a spectacular trophy? Well, to me trophy hunting is a terrible waste of a magnificent animal. 
"Of what value are wild bears? Aren’t they just a dangerous nuisance? They injure, kill and even eat people. Why not hunt them, put the fear of god in them again, and make some money off of them? Give people a challenge?  Offer hunters a chance to bag a spectacular trophy? Well, to me trophy hunting is a terrible waste of a magnificent animal." 
Alive and free-roaming, grizzly bears belong to all of us—and none of us. As a stuffed trophy in someone’s den, they belong to that one person. No one else can ever again enjoy watching that bear or learn from it, never see it wrestle with its cubs, chase elk, dig for biscuit root, toss rocks in search of moths, drive a wolf pack away from a kill, or swim a river.

Nor does anyone “need” a dead grizzly bear, unlike an elk or deer that a hunter has killed to feed his or her family. Killing a grizzly – unless in self-defense – is purely an act of selfishness.

We are such clever monkeys, thinking we can manipulate and decide the fate of every aspect of the natural world, from grizzly bears to soil microbes to genetically modified food crops to weather to rivers. 

Yet we keep receiving wake up calls from the natural world (witness this year’s insanely destructive Atlantic hurricanes) that no, we are not in charge, no we do not have it all figured and no, the natural world does not care about us.

We need big dangerous wild animals like grizzlies to remind us of this – the hubris that will only bring us closer to catastrophe. Humans are indeed a part of the natural world. 

Like it or not, we can be killed by nature, but we cannot control it. As Peacock also said, if there is not something big enough and mean enough to kill you, it is not true Wilderness.
Grizzly bears show a great amount of restraint towards humans. If they were out there seeking to stalk and kill us all the time there would be carnage. Far more people in the US have been killed by vending machines – or by falling out of bed - than by grizzly bears. Of course, vending machines don’t drag you screaming from your tent in the middle of the night.
"Alive and free-roaming, grizzly bears belong to all of us—and none of us. As a stuffed trophy in someone’s den, they belong to that one person."
Large wild animals around the world are diminishing and disappearing, falling victim to the ever-growing human horde. Poaching, the bush meat trade, road kill, habitat loss, hunting, and killing in self-defense has reduced global wildlife populations by half in forty years. Do the math, where will our wildlife be in another forty years? With ten billion people on the planet?

How about we back off, let grizzly bears – and wolverines, wolves, lynx, bison, and many other wild critters for that matter – live their lives without being shot, trapped, skinned, harassed, poisoned, stuffed and posed as a vicious snarling beast in some rich person’s trophy mansion.

Opening a hunting season on grizzly bears shows a paucity of spirit, a view of the world in black and white where everything is either useful to man or a danger to man. It’s long past time we allowed some things, such as bears and millipedes and giant sequoias, to exist for their own sake, to seek their own destinies and pursue their own lives.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Phil Knight, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a conservationist for many decades. Besides being a leader in promoting protection of wilderness and old-growth forests in the U.S. and abroad, he is an avid outdoor recreationist, author of the book Into Deepest Yellowstone, and leader of nature tours. 

 In its October 2017 issue, National Geographic magazine has a story titled Should We Kill Animals To Save Them?


Phil Knight
About Phil Knight

Phil Knight, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a conservationist for many decades. Besides being a leader in promoting protection of wilderness and old-growth forests in the U.S. and abroad, he is an avid outdoor recreationist, author of the book Into Deepest Yellowstone, and leader of nature tours.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.

Related Stories

September 28, 2017

The Lords Of Yesterday Are Back And They Want America's Public Land
Barry Reiswig—a backcountry horseman, hunter, angler and former civil servant —pushes back against what he calls "the radical agenda" of Interior...

August 14, 2017

Jesse Logan in the high winter ramparts.
Jesse Logan Explores GYE Backcountry In From Granite To Grizzlies
Just as you can't separate the forest from its trees, you can't extract one strand of the web without stretching, stressing...

September 25, 2017

Autumn Interlude: Painting Grizzly Bear Mother 399
Grizzly 399 is the most famous modern bear in the world.  Sue Cedarholm paints the matriarch as she guides her cubs...