Grizzlies and the male animal


The crowd of several hundred area residents who gathered in a school auditorium in Salmon, Idaho, recently was almost totally united in its opposition to the proposal. No one wanted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce some 25 subadult grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Idaho-Montana border over a several year period (see Roundup, page 4).

During the four-hour hearing, speaker after speaker rose to denounce grizzlies, in any place, in any form. Most dwelt at length on their bloodthirstiness. A few speakers mentioned questions about available food resources, effects on salmon and steelhead, and possible restrictions on the livestock, timber and recreational industries, but these were overshadowed by the general angst.

Big, stout, fully grown men displayed the kind of hostility and fear bordering on panic that, when voiced by women, is usually dismissed as hysteria. Their terror was evoked by the mere possibility that something bigger, stronger, faster, and at least as aggressive as they, might again roam the vast wildernesses of central Idaho and western Montana.

My husband was especially amused to see that this fear was most often couched in terms of concern for wives and children and aged parents by men who never, under any circumstances, allow their wives to accompany them and their male friends into the mountains during elk season.

They viewed with horror the possible presence of a creature so large and powerful, so subject to quick and sometimes violent turns of mood, at large within the Selway-Bitterroot, and someday, perhaps, within Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return and Gospel Hump wildernesses.

Welcome to the real world, guys.

Welcome to what women face every day of every year of our lives: close encounters with unpredictable creatures subject to violent bursts of adrenaline-driven rage. Creatures faster, stronger and more aggressive than we; creatures because of whom we lock our doors, load our guns and avoid dark streets. Even those specimens with inoffensive temperaments sometimes take to the public highways after ingesting mind-altering, inhibition-reducing chemicals, under the quaint impression that they are actually in control of the 4,000 pounds of hurtling metal and rubber under their feet.

Our news sources are largely devoted to regular accounts of the accidents, homicides, assaults and other mayhem perpetrated by these creatures, usually affecting the females and young of my species, which is also, alas, theirs.

Yet, many local representatives of this perilous breed are completely unmanned at the prospect of sharing a portion of the northern Rockies with grizzly bears. At the Salmon hearing, they scoffed loudly at suggestions that clean camping and other simple precautions go far toward eliminating dangerous encounters in grizzly country. Real men, I guess, don't use pepper spray or put their food in bearproof containers. They carry guns and scorn to keep a low profile.

Black bears, which have killed as many people as have grizzlies in the United States, roam right up to the city limits of Salmon. Cougars have been found under porches only a few miles from town, and a few years ago one ate five of our sheep. But black bears and cougars are big game animals in Idaho, and their pursuit with hounds a much enjoyed sport. Some hound men don't even kill their quarry, merely subjecting it, once treed, to a paparazzi-like barrage of photos before leashing the hounds and going home.

Black bears and cougars are part of the culture of the country, and no one calls for their extermination, no matter how many kids they eat on Indian reservations in Montana, or in the public parks of California.

Most of the anti-grizzly speakers also support the continued operation of the Salmon area's largest single business enterprise, an open-pit gold mine which last year led the nation in bullion production. Yet, again and again I hear longtime Lemhi County residents lament the increase in local crime since the mine, with its hundreds of employees, came to a county which had not experienced a murder in decades.

We are getting used to killings now, and to burglaries, assaults, vandalism and drug stings. So I wonder, which is more dangerous, grizzlies, or strangers of our own species, welcomed here without question by a philosophy of free enterprise at any price?

Louise Wagenknecht lives in Leadore, Idaho. She is a frequent contributor to Writers on the Range, a new project of High Country News.

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