Not all endangered species live in the forest

Struggling individuals in the rural West deserve as much support as, say, grizzlies.


“You're reading a book about a grizzly bear with blood all over the cover?” That was the comment from one of my regular, and favorite, restaurant servers. I explained that I was reading Old Mose by James Perkins, a story about a huge and destructive grizzly that lived in the Old West. She perked up because, like most Westerners, she loves these old bear myths.

This particular bear story supposedly ended in 1904, when Wharton Pigg, a man who dedicated his life to killing Old Mose, went hunting with James Anthony, and Anthony shot the bear. But the book I was reading says it happened otherwise. The bear Pigg was forever pursuing was actually a grizzly sow. Anthony shot a different bear, though a darn big one.

The truth about Old Mose is different in a lot of ways from the legends that sprang up around him. He was blamed for going on rampages and killing thousands of cattle. The little colony of grizzles around Black Mountain was then doomed to be hunted to extinction. It was physically impossible for one grizzly to commit the many crimes Westerners blamed on the bear. No bear ever killed a thousand cattle. That's contrary to grizzly behavior anyway. Mostly the big bears eat roots, berries and dead animals. It's rare for them to take down a living animal.

Mose was also said to have killed a man, Jacob Ratliff, in 1883.  Ratliff was killed by a bear, but he said it was a cinnamon bear, and Old Mose was a darker color.

In any case, my restaurant server won't have time to read the book. She says she tries to eke out time to read with her young child, but that's about it. Then she said something that stuck with me: “So, this bear was endangered -- kind of like us restaurant workers.”

She's dead right about being endangered. She barely gets along on the tough side of economic life, though she seems happy and is darn funny. Hers is a typical, small-town Western story. She did well in high school and then went to work in the ski and restaurant industry, putting off college. But she never got around to going to college, and then her child came along. Now she has “two and a half jobs.”

The small towns of the West depend on service workers just like her. And if you work at most restaurants, even chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster and others, you're likely getting around $4 or $6 an hour and hoping for tips. The minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour, believe it or not. Most of my buddies and I help out if we can by tipping 20 percent, but that's no solution.

My server acquaintance agrees that we all need to “get political” to help out endangered workers. But where would she find the time for that? She is well aware that she depends on government programs for survival. The federal Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, helped out after her child was born. These days, she relies on the hot lunch program at school, where her kid actually likes the food, thank heavens. Food stamps are a huge help, too, she says. But as she well knows, all of those programs are on the chopping block in Washington. Blame that on the Tea Party Republicans, along with the odd reactionary Democrats and the scaredy-cats of both parties. The bottom line: This young worker’s survival is as much at risk as the old bears were, and she may be as endangered as today’s remnant bruins are.

What happened to the grizzlies is no mystery: Their food source disappeared. That occurred when ranchers started grazing cattle in the high meadows. Bears, wolves -- all kinds of predators -- were shot or poisoned. What's happening to our Western servers is no mystery, either. They are being squeezed hard right now by increasing rents and food costs. Legislative help is unlikely. Attempts to raise the wage for tipped workers run up against powerful restaurateur interests. The programs my friend depends on shrink each year.

But any help here in the small-town West is going to have to come from my side of the lunch counter. We need to get busy and elect politicians who understand what it's like to be endangered, both for critters and for people like my server and her kid.

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News. He lives in a retired caboose in the Rocky Mountains not far from Denver.

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