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The New West: An interview with Michael Dax

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Still marooned: Dax’s book highlights importance of biological connection with grizzlies

CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Island populations of species suffer higher rates of extinction than animals which are dispersed widely across landscapes in large numbers and interconnected geographically.

One of the concerns about the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is that it’s genetically isolated, cut off from co-mingling with the next closet concentration of bruins located hundreds of miles to the north in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

The NCDE encompasses Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness along the U.S. border with Canada. Critics of the current push to remove Greater Yellowstone bears from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act claim that sport-hunting grizzlies in southwest Montana decreases the likelihood connectivity will happen.

Conservationists and independent scientists have long pushed for establishing—and protecting—corridors that would allow bears from both of those populations to eventually converge. The chances of it occurring, they say, would increase if grizzlies were again re-inhabiting the Selway-Bitterroot Mountains/wilderness complex in western Montana and northeastern Idaho, a sort of halfway point between the two ecosystems.

Shortly after the new millennium began, a proposal to carry out grizzly reintroduction in the Selway-Bitterroot almost happened and could have helped to improve the prospects of grizzly persistence in the Lower 48. The explanation of how it got derailed is the subject of author Michael Dax’s recent book, “Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West.”

It’s a story that explores not only opposition waged by people who are not friendly to wildlife predators but of dissension within the environmental movement itself. It’s a case study of building a coalition among unnatural allies and of green infighting. In fact, severe criticism has been leveled at some conservation activists who were accused of sabotaging reintroduction efforts in the Selway-Bitterrot being advanced by Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, and Hank Fischer, formerly with Defenders of Wildlife.

Grizzly West was initially born as Dax’s master’s thesis at the University of Montana. Not long ago, I had a conversation with Dax about the focus of his book and the relevance of it today as the federal government and states seek to delist the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population.

TODD WILKINSON: Why should grizzlies be in the Selway-Bitterroot?

MICHAEL DAX: There are multiple reasons. The first is really simple. Grizzly bears are listed under the Endangered Species Act and the Bitterroot Ecosystem is an official recovery area. We have a legal responsibility to do so. But that really pales in comparison to the other reasons. The Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems hold the largest remnant populations of grizzly bears, but they are pretty isolated and cut off from each other. The Bitterroots are well-situated in between those two areas with lots of good habitat connecting them. If we get grizzlies back in the Bitterroot, that will dramatically increase the chances of occasional genetic exchange between the Yellowstone and NCDE populations. If we can do that, not only will we have achieved more meaningful recovery, but we will decrease the risk of genetic depression within those ecosystems.

WILKINSON: How does this relate to the current push by states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population?

DAX: I think the lack of biological connectivity between ecosystems is one reason why many people oppose the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies. As they stand, the state management plans don’t do enough to protect habitat for grizzlies that wander west and north toward the other major stronghold.

In that same vein, I think we have a moral responsibility to do as much as possible for a species we systemically eradicated over the course of a single century. Not only do the bears have the right to exist in one of their historic home ranges, but I think we have a duty to do everything possible to make that happen. The extermination of wild animals, especially potentially dangerous ones, represented our human impulse to kill the wild within.

I think that same impulse to divorce ourselves from nature is responsible for a lot of the other problems that have followed like climate change or not understanding the fundamental necessity of clean water. Grizzly bears can be challenging to live alongside, but if we can do that, I think we’d have the will and ability to tackle some of our other environmental problems as well.

WILKINSON: How did the controversy over restoring grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot land on your radar screen, to the point where you wanted to write a book about it?

DAX: I had worked in Yellowstone National Park for three years as a tour guide, ski instructor, trail groomer, and bellhop. It was my introduction to the region, and needless to say I fell in love. It was also here where I first learned about all the complex natural resource issues for which Yellowstone acts as a lightning rod, so when I went to University of Montana to earn a master’s in history, I wanted to dive deeper into those histories.

One of my overarching questions had been, “Why do wolves seem to be more controversial than grizzly bears when they don’t present any public safety concerns?” Of course, now I understand that it’s not really about the animal itself, but as it turns out, I stumbled upon one of the few instances where grizzlies ended up being more controversial.


DAX: I was really lucky to have Professor Dan Flores as my faculty adviser at UM. He had lived in the Bitterroots while the environmental impact statement process was going on for grizzly reintroduction in the Selway-Bitterroot, and he even had a pro-grizzly bumper sticker on his truck for a few days until being run off the road multiple times. Anyway, Dan had proposed this idea to a handful of previous students, and no one had taken him up on it, but it was right up my alley.

Early on, I contacted Hank Fischer, who had worked on the project with Defenders of Wildlife. As luck would have it once again, Hank had a box of materials he saved from the project collecting dust in his basement. His wife had been bugging him to get rid of it all, so instead, he gave it to me. Without Hank’s donation, I probably couldn’t have been as thorough as I was.

WILKINSON: In a way you’ve become the official chronicler for posterity. I would imagine that most millennials and probably a lot of Gen Xers involved with wildlife conservation aren’t aware of what happened.

DAX: It was also difficult for me to think of this issue as “history.” After all, some of us still have T-shirts we purchased in the 1990s. But the deeper I got into my research, the more I realized that the 1990s, especially in regards to conservation, are a distinct era from where we are today.

WILKINSON: The idea of local control is a frightening proposition to many in this era of neo-Sagebrush Rebels as personified by the Bundy family. Moreover, there are huge questions about whether federal public land and wildlife will be adequately stewarded in the national interest if local control happens and is heavily weighted toward maximizing economic output for local communities.

DAX: Today, I’m not sure if any major environmental groups could support a policy that gives so much power to the states, but that’s one example of what a different time it was. If Selway-Bitterroot griz reintroduction had gone through and proved successful, maybe the Endangered Species Act and large carnivore recovery wouldn’t be so controversial.

WILKINSON: Ironically, conservationists became split over the proposal and a few tried to halt reintroduction from moving forward, even to the point of accusing France and Fischer of selling out grizzlies. Without giving away too much detail—because I want people to read your book—share a little bit about both the unlikely allies and the unlikely adversaries that emerged.

DAX: Yeah, for me this was probably the most interesting aspect. The unlikely allies were the Idaho timber guys, which ended up angering some people in the environmental community who felt betrayed.

Groups like the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Sierra Club felt strongly that they needed to put forward a plan that was biologically pure and didn’t make political compromises. Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Federation didn’t want to spend the time, money, and effort on a plan that didn’t have a chance of being implemented. Although the Bill Clinton Administration eventually threw its weight behind wolves, the split in the environmental community made it a lot more difficult for it to do the same for Bitterroot griz. And then George W. Bush became the next president.

WILKINSON: Yes, and today, more than a decade later, grizzlies still aren’t inhabiting the Bitterroot. It hasn’t happened through natural recolonization, certainly not in any numbers other than maybe occasional wandering bruins. Some would like to jumpstart grizzly reintroduction. Is it not ironic that some of the activists who complain loudest about lack of connectivity prevented reintroduction? Is this a case of “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough?”

DAX: Exactly. From talking with some of those folks, at least a few are still pleased that the plan didn’t go through, but you have to wonder where grizzly recovery would be if a population had been established in 2002 as was planned. I think it’s healthy for the environmental movement to have its different wings. They kind of all keep each other in check, but in this case they ended up working against each other to the detriment of the bears.

The optimist in me is really heartened by the occasional sightings, like the two bears hanging around the Big Hole River valley this summer. If bears did come back on their own, it would be better from the political side because people couldn’t claim they were “government” bears, but even in a best case scenario, we’re looking at a really long timeline.

WILKINSON: What’s to be learned?

DAX: As for lessons, I’d say there are two. Politicians really like the idea of compromise and collaborations. But too often, this is just lip service. Early on, the plan received a lot of support—way more than wolf reintroduction—because of the partnership between the timber guys and environmentalists. As time wore on and it got closer for the rubber to meet the road, it dissolved.

The other would be timing. Large-scale projects like this need to be really conscience of their pace. They can’t go too fast or people might freak out and feel that it’s being forced on them and they don’t have a chance to be involved. At the same time, and this is what happened here, they can’t go too slow either. The slower the timeline the more there is an opportunity for people to start nitpicking about details or for people to get distracted or nervous.

WILKINSON: You have done work as a professional conservationist and you have expressed worry that many Americans don’t realize what is at stake.

DAX: For environmentalists, this is an “all-hands-on-deck” moment and we are doing everything possible to keep the integrity of our environmental laws intact. At the very least, this is the worst possible time for the mountain-bike community to talk about amending those laws. The way Congress works, by the time the bill gets to the floor, it will be junked up with really bad stuff.

It’s great that the mountain-bike community is trying to engage more on the public lands issue, but that’s just the baseline point. Yes, public lands are awesome. I spent just about every weekend enjoying them, but if they are devoid of wildlife, ecologically denuded and peppered with oil and gas leases, those lands won’t be the special places we consider them.

Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He is author the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. EBS publishes Wilkinson’s New West column every week online and twice a month in the print version of the paper, under a partnership arrangement with the Wyoming online journal We encourage you to check out The Bullseye.

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