Restoring the Real Wild- Grizzly Bears in New Mexico, Past, Present and Future
By Stephen Capra
Perhaps no other animal better symbolizes true wilderness than Ursus arctos -the grizzly bear. From the time of Lewis and Clark, man has used muskets, rifles, roads, axes, traps, chain saws, fences and the bulldozer to tame the wilderness that was the bear’s home. For an animal that once called the Great Plains home, and was a symbol of a healthy functioning environment, man proved to be anything but a friend.
The grizzly population today is but a ghost of its former self, holding on to small isolated islands of land in the lower 48. It is often hated by ranching interests, feared by second home owners and increasingly the darling of OLN hunting shows. However, the grizzly is loved by many who consider nature (and a functioning environment) important to the health of our land, water and communities. It is a humble, mostly solitary and beautiful creature that enjoys moments of fun and delight: sliding down a snowy hillside, watching a sunset from a high peak or wrestling with young cubs. It is also a top predator of the food web, and thus an animal that strikes primordial fear into other wildlife and humans.
While the recent reintroduction of the Mexican wolf has created controversy and outrage in some southwest communities, it has also been welcomed by many more who understand the importance of wolves to maintaining the balance needed for a healthy environment. Wolves too have added an economic incentive for rural communities, as many people travel to see firsthand wolves in the wild. Wolves are also helping to put balance back into environments that have seen dramatic spikes in deer and elk populations (that in turn has impacted shrubs, native species and grasses). But any talk today of grizzly reintroduction in New Mexico is generally perceived as a radical pipe dream. It was not always this way.
The last Mexican grizzly killed in Mexico was in 1960. That bear was paraded through the streets of Chihuahua amidst large and curious crowds. In the late 1970’s many people still held out hope that the Mexican grizzly, the species that once called the Gila home, was still holding on in remote parts of the Sierra Madre and the Barrancas (on the west slope where the Rio Yaqui flows in Mexico). The thought that a small remnant population might exist, lead some to believe there might still be a chance to reintroduce the Mexican grizzly to New Mexico.
Reading over old letters on the subject, I was stuck by the following quote. “I am equally interested in seeing the Gila Wilderness restored and it would be wonderful if the grizzly could be put back into the ecosystem.” That letter was signed by A Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold. Also, in that same time period, while not endorsing any specific proposal, both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service seemed far more open to the concept of grizzly reintroduction. The Forest Service even commissioned a study on the feasibility of such a reintroduction. The bottom line was that the reintroduction was not considered radical, but rather more mainstream by a large percentage of people living across the West in the seventies and early eighties.
Historically, the Mexican grizzly was slightly smaller in stature than the Yellowstone or Alaskan brown bear. It once roamed in the Gila country and large parts of New Mexico until it was extirpated around 1921. Although the Mexican grizzly is considered to be extinct, some still hold out hope. But, realistically any reintroduction of grizzlies in New Mexico would require bears from Yellowstone National Park. Such action seems unlikely with the current Administration.
In one of her first acts as Interior Secretary, Gail Norton chose to ignore strong local support for the reintroduction of the grizzly in the Selway-Bitteroot section of Idaho and Montana. For years, efforts had been made to put grizzlies back on the ground. These rural communities were educated on the issue and the support was very strong even across party lines. But despite such support and the years of effort that went into the reintroduction, it was squashed by politics and one executive decision. Recently the Bush Administration has even pushed for the grizzly to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act in the Yellowstone region. By doing so the protection for critical habitat would be removed and hunting of this great bear would once again begin in a limited manner. Interestingly, since the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, populations of grizzly in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have increased to over 600 animals. Biologists believe that the wolf kills of elk and deer have left more carcasses on the ground allowing more food for the bears.
Ironically, the debate over grizzly bears seems far more limited to the United States than the rest of the world. When we think of the grizzly ranging wild and free, images of Alaska and Yellowstone quickly come to mind. But the grizzly has other refuges around the world and most of them in lands that have been actively grazed for perhaps thousands of years. Today small numbers of the bears can be found in the Italian Alps, Scandinavia, Siberia, Canada, Iran, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, in parts of Western Europe and Palestine. In Asia, the Himalayan Brown Bear (U. arctos isabellinus) is found in the foothills of the Himalayas. In Japan, the Higuma or Hokkaido brown bear (U. arctos yesoensis) is found on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Such a diversity of landscapes and human environments speaks to the bear’s ability to co-exist and thrive in many different environments. In Siberia, the bears tend to stay in the forests, while in Europe they are more commonly found in mountain woodlands, and in the US the same bears tend to stay in areas of high alpine tundra.
In 1997, as wolves were being prepared for release in the Gila, conservationists were also opening the door to grizzly reintroduction. The concept was to use the large roadless area that defines the Gila, Aldo Leopold and portions of the Blue Range Wilderness in Arizona. This, combined with the sparsely roaded areas that surround or connect these wild areas, creates more than 4 million acres with very low human population and tremendous habitat for grizzlies. Local ranchers led the charge against reintroduction. Since they live and made their livelihood in this area, the idea of a 600-pound predator in their midst was not pleasing. So it was no surprise that the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau came out opposed to grizzly reintroduction. By 1998, then Congressman Joe Skeen publicly opposed any thought of reintroduction, going so far as to have Jamie Rappaport, then Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, tell a U.S. House Budget hearing that the agency had no plans for reintroduction of the grizzly in the southwest.
Since that time, wolves have once again graced the Gila, though clearly those opposed to their reintroduction have used bullets to try and stop their foothold in the southwest. For the grizzly such ignorance would likely be replicated. Reintroduction of the grizzly remains a complicated concept. Those living in the mostly rural affected communities would likely fight such an effort. And in their defense, it’s always easy to write about such concepts when you are living in an urban environment far away.
But from the standpoint of having a healthy, sustainable environment and from the position of truly loving wild country, wild lands that do not have grizzlies are frankly missing some of the spirit that makes them truly great. For generations the grizzly has been misunderstood and, as a result, mistreated. But no animal has been as revered in Native American or Western American folklore as the grizzly. Today the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas combine to protect over 760,000 acres of wilderness. But adjacent to those boundaries lies close to another one million completely roadless acres.
When one looks at the Gila Country, this vast beautiful stretch of land that Aldo Leopold proclaimed “the cream of creation”, it seems like a test of mans’ willingness to co-exist with wildlife and a challenge to our comfort zone. It also is a litmus test of our growth and understanding of the value of wilderness and wildlife and what these mean to the human spirit. From where I am sitting, the grizzly bear needs to come home.