An excerpt from Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West (August 2015) by Michael J. Dax.
1 Grizzly Americana
After tracking the bear for two days, William Wright finally spotted it a few hundred yards above the edge of a canyon, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. He was disappointed at the bear’s diminutive size, but decided to kill it anyway. Wright positioned himself downhill from the bear so he would have the best possible shot. When he eventually reached the edge of the canyon, he looked into it and saw another bear—the biggest bear he had ever seen. This was the bear he had been tracking. Wright had to think for only a moment before deciding to kill them both. He repositioned himself, took aim at the larger of the two bears and pulled the trigger. Wright then turned to the other bear, which had stood erect to investigate the noise. He quickly aimed and pulled the trigger again. This bear, like the first, dropped without taking another step. As Wright began walking over to admire his kills, he heard rustling in the next ravine. When he looked up, he discovered the source of the racket was a sow grizzly and her two cubs. Once again, Wright instinctively dropped to his knee, reloaded, took aim and fired. He instantly downed the sow and only needed two more shots to kill the bewildered cubs. He had killed five bears with five shots in five minutes. According to Wright, “This was the greatest bag of grizzlies that I ever made single-handed.”1
Originally from New Hampshire, William H. Wright moved west at an early age with a desire for adventure. Ever since he was a child, grizzly bears had fascinated him, so when he moved to Washington, Wright dreamed of killing one of the great beasts for himself. He relocated to Spokane in 1883, and over the next six years he made some preliminary attempts at hunting grizzlies. However, when he moved to Missoula, Montana, in 1889, he had still never seen one. Nevertheless, his desire had not diminished, and he headed southwest into the Bitterroots the next summer with a string of packhorses and enough supplies to last the season. Although success did not come easily, by summer’s end Wright had shot his first grizzly. Over the next few years, his hunting prowess improved immensely, and he became one of the region’s most prolific grizzly hunters. In addition to his amazing account of five in five shots, Wright achieved other astounding feats of grizzly bear hunting. On a single trip in the Bitterroots in 1895 he shot thirteen grizzlies, and on an earlier hunt, he and a few friends killed four bears in a single evening. Despite these achievements, by 1897, Wright’s curiosity and appreciation for grizzlies had overcome his desire to hunt them, and he exchanged his gun for a camera. Wright dedicated the remainder of his life to studying and protecting the bear, but he was the exception rather than the rule, and by the time he died in 1934, the Bitterroots were all but devoid of the great bear.2
Despite grizzly bears’ presence in the mountains and meadows of the Bitterroots since time immemorial, the region’s grizzly population was practically nonexistent within four decades of Wright’s arrival. Over that period, sport hunters like Wright, ranchers, and other settlers systematically eliminated the region’s grizzly population. Although black bears proliferated in the area throughout the twentieth century, the last confirmed grizzly sighting in the Bitterroots had long passed by the mid-twentieth century. Such was the case across the Rocky Mountain West where pioneers sought to tame the land in the name of progress. As settlers poured into the region over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they transformed its more wild characteristics to make the region suitable for farming, ranching, logging, and mining, which meant pushing out much of the native wildlife. Although almost all species suffered, the potential threat to human supremacy that grizzly bears represented earned them a distinct reputation and distinguished them from other reviled species such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. By the eve of World War II, with the help of the government and its wise-use conservation policies, the West had methodically and unapologetically reduced or exterminated all of these major predators.
Such was the case across the West and the country at large. Over the nineteenth century, Euro-Americans doggedly pursued taming the wild character of the region, asserting their dominance over the landscape. Killing grizzly bears was a small but essential piece of a much larger campaign to ensure the nation’s supremacy over man and nature. By the end of the century, conservationists like chief forester Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt introduced the principles of conservation and wise use to the country, which had been extracting its natural resources at a hell-fire pace. Wise use—the idea that natural resources should be managed sustainably so that future generations would have similar opportunities to benefit from the land’s abundance—became the dominant ethic governing the nation’s natural resources. However, this utilitarian philosophy justified actions in terms of economic and tangible benefits and left the reigning ideology largely intact. Predators like grizzlies threatened both people and their livelihoods, and the federal government actively pursued their destruction, forcing the country’s grizzly population toward the brink of extinction.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, the persecution of grizzly bears continued unabated. However, in the postwar era, grizzly bears’ status in the American mind began to improve. As more Americans traveled westward, visiting national parks, grizzlies became major attractions for eastern and European tourists. Combined with the emerging environmental movement, many Americans quit viewing the bear as a burden to progress and economic stability that needed to be eradicated, regarding it instead as a national treasure that deserved to be protected. Additionally, as pop culture increasingly appropriated the bear for its purposes, grizzlies were recast as friendly, not ferocious. By the time Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, grizzly bears had become an iconic symbol of the American West, earning themselves protection under the new law and cementing the vast transformation in image and treatment they had achieved over the previous century. In this way, grizzlies provide an ideal lens through which to examine and understand the significance and scope of the nation’s transition from conservation to environmentalism.
1. Wright, Grizzly Bear, 63–68.
2. The biographical information about Wright can be found in Wright, Grizzly Bear, vi, vii, 3–10. For the stories of his grizzly bear hunts, see Wright, Grizzly Bear, 56–61, 91, 95.