Grizzly bears once roamed all of the American West.
California’s state flag, for example, proudly features a brown bear, but these creatures haven’t lived freely in the state since the 1920’s.
In modern times, their habitat in the lower 48 states is generally limited to northwestern Wyoming, northern Montana, and northern Washington. It’s estimated that only about 1,500 grizzlies reside south of the Canadian border.
After the Endangered Species Act was passed, a team of environmentalists suggested that Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness would provide a perfect habitat for grizzlies. The effort to bring wild brown bears back to the area is the subject of this book.
GRIZZLY WEST by Michael Dax began as a master’s thesis paper, and the book follows through with the academic voice one would expect of such a work. Here you will not find a page-turning read like one would expect of an outdoor writer like Jack Kerouac, but instead an expertly detailed study on its subject.
Despite its predefined conclusion, I found myself curious to see exactly how the story would unfold. I read through the book in three or four sittings.
I left it with an understanding of environmental politics in Idaho and Montana, and the knowledge of how the campaign to reintroduce grizzlies unfolded. I get the impression that the author could turn to any comparable subject, and present us with one of the clearest and most comprehensive interpretations on the matter to date.
Dax thoroughly explores the shifting opinions that led to the project’s demise in 2001. The stage is set with a cursory history of grizzly bears as they apply to American culture – from their extreme, near-total eradication by pioneers, through to their key and pivotal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
An overview on the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park is provided, in addition to a summary of the Northwest’s spotted owl controversy. These topics directly influenced the possible reintroduction of grizzly bears in Idaho.
Dax explains how the opposing sides boiled down to what’s dubbed as “Old West” and “New West” politics. The Old West is defined by its historic tradition in the extractive industries – logging, mining, farming, etc., whereas the New West is defined by eco-tourism and a more aesthetic, recreational use of public lands.
The campaign to reintroduce bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was spearheaded by what’s called the “ROOTS Coalition,” a rare wedding of wildlife advocates and representatives of the lumber industry.
Ultimately the ROOTS campaign found itself in a middle ground, as the more extreme, uncompromising views of the Old West and New West took hold of the debate. Dax explores the conflict’s changing tides, as each side leveraged its stance through bureaucratic means and attempted to sway public opinion.
Grizzly West is worth a read not only for its study on the attempted reintroduction of grizzly bears, but for a thorough education on how environmental politics unfold in modern America.
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