Jackson Hole grizzly 399 is the most famous living wild bear on Earth. Think about that. She is universally beloved, a marvel to millions around the world who know of her existence.
She and other bears make wildlife conservation meaningful for large numbers of people who otherwise have little connection with nature. 399’s most passionate admirers are children who, for the rest of their lives, will never forget seeing her.
This is rare. It is powerful. Why is it so difficult for politicians in Wyoming to comprehend?
In most states 399 would be celebrated, embraced, treated as a national treasure by elected officials, even adopted as a wild mascot. Bizarrely, not in Wyoming. Gov. Matt Mead and his administration mostly portray native grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone as liabilities imposed on the state by the federal government.
It’s an attitude of small-mindedness reflected in the shocking behavior of some Wyoming citizens. On Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, Bill Addeo, a resident of Hoback Junction, brazenly typed a message on the Jackson Hole News&Guide website in response to a column I had written titled, “If Jesus were here, he’d defend wildlife.”
Addeo wrote: “I KILLED BEAR 399. So, if Wilkinson is doing a book on bear 399, he needs to talk to me about the bear’s last moments gasping for air as the cubs ran about. I was there taking pictures and have all the inside information.”
Most people find Addeo’s humor disturbing. The world is now anxiously waiting to see if grizzly 399 emerges from her den as a 20-year-old mother with a new set of cubs.
Why do Americans, by a huge margin, distrust Wyoming’s ability to keep the recovery of the Yellowstone region’s grizzlies going?
And who is Addeo? He’s the attention-grubbing guy who proudly shot a wolf in Wyoming’s “predator zone,” where, in 85 percent of the state, wolves could be killed any time of day by any means for any reason.
Inexplicably, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved Wyoming’s predator zone, the first time in the history of the federal Endangered Species Act the agency allowed a recovered wildlife species to be treated so callously.
Addeo shot the wolf after it ate an antelope. He strapped the bloodied carcass to the top of his SUV, drove it into Jackson and parked his vehicle along Town Square. His friend, the late Sam Coutts, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide to send a photographer to chronicle the spectacle. Essentially, Addeo raised a middle finger in the face of those who value wolves and grizzlies alive.
He claimed he would have killed the wolf’s four packmates, too, if only he could’ve gotten them in his gunsight. A few years earlier Coutts, a former Special Forces soldier and Wyoming big game outfitter, was convicted of poaching a bald eagle, the protected avian symbol of this country, after one of the wild raptors ate trout in his private fish pond.
Are these folk representative of most hunters? No, of course not, but their barefaced backwoods behavior toward bears and wolves flourishes in Wyoming, and it echoes in Montana and Idaho. This week it was announced that famed Yellowstone transboundary bear “Scarface” was shot outside the park under suspicious circumstances.
“I met a guy who wants grizzly 399’s rug on his wall, stating that because she is famous, she makes a better trophy.” wildlife photographer Daryl Hunter wrote recently.
There are also the Wyomingites who want to kill 399 for other reasons, some out of spite, because they hate the federal government and environmentalists for wanting to keep grizzlies like 399 protected.
Should American citizens, who have made a huge investment resuscitating the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population, be concerned? There is no compelling evidence — none I’ve seen — that sport hunting grizzlies will build social tolerance.
Irrational cultural hostility toward grizzlies thrives in Wyoming, a state where public officials want to suppress recovery, even preventing bears from inhabiting remote federal public lands in the Yellowstone region because priority is given to non-native, taxpayer-subsidized private cattle.
Governors in most states would proudly tell the world their province is special because it has bears like 399 inside its borders, recognizing them as rare and powerful assets. Why Wyoming Gov. Mead can’t do that reveals a lot about who he is.