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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

What makes America great again? Bears do

This week a judge blocked an attempt by the Trump administration to lift a ban on hunting grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park by removing their endangered status

A grizzly sow with triplets in Yellowstone National Park. Getty Images
A grizzly sow with triplets in Yellowstone National Park. Getty Images

The first time I saw wild bears in America was on foot, 15 years ago in Yellowstone National Park. Oblivious to our presence, a family of them played in the snow as they traversed a slope a couple of hundred metres away. The cubs tumbled and slid like excited children in a park. Having grown up in gritty east London, this was a profound and mesmerising sight, and one I’ll never forget. Just the memory of the flurry of photos I took bring the moment right back.

Since then I’ve seen bears – mostly brown bears but sometimes grizzlies – in northern Montana, crossing the road in front of me in Big Bend National Park in Texas and in the woods in New Mexico. This summer, I also saw them in Glacier Bay and Denali National Parks in Alaska, and I never fail to be awed by a country where such wild creatures can still thrive.

I’ve also not seen them, and seen them dead. In the exceptionally beautiful coastal Tongass National Forest, where hunting is, to my mind unforgivably, allowed, I was on a small ship cruise at the end of May and our guides expressed their frustration at the eerily quiet shores. In one fjord, we found a headless carcass – a sure sign of a trophy hunter. Its paws had also been removed and its rotting body looked like it should have been marked up as the scene of a crime.

I’m aware of the arguments in favour of hunting – economic, social; and of the way Americans see the land and all that it contains as a resource to be exploited and “managed”. Clearly, one of the main reasons so much of the country’s wilderness has been protected is that there is so much of it. Yet the threat of the lifting of even the most sacred of protections, such as the Donald Trump administration’s plan to allow grizzly bear hunting in and around Yellowstone National Park, thankfully overturned this week by a district judge, should make everyone uneasy. Not because bears are cute and cuddly or better than people, but because they are still rare compared to their historic numbers and a powerful symbol of wilderness, an increasingly sought-after commodity which must be valued appropriately.

In Yellowstone, grizzly bears were first classified as a threatened species in the 1970s, when shooting, trapping and poisoning cut their numbers to 136. Now that there are about 700 of them, farmers, hunters and the National Rifle Association have argued against them being relisted as an endangered species, while native American tribes and environmental groups have done the opposite.

This week, Dana Christensen, the district judge, said the case was “not about the ethics of hunting” but whether federal officials had adequately considered threats to the long-term recovery of the animals and noted that tens of thousands of bears once roamed the United States. In his 47-page ruling, Christiansen said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s reasoning in lifting protections were “illogical” and cited two studies quoted by the agency that contradicted its own conclusions.

Across the US, liberals contend that such repeated nonsensical moves by the Trump administration are headline-grabbing attempts to distract people from even more sinister moves. Decades of progress on myriad matters is seemingly upended, triggering heated debate and costly and time consuming legal battles.

Yet one other thing is clear. Such disruptive and top-down moves are actually unsustainable and, in their own way, spell extinction for those who support them.

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Read more:

Centenary of wonders: Yellowstone National Park

On the move: Passage to Alaska

On the move: don't lose your bearings on a hike

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