Grizzly Woman: Louisa Willcox Battles for Bears

Photo by Alaskan Dude.

The grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem face any number of alarming threats: the beetle plague that has wiped out whitebark pine; the lake trout invasion that has devastated cutthroat trout; the possibility that grizzlies will soon lose their endangered species protection and be subjected to hunting. And that’s not to say nothing of usual hazards, like the highways that interrupt habitat and the conflicts with farmers that usually turn out far worse for the bear than for the human.

Bears do have one thing going for them, though: Louisa Willcox, one of the staunchest bear defenders in the Lower 48. While Willcox has put her skills to use on Western environmental challenges like mining and clear-cutting, grizzly conservation is the issue that gets her out of bed in the morning. She’s fought for bears for the better part of three decades — first with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, then with the Sierra Club, and now as Senior Wildlife Advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sage Magazine recently sat down with Willcox to talk about grizzly conservation, cooperation with farmers and ranchers, and how to block a billion-dollar gold mine.

Sage Magazine: What got you interested in land and wildlife conservation, specificaly in grizzlies?

Louisa Willcox: I fell in love with the mountains of the west in my teens and became a mountaineering instructor, which exposed me to some incredible wilderness outside Yellowstone Park and throughout the west. My love for the wild and wildlife led me inexorably to conservation. When I found out that some of my favorite places were threatened by the oil and gas industry, I had to jump in and try to do something about it — it seemed like the right thing to do.

One thing led to another, and I said, you know, this is really interesting work, and I really like these challenges, and the west is full of major threats to wild places and wildlife. And that’s been keeping me busy for thirty years.

Sage: Where’d you do your mountaineering?

In the Rocky Mountains, in Wyoming, in the Pac Northwest, in the Cascades, in the southwest. Got to go up to Alaska a couple times. Baja.

There are certain landscapes that, when I feel under duress or in distress, I think of them. A particular lake, or being below some great peaks, gives me a great sense of renewal and calm. The wild has been very important — it’s been a transformative force in my life.

Sage: You work on grizzly bears. What makes them so special to you?

Well, I had a few experiences with bears in the wild that were very benign, but got me really curious. They were on mountaineering courses, and I got pretty close to several bears. They didn’t really know we were there, and they looked up and were startled and ran away.

When you are in bear country, you know you’re in a special place. Everything sounds a little bit different. Every crackling of a twig raises the hair on the back of your neck. You have to be completely aware and completely in the moment. You can’t be daydreaming or on your iPod in grizzly bear country — you have to be paying attention to what’s there. And that opens your eyes to all kinds of wonders, to plants and rocks and glaciers and all.

Bears started out to me being a very personal experience, and then the more I learned about grizzly bears, the more I realized how in trouble they were. We’ve eliminated them from 99% of the lands where they used to live. They’re threatened by human development of all kinds — oil and gas, timber, encroachment from subdivisions — as well as excessive killing. We continue to do a lot of killing, unnecessarily in many cases.

A lot of the work that I do is aimed at the root causes of these problems: trying to deal with excessive killing, trying to figure out how we can make peace with bears among ranchers and communities that are inadvertently drawing bears to garbage. How we can actually deal with habitat threats by protecting more lands, by reducing cattle conflicts in some cases, swapping out allotments in areas where grizzly bears are not, so bears have some secure habitat.

And that takes a lot of work — it means you can’t parachute in and say, I’m gonna be a crusader for bears and do anything meaningful. It means you’ve spent a lot of time studying the problem and coming up with your own appraisal of what’s happening, and then developing your alternatives. And that’s a creative process. I think conservation at bottom is a creative act: it’s about creating new possibilities out of what looks like an impasse, or a disaster. And there’s always new possibilities — you could be very, very stuck, but there’s always something you can do. Even if it’s very small, you can change the momentum in a different direction, or change the conversation. And that’s what I’ve learned — sometimes baby steps, when you’re at an impasse, can be built on over time to create lasting change.

I’m working right now with a number of ranchers on conflicts with grizzly bears. They were people who weren’t really sure what to think about me. But after a year and a half, they’re basically saying, well, Louisa’s not a liar, and she’s really okay. You hang in there with people, and you show up, and you’re authentic and you’re honest, and you say what you believe. You’re not acting from an ideological viewpoint, you’re acting from a practical standpoint, from what can be done here. And you’re taking risks, because you’re putting yourself out there. And that can be very scary. The process of conservation work can change you. And you have to be ready, because if you take chances, and you make relationships, and you move the ball — or you don’t move the ball — some part of you has changed.

Sage: What was the most exciting or hard-fought victory you’ve had during the course of your career?

There are several, but one big one was success at the end of a ten-year campaign that stopped a gold mine from being built right next to Yellowstone Park. There’s still a billion dollars worth of gold in the ground, and will be forever, because the lands were withdrawn from mineral development. It started out as a grassroots campaign in a community that had fifty people in it, a tiny little town called Cooke City, and we ended up talking to the White House — I met President Clinton a few times, and he took this on as a campaign pledge for his second term, where he said there are some places too precious to mine, there are some places where gold is not the most important thing. And this place near Yellowstone was one of them.

That was really an incredible victory because we were starting from nowhere. Nobody had ever told this Canadian mining company that had mining holdings throughout the world — nobody had ever told them no. And we said no, you’re not gonna do this. At first, our colleagues laughed at us — our colleagues in the conservation community said you might as well settle, figure out how you can mitigate the impacts, and we said, no, we can’t — this is a mine we cannot live with.

We did everything that we could: we lobbied Washington, we organized grassroots: the snowmobilers, the hunters and fishermen, the ranchers, everyone who lived next to the mine or downstream from it. We got academics involved in looking at the impacts, we got the United Nations involved looking at the impacts — Yellowstone’s a World Heritage Site. And they said indeed, this is a park in danger. And that upped the ante in terms of international recognition. We finally made the landscape safe enough for the Parks Service and the Environmental Protection Agency to come out against the mine, and to throw a lot of resources into biologists and hydrologists and geologists to look at the impacts, and they felt very confident that this mine shouldn’t happen, and so they became really effective proponents. Finally we got the White House involved. It was a rag-tag, funky army, and we were told we never could win, and we did.

Sage: Were you representing NRDC at the time?

I was representing a group called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, where I worked for ten years. It was a complete David and Goliath story.

Sage: On the other hand, what was the most challenging campaign you’ve come up against?

I think it has to do with state wildlife agencies, and the sportsmen who they see as their clients. The state game agencies are supposed to manage wildlife for the public trust, for all the public. But in fact they serve a narrow set of interests, particularly the agricultural community and hunters. And if you’re not in one of those camps, they don’t really care what you think. And instead of broadening their scope to include other members of the public, and other wildlife species you can’t kill, over the last twenty years they’ve gone the other way, and they’re serving a more and more narrow set of interests. Which is really disturbing, because as the public keeps clamoring for more and more opportunities to photograph wildlife, and expressing different kinds of values and protecting wildlife, the states have really hunkered down, especially on killing predators.

It’s a very disturbing trend at the state level, coupled with what’s happening in the sportsmen community, which is being increasingly overtaken by the National Rifle Association and their ilk. They’re dumping huge money into creating these extreme anti-predator groups that are just clamoring to kill more coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears. And that’s a very disturbing trend, and a significant challenge to our work.

Sage: What do you find most exciting and most frustrating about working on grizzly bear conservation?

What’s exciting is that people are excited. When you go to Yellowstone Park, and you get in the middle of a bear jam, and you close your car door and walk up and listen to the chatter, and people clicking their cameras, and saying, “Yo! The mom’s nursing her cub!” It’s incredibly invigorating to see people in a state of wonder, that there’s still such animals that exist, and they can see them up close and personal. That is very exciting, that there’s always new generations of people experiencing Yellowstone Park and Glacier for the first time and finding that personal soulful meaning through a connection with a place, and with animals. That is always, at core, what keeps me going, and what I find lasting and meaningful.

The most challenging parts have to do with old stories that are no longer very useful. “Bears as a threat to progress, a threat to civilization as we know it.” “Bears as monsters to God.” “The only good bear is a dead bear.” “Bears as symbols of everything we thought we were putting behind us when we settled the west.” These old narratives are very challenging, they’re very deep-seated — even more deep-seated than most people realize.

The other thing that I think is a really significant challenge and problem is that grizzly bears demand that agencies across large geographies work together. Because grizzly bears’ home ranges straddle national park lands, forest lands, state lands, private lands — enormous chunks of geography. And yet the agencies that work on these issues are very territorial, turf-minded, and narrow. They don’t play well together. They’re worried about their own budgets, and advancing their own careers, and they’re in their own cultural context, and they’re not very nice.

Yellowstone Park is probably the best example. They see their authority ending at the park boundary. They don’t appreciate that they could have a lot of influence if they showed up routinely in the town of Cody, Wyoming, outside the park, and said, you know, here’s what we’re doing to try to resolve our conflicts. But these agencies are perpetually us versus them — your forest, your park, your state, your county — rather than bringing people together. I’ve rarely seen any kind of useful coalition being formed by the agencies. It always seems to happen outside the government, because the government is too busy on their own control agendas, or disinterested in these broad-based coalitions, which I think are ultimately where the action is, and where advances can be made.

Sage: Have you had successes where you’ve been able to work with different government agencies together?

Yeah, there have been, on a couple of different issues. Grizzly bears can’t resist domestic sheep. So domestic sheep in grizzly bear habitat is a big problem. In the 1980’s, with the Forest Service working with the Bureau of Land Management and the ranchers, as well as private landowners, they were able to figure out a program to swap sheep allotments outside core grizzly bear habitats and move them to places where there were no grizzly bears, and so less conflict. And so the core grizzly bear habitat area is sheep-free now. And the ranchers did it on a willing, permittee basis. The ranchers were not getting kicked off the land, they were being offered a place to go. Some of them went out of business, although they were doing that anyway.

That worked because of the listing of the grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act, so there was a sense of urgency, and also urgency was created by the fact that huge numbers of bears were dying in sheep conflicts, and you could see these black holes for bears on the landscape in these sheep allotments. The agencies did come together and work that through.

Sage: One last question. In general, what strategies do you find to be the most effective?

Well, thoughtful ones, for starters. Strategies that first rely on a clear and comprehensive definition of the problem. Too often people seize on strategies before really having a comprehensive understanding of the problem. Strategies can never be developed in the absence of a lot of background homework. That having been said, I think the strategy really depends on what the nature of the problem is. Coalitions can be useful for some things, but not particularly useful for others, when people aren’t willing to have a meaningful conversation. There are some really intractable issues related to off-road vehicle use, for example, where the off-road vehicle community has got a “take it all” philosophy, and there’s no real opportunity to have a conversation. So our emphasis has been instead on federal land management agencies that realize they have a growing problem with uncontrolled offroad ATV use. In that case, dealing with the off-road vehicle community, which we’ve tried to do, has proved ineffective. We’re going to land management agencies and saying, what can we do with you guys instead?

The strategy also has to be revised. I think too often in the environmental community you see people using one campaign and one strategy, and keep applying it forever. I’ve seen organizations essentially drive themselves into the ground by essentially replicating the same cookie cutter strategy over and over again instead of revising it. An effective strategy is a live item, it’s a creative process, and it’s gotta be in tune with the feedback you’re getting from the outside world. Are you getting positive enough feedback with ranchers to continue that conversation? Are you getting positive feedback from the state legislatures that might help you move a conflict resolution program forward? Are you getting negative feedback and you have to do damage control with the state legislature? I think it’s impossible to isolate strategy from the overall campaign and the overall context. People develop their strategic plans and then they get wedded to them, and that can be a disaster.

Sage Editors

SAGE Magazine is a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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