by Cory Hatch/Jackson Hole News & Guide | JANUARY 25, 2017
Over the holidays at my in-laws’ house, a factoid on the 24-hour-a-day Christmas music TV station caught my eye: Teddy Bears are so named because Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub on a 1902 hunting trip (I’m paraphrasing).
It turns out this story isn’t quite true. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Association, our big-game-hunting, public-lands-loving 26th president of the United States actually refused to shoot not a cub but an old, injured black bear.
The incident took place on a hunting trip in Mississippi. After three days of hunting without a bear sighting by the president, his guides used dogs to track down, attack and tree the aging bruin.
The guides then tied the bear to the tree and offered it up to Roosevelt. He refused, saying it was unsportsmanlike. Instead, he ordered the guides to put the injured bear down to end its suffering.
Clifford Berryman drew the first political cartoon of Roosevelt refusing to shoot the bear for the Nov. 16, 1902, edition of The Washington Post. Later, Berryman continued to draw the bear in his cartoons of the president, inspiring toy-maker Morris Michtom to make a stuffed bear called the Teddy Bear. (He asked the president’s permission first.)
Thus began America’s love and fascination for the now-ubiquitous cuddly toys and, more importantly, their flesh and blood inspiration, real-life ursids.
The story comes to mind because I recently read that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received 675,000 comments about removing grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act protection. 675,000. If this batch is anything like previous comment periods, an estimated 99 percent of those comments will oppose delisting.
Sure, some of those comments likely came in form letters cranked out by Sierra Club members. But still, roughly 675,000 Americans were moved to stand up for the grizzly bear.
Just how much influence Roosevelt’s single act of sportsmanship and conscience influenced Americans’ love for bears we may never know. Enough to reach that colossal number of comments? Perhaps.
Maybe Americans would like grizzly bears regardless. They are goofy, funny, intelligent creatures. They are good parents. (OK, the females make good parents; male bears are infanticidal jerks.) They sleep all winter long, have gluttonous appetites and, when they need to, they’re ferocious. All qualities well suited to win the admiration of Americans.
By all accounts, grizzly recovery in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been a tremendous success. Between 1975 and 2015 the population grew from 136 animals to an estimated 717. Grizzly bears have expanded their territory out of Grand Teton National Park and into the surrounding ecosystem.
Still, questions remain about the bears’ ability to persist as a healthy population for the long term. The availability of natural food sources such as whitebark pine and cutthroat trout has declined. Conflicts with humans remain a significant source of mortality. Greater Yellowstone grizzlies are relatively isolated, and long-term genetic diversity could suffer without a connection to the Northern Continental Divide population.
Further, conservation groups say the current delisting plan isn’t strong enough and gives the states too much leeway to manage for a smaller population of bears.
But there’s another argument to preserve bears in Jackson Hole and other Greater Yellowstone communities: money.
Visitor surveys show that bears are one of the top reasons tourists travel to the region, according to a letter to Gov. Mead from the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.
Trophy hunting of bears “is controversial to some potential tourists both nationally and internationally,” the Chamber wrote. “In the Jackson Hole region (and potentially other tourism-focused communities) trophy hunting could potentially impact our tourism economy that is highly dependent on wildlife watching opportunities.”
In other words, in Jackson Hole, a live grizzly bear is worth more than a dead one.
Cory Hatch is a writer whose work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, MSNBC online and Jackson Hole Magazine. Columns expressly represent the views of the author. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.