What’s the value of a grizzly bear?
For far more people than not, few things in this age of avatars surpass the thrill of seeing a grizzly bear family in its native element.
The story of Jackson Hole grizzly No. 399, who emerged from the den this year with her second troop of triplet cubs in half a decade, speaks to another kind of worth. It says something about us.
While economists might attempt to ascribe a numeric “replacement value” on 399—the way they coldly monetize everything else from sports cars to lost loves—doing so is the perfect illustration of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Wildlife is for them merely a commodity that ironically commands its greatest value dead instead of alive—as a rug or head on a wall. It’s a “resource” you “use up” once and then move onto the next.
Yes, we could quantify 399’s positive economic contribution to Jackson Hole’s “prosperity” and her role in “job creation,” as in: the amount of money she and her cubs are generating for hoteliers, restaurants, gift shops, service stations and outdoor gear stores as a result of thousands of people coming to view them along the roadside this summer in Grand Teton National Park.
That’s one heading in a ledger book, but what about factoring 399’s existence value, her biological import in recovering a rare population, her mystique, and her public relations cachet for Jackson Hole as an uncommon place on Earth where we can still observe wild grizzlies?
What’s the worth of the pride Americans have for sharing a relatively small amount of public landscape with grizzlies?
Wyoming Game and Fish Deputy Director John Emmerich recently said he thought there might be 1,000 grizzlies roaming the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, not 600. What does that mean, if true?
Well, it demonstrates that there may be a lot more bears out there minding their own business, avoiding people, not getting into trouble. How does that translate, then, into the contention voiced by some of “needing” fewer and discounting the value of the population down to how many can be hunted, like elk?
Although the tradition of wildlife watching is more established in Africa, anchoring a multi-billion-dollar non-lethal safari industry, I know Brits who “valued” seeing 399 and her first batch of cubs more than observing lions in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
It’s appropriate that Dwayne Harty’s oil painting for the 2011 Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival poster features 399 and cubs. And it should bring pause that the artwork, titled Strength and Vulnerability, is actually a portrayal of 399’s former brood, including a cub, Bear No. 615, that was tragically killed by a hunter in an avoidable run-in.
Grizzly sows hold premium “value” in a bear population. Bear 399 is healthy in the prime of reproductive age, isn’t aggressive toward people, knows how to naturally forage, and has taught those skills to her offspring. She has delivered two sets of triplets back to back. And now, this year, one of her daughters, Bear No. 610, has given birth to twins.
You don’t need to be an accounting whiz. Bear 399 alone has generated six more grizzlies, plus a pair of “grandchildren.” One mamma doesn’t equal one; she equals nine, and a lot more over time.
It’s in the best interests of those pushing for having grizzly bear management turned over to the state from the federal government to do everything possible to keep 399 alive. Just do the math or take note of the delight on the faces of untold thousands watching her.
Despite human tendencies to draw simplistic conclusions about nature, one thing should be clear:
All grizzlies in the woods are “valuable” but not all are equal. Each comes with qualitative distinctions, just as people do. Bears 399 and 610 are not only mascots confirming the wonder of living in Jackson Hole on the edge of Grand Teton Park; they are ambassadors for their species.
Honor them, travelers, by getting out and watching this clan from a respectful distance; spread word of their existence virally over the internet; safeguard them by helping to keep them away from aggressive menaces on two legs and please, vigilantly, tell the uninformed not to feed 399 and her family.