By Deanne Stillman
Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.
Let me put it to you this way: Bears hibernate during election season.
That’s just one of various things that show that Sarah Palin and her comrades—the self-professed Mama Grizzlies among the nation’s aspiring tax-funded representatives—have nothing in common with our ursine sisters.
Here’s another: Mama Grizzlies protect their cubs and in fact are known for their fierce defense of young offspring. Palin has made her motherhood a political issue, but in doing so she has exposed her young. Remember when she was running for vice president and passed her Down syndrome baby Trig around at the Republican Convention a couple of years ago, to thunderous applause and under the heat and glare of more than a thousand points of light? This would be a sensory overload for any 4-month-old baby, but according to the testimony of various mothers of Down syndrome babies at the time, children with that affliction are particularly sensitive to such stimuli and it is not wise to subject them to such an experience. You can be sure that a true Mama Grizzly would have put many miles between her baby and a roaring crowd.
And here’s one more: Like other wild animals, Mama Grizzlies hunt to live. Of course, Palin and many others who like to hunt and fish eat the animals and fish that they kill—and we all, or at least a lot of us, eat the animals and fish that others kill for us. However, trophy killing is not part of the Mama Grizzly program. Nor do Mama Grizzlies wage war on their own cubs. Let’s revisit Palin’s record on this front, something that seems to have been lost in recent coverage—and it was barely covered in the first place.
Thanks to veteran wildlife columnist Ted Williams, we have a record of exactly what Palin has done to wildlife in Alaska, in particular bears and wolves—and, we can surmise, would do to wildlife in the rest of the country if she and her fellow travelers had the power to do so. In the July-August 2009 issue of Audubon magazine, while Palin was governor of Alaska, Williams wrote this: “Persecution of wolves has been going on in Alaska since the gold rush. Palin has escalated the war. And now, in addition to wolves, the state is facilitating the slaughter of large numbers of bears—blacks as well as grizzlies, both of which occasionally include a newborn moose or caribou in their omnivorous diets. Even cubs and lactating sows are being targeted. Palin’s seven-person Board of Game—which hatches regulations and sets policy for the state Department of Fish and Game—has been more than happy to do her bidding. Six members belong to an anti-predator, trophy-hunter-funded outfit called the Alaska Outdoor Council, and the seventh is Palin’s close friend.”
Williams goes on to report that although wolves and bears are safe if they remain on land units that are managed by federal agencies other than the Bureau of Land Management, “on six state predator-control areas covering 70,000 square miles they’re dying en masse. In virtually all of this area wolf populations are to be reduced by 80 percent and held there indefinitely. In the 11,105-square-mile Predator Control Unit 16, west of Anchorage across the Cook Inlet, black bears are to be reduced by 60 percent.” In addition, he writes that in March 2009, the Board of Game “legalized the long-banned practice of ‘same-day airborne hunting,’ in which hunters take the ‘fair’ out of ‘fair chase’ by locating bears from the air, then landing next to them and blazing away—this in the 8,513-square-mile McGrath predator-control unit near the Kuskokwim River in interior Alaska.”
Taking on the argument that it’s just a bunch of outsiders from the lower 48 who don’t have a clue about what’s going on in Alaska, let alone the right to talk about policy in someone else’s backyard, Williams cites local figures who understand exactly what’s going on in the woods and what it means for wildlife—which, in the end, belong to no one but their own tribes. For instance, Mark Richards, at the time the co-chairman of the Alaska chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, wrote to Williams via satellite e-mail due to the lack of phone service in a remote area, and stated that “political meddling” has “never been so blatant and detrimental to our system of wildlife management as it is under the Palin administration.”
If the faux Mama Grizzlies move into positions of power, they will amp up the war on the animal whose name they dishonor and we will all be saying hasta la vista to bear nation. The animals are already listed as threatened in the lower 48 states. And we’ll also be uttering farewell to the Endangered Species Act, and the animals, plants and fish covered therein, something that various constituencies including the “sagebrush rebels”—now back under various other monikers, including “Mama Grizzlies”—have been trying to take down since Ronald Reagan was president. As it stands now, those protections are under siege, with the Obama administration reportedly considering changes in the Act.
Given the state of environmental affairs, perhaps it’s time to revisit a president who rallied in a most crucial way to the defense of our land and the creatures that make it their home. That would be Richard Nixon, he of the sweaty visage and nervous demeanor, he who was not cool and certainly appeared to be out of sync with not just himself but his surroundings. It was Nixon who signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. It was also Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency—an outfit that the bogus grizzlies among us would like to dismantle.
Here is what Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union speech, during an era when the thing that is now lost to noise was front and center, where it belongs:
The great question of the ’70s is ... shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?
Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause for all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.
Clean air, clean water, open spaces – these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.
Ah yesteryear ... and then yesterday ... Do you remember when Palin first invited the national media into her den? There she was surrounded by the wildlife of Alaska—all dead and stuffed. A king crab was perched on the coffee table before her, and she sat on a couch against the skin of a large grizzly, perhaps a mama one at that. In any case, a bear family was minus one of its members. If there were images or representations of a beautiful and living Alaska, we do not know, for she made a point to pose amid a field of carnage. Whether this was a conscious choice I cannot say, but a former beauty queen and communications major par excellence is likely to have known what props were in her close-up, and it means something that photographs of iconic Alaska—migrating caribou, majestic glaciers, leaping salmon—were not employed as a backdrop.
And here it must be noted that perhaps the girl can’t help it. During the 2008 presidential election, a reporter from the Telegraph visited Palin’s parents, Sally and Chuck Heath, in Wasilla. “Moose and caribou antlers are a common form of house decoration in the town of 9,000 people,” wrote Philip Sherwell. “But the Heaths have taken the custom to impressive extremes, with hundreds of antlers piled up in a towering pyre in the front garden and scores more hung around the property.”
Are we to someday have an Oval Office that resembles a trapper’s camp, fettered with antlers and skins, and haunted by the animals that wore them? Quite possibly, unless Mama Grizzlies are kept from power so that the real ones can endure—out there in freedom where they belong, making families, protecting their kin, taking what they need and no more, participating in the flow of things, loaning us their mojo, their sighs, their footfalls, their presence and, on certain rare occasions when we deserve it, their name.
Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the widely acclaimed “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” a Los Angeles Times “Best Book ’08” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. Her book includes an account of the 1998 Christmas horse massacre outside Reno, Nev., as well as the story of Bugz, the lone survivor of the incident. Her previous book was “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave,” the cult classic which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer. It’s now out in a new, updated edition. Her work appears in the L.A. Times, Slate, Orion, National Review Online and other publications and is widely anthologized. Her plays, including “Star Maps,” have won prizes in theater festivals around the country. She is currently writing “Mojave Manhunt” for Nation Books, based on her Rolling Stone piece of the same name. Follow Deanne Stillman on Facebook.
Flickr / Bruce McKay (CC-BY-SA)