Recovering Bear Sacredness

by Leon Chartrand

Insights into Phenomenal Presence of a More-than-Human World for Future Grizzly Bear Recovery Initiatives.

KALISPELL, MONTANA. Glacier National Park is ideal for spotting wildlife from the safety and comforts of a vehicle. It is so popular that signs are posted to warn visitors of the hazards of “wildlife traffic jams.” No matter. Given the millions of visitors here each summer, sudden halts and long delays are to be expected.

Today is no exception; it’s a parking lot on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Several hundred camera-toting tourists are leaning over the guardrail, pointing fingers, and talking amongst themselves. Their “object” of fascination: a 300 lb grizzly and her two cubs-of-the-year foraging in a meadow fifty yards from the road.

The photo shoot begins.


Clicking cameras and human scent are usually enough to chase off even the most dominate grizzly in Glacier, but surprisingly these bears do not run. This is unique considering the intense protectiveness of a mother with cubs. Perhaps for now ripened huckleberries are worth risking close proximity. The smaller cub, still new to the lessons of bearhood, senses a threat, probably from her mother’s cue. She scurries and summersaults under the shade of the maternal belly taking shelter in a brief attempt to nurse. The dominate cub, oblivious to the crowd gathering nearby, bites and tugs on the yellow tag clipped to his mom’s ear. But with a quick snap to his behind, mother bear instructs him that now is not playtime; and the rambunctious one obediently returns to the business of fattening himself. The family spends nearly half-an-hour consuming the choicest berries until the onlookers become too much of a disturbance to tolerate. With the crowd growing larger by the minute and cars lining up for a mile in both directions, mother decides it is time to leave. She unhurriedly strolls towards the ridgeline with wrestling cubs in tow until they are eventually out of sight from camera’s eye. The audience, jubilant about the show, return to their vehicles with expended roles of film and a story to tell others. Nothing more happens. Bears leave, humans return to their cars and traffic resumes.

This type of bear encounter is a relatively new phenomenon. For thousands of years, grizzlies and humans have lived within the same habitat, but not without each fearing and respecting the other. Both found a distinct survival advantage in giving the other plenty of space. For some native peoples, forests inhabited by the brown bear had a presence that invited humility, reverence and wisdom. In fact, the grizzly was potentially the most sacred encounter experienced on a vision quest. Today, whether in the backcountry or along the roadside, seeing bears is becoming less a transformative experience and more a spectacular vacation highlight. Just now we appreciate what makes them sensational rather than ordinary. But through our fascination with their charisma, their endangerment and physical qualities—the cub’s fuzzy innocence, the mother’s raised shoulder muscles and long sharp claws, and the almost human-like personalities they portray—we are not open to a much more ordinary yet profound reality that lies within them. This withinness, characterized by a deep sense of presence and profound otherness of being, is an important part of their full identity that we too often ignore or, once encountered, cannot find words to articulate. Withinness continues to be shutout by our self-centeredness and exploitive tendencies to treat the world mechanistically and out of concern that it would cloud our “objective” view of a subjective world. In turn, grizzly bears like the family encountered along the roadside are treated as objects, as means to an end. Thus, in acting out of this pathology, we remain disconnected from the earth community. And the bear’s voice, along with the incomprehensible wildness that it represents, remains silenced until it one day inevitably becomes a relic of wilderness past.

Forever silencing the grizzly is indeed on its way to realization. In less than two hundred years, the grizzly bear has been extirpated from most of its former habitat. At one time, the grizzly was estimated at 100,000 with about half of that population inhabiting the contiguous states. Presently there are only six small isolated populations remaining in the northwest U.S. totalling at around 1,100 bears. And, with an expanding human population and the unsustainable economic development and resource extraction corresponding with that expansion, the effort to protect the grizzly is not getting any easier.

Accordingly, grizzly conservation has correctly extended beyond the realm of scientific research to include political, economic, legal, technological and ethical initiatives. Various specialists, lobbyists and activists are devoted to finding the most appropriate method for maintaining the current population size and facilitating their full recovery. Yet, the issue at hand is a much more profound issue than any specialized discipline or political movement is capable of addressing. For, even with all the progress we have made, the grizzly still rarely dies of natural causes and its viability is at the mercy of human influence. In fact, human-caused mortalities, loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, and lack of public support continue to be the most serious threats to their survival. Clearly, while we now have more scientific knowledge about grizzly bears than ever, and while these animals are legally protected and much of ecotourism’s success depends upon their continued protection, it is not the only type of knowledge or progress we need. Something is missing. Just now we have lost our ability to be open to the deep presence that pervades all life. We only momentarily, if at all, experience a deeper reality, the numinous presence that pervades a more-than-human world. By focusing on the grizzly bear’s circumstance in a strictly profane manner, we have inevitably lost a deep sense of the sacred.

Scientific insights and recent ethical paradigms, while important, have not led us towards an intimate presence with a meaningful universe and, therefore, a meaningful relationship with other earth community members. We continue to define the grizzly in terms of instrumental and intrinsic value. They are important to us instrumentally by way of the economic advantages they provide. They are important to us intrinsically by way of the sense of wildness that they bring to the national park that would not exist if they were absent. It, therefore, has become important to protect them because of the instrumental enjoyment and aesthetic aura that they bring to the wilderness experience. But, the difficulty with instrumental value is that the grizzly is valued as an object or instrument for our own benefit. This does not acknowledge the bear’s importance to the earth community or the earth’s life processes. It ignores the following ecological insight: the grizzly exists because, in some undefined way, it has had something of value to offer to the earth community. Furthermore, the difficulty with the bear’s inherent value is that it is understood by what value lies within them. It is quite possible that the inner depths of the grizzly are just as mysterious as its beyondness and just as unavoidable. And if we are authentically seeking to understand their wholeness of being, the challenge then becomes how we choose to address their mystery. We can certainly address mystery as we have in the past, as an incompleteness of knowledge or puzzle to be figured out. We can extrapolate based on what is observed and quantified. We can continue tranquilizing them to understand them. But new subjectivities always emerge and indicate that a profane journey into knowing the grizzly is destined for quiet desperation, especially for the bear. However, if we open ourselves to the otherness of the world, we invite an encounter with this mystery. We may then become aware of a pervading presence when confronted with incomprehensibility. In this act, we come to know the sacred as different from the secular and, consequently, become aware that the secular solution alone is insufficient. We may recognize that the bear has a presence that is not defined by its wondrous physical characteristics or the complexities of its habitat alone but by something more deeply profound as well. Through this encounter, it becomes something else, something more, yet continues to remain a bear. This means that the sacred we encounter within the grizzly does not necessarily venerate the bear itself but allows it to be revered, not as a bear, but as a unique manifestation of the numinous presence that pervades all of life. In other words, when one has such an encounter, the bear remains a bear in that it is not discernible from other bears or other living beings except that it’s physical reality becomes a celebration of a more profoundly deep reality capable of transforming our present consciousness.

Certainly, the grizzly bear family encountered along Going-to-the-Sun Road, if it is to survive, demands a response that is beyond secular thought, beyond rational knowledge, beyond sensationalism. Indeed there are important aspects of their full identity not presently being considered. We ought to explore how new insights can potentially transform the human consciousness—the way we see ourselves in relationship to other beings and, consequently, the way in which we address our own influences upon the grizzly mother and her two cubs’ uncertain future. For once we encounter the grizzly in this manner, we awaken to a world of wonder, a world of pervading presence that is so much more than aesthetic beauty, more than recognizing their inherent value, much deeper than personal growth. We experience a deep sense of withinness and profound beyondness. And we come to understand the grizzly as a unique celebratory moment in the Great Self, a unique articulation of existence, a communion of relationships between varying moments in a fifteen billion year cosmological story that extends far beyond our ability to objectively study or quantifiably explain. For, indeed, in all their finite ordinariness, we come to know that within each bear—within the cautious mother, the shy and the rambunctious cubs—there exists the universe.

The author is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto with the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology & Ecology and the Institute for Environmental Studies. His research is in grizzly bear management and recovery strategies in Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, and Jasper National Parks as well as the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Program. His dissertation is on Articulating Otherness and Mystery in the Endangered Species Encounter as a Path for Transforming the Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for North America. He has been involved in Parks Canada’s Year of the Great Bear Campaign and the Sierra Club-Canada’s “People & the Planet.”

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Research News