The Bear Felony
Even though federal officials accused me of a felony, even though my girlfriend got outed at work and later blackballed, it was worth it to save that bear.
Because we couldn’t save the wolves in Montana who wandered outside park boundaries. And we couldn’t save the grizzlies in Alaska who were being hunted from helicopters. But one bear is more savable than many. One life, and I’ll fight. Many lives, and the overwhelm can numb the mind, paralyze the stomach with grief.
Because I could close my eyes and be that black bear, lumbering miles through the night toward the source of the minty almondy lavendery smell. Locating its origin among huddled canvas shapes, swiping one paw to see what my claws could catch. In all the human shouts and clamor, escaping empty mouthed, crashing through the woods to safety near the mesa’s edge. Finding a cave as the sun breaks the horizon.
My big body of blood and muscle, held inside this form by skin and fur. The land, its trees and shrubs scorched by the Big Fire last summer, so few berries to eat. My life force a river running low. A tall body, but too ropy, its skin too easy to puncture. The teeth of a trap, a poison dart, a bullet—humans have ways to pierce my skin, to let my river of life flow away.
* * *
Game and Fish came to the campground, armed with a metal trap, donuts for bait, and their agency policy: Human blood means bear blood.
Maria my park ranger girlfriend said to me, Those Girl Scouts had toothpaste, shampoo, and soap in their tent. They should be punished, not the bear. He probably didn’t even know he made contact with a human. I saw the nick on the girl’s ear—the troop leader asked us for the smallest size of Band-Aid. Game and Fish are such fucking morons!
I said to Maria, We can’t let this happen.
* * *
The wolves had changed me. Just a month before, Maria and I had visited Yellowstone. We
sped down the roads of the Lamar Valley in the gold before dusk, hunting the photographers, who were hunting the wolves, who were hunting the elk and bison. Neither Maria nor I had ever seen a wolf. We stood behind the row of tripods and telephoto lenses. Along the banks of a stream below us, a bison calf had been separated from the herd. The photographers knew what that meant.
When all at once the lenses swiveled and the shutters exploded, there he was, a young male wolf from the Lamar Pack coming down from the hills on the far side of the stream. Through our binoculars, we could see that this was no coyote. His long gray limbs, his dangerous mouth. There was something splendid about him. Wildness embodied.
The young wolf crossed a meadow, then the stream, making his way toward the calf in a deliberate manner. The calf lowed for its mother. Predator and prey.
The animals and people waited as the sky darkened, knowing that nightfall would bring certain death to the calf. But then through the murk, the mother bison ran bellowing, charging the wolf full out. The wolf reared on hind legs, barking, then turned tail and ran. Mother licked her child’s face. We all cheered; the calf would live. But I could feel the wolf’s hunger, unabated. He had to live too.
* * *
Maria’s ranger colleagues didn’t want the bear killed either. But the chief ranger did—it was policy. Still, he took my phone call and listened to my rationale before responding with his. I then called Game and Fish until I got the head commissioner’s number. I left a voicemail for him that I fucked up. “My name is Kristin Barendsen. I and some of the … other … rangers at the park don’t want the bear killed because.” I cringed; I tried to erase the message by pressing star, by pressing pound. I couldn’t erase it, so I hung up, kept going. Got friends and neighbors to post, email, make calls.
Maria’s coworker Chris Paulson posted about the incident on the park’s Facebook page, said the bear would be destroyed. On Chris’s thread, Maria commented, How will Game & Fish even know if they have the right bear? It’s been three days. And baiting with donuts will habituate other bears to trash. Chris said to Maria, Delete your comment, you’ll get in trouble with the chief ranger. Maria said I won’t delete it, thought to herself, What a sell-out Chris is.
* * *
Our second afternoon in the Lamar Valley, Maria and I were speeding again, screeching our U-turns to find the line of tripods. We were talking about Alpha 06, the alpha female of the pack.She gave the orders to travel and hunt; she ate first at a kill. Our kind of woman. We hoped to glimpse her.
We found the photographers and their subject—two wolves feeding on the body of an elk cow in the center of a stream. We had just missed the high-speed chase and takedown, but through our binoculars we saw the teeth, the tearing. And for a moment, I was Alpha 06, paws in cold water, face buried in warm red copper. I growled low to warn my minion wolves away, give me my turn.
I’m not even a dog person, but those wolves. They came from the wild place I have inside me. The place that howls and gnashes and runs and plays with other wolves in the snow and is so rare and sometimes bloody mouthed. The tameless place inside humans that is maligned for its need to stay alive, that is endangered. Its skin so easy to puncture, its river of life so quick to flow away.
* * *
If I read about humans who are killed by humans, I don’t often cry. But if I read about endangered animals who are killed by humans, my workday will be over because I will curl into myself, still sitting at my desk, protecting the place inside me that howls.
I’m not sure if it’s empathy I’m feeling, or grief. When the animal is being pursued and hunted, like the black bear in Maria’s park, I feel its fear and vulnerability in my own body. But once the animal is taken, what I feel must be grief, because you can’t feel the emotions or pain of a creature who cannot feel any more.
What I feel is grief that the world loses a little bit more wildness each time another endangered animal is killed. And outrage that my species would try to be the only species, our hunters the only predators.
* * *
The day after I made all those phone calls about the bear, the chief ranger came to a decision: He would spare the life of the bear. We cried we laughed we drank beer I asked Maria to wear her ranger uniform to bed. She said, I don’t know why women are always so fixated on the uniform.
Maria made signs telling campers to lock scented products in their cars. Game and Fish removed its metal trap and donuts. And I was the bear again, running free in search of berries and bulbs, sleeping in caves, never knowing about the trap or the humans who’d fought for and against my survival.
* * *
Two months after the bear went free, the chief ranger called Maria in to a meeting with the whole staff. He said that Chris Paulson had been under investigation for calling a state agency to influence the fate of the bear. But the investigation had been dropped. He asked Maria if she had a friend named something like Chris, Kristin, Chris, Kristin…. And if so, this friend was getting a letter from the state’s deputy attorney general.
After the meeting, Maria learned that another colleague had outed her and our relationship to the chief ranger. Who had responded, I thought so. Couple of opinionated lesbians.
The letter from the deputy AG arrived the next day. It said that impersonation of a federal employee was a felony punishable by five years in prison, plus a $250,000 fine. I had no clue what they meant by “impersonation.” Until I remembered my stuttery voicemail to the head of Game and Fish. “This is Kristin Barendsen. I and some of the … other … rangers.” They thought I was trying to impersonate Chris Paulson!
Really? Then why didn’t I say, “I’m Chris Paulson, a park ranger.” My name has two more syllables than hers. Had they even saved the voicemail? The whole controversy hung on the flubbed word “other”—all five years in prison and a quarter million dollars. I didn’t buy it. This was just a way to intimidate Maria and me.
I called their bluff in a professional yet darkly funny letter about the allegedly felonious voicemail. The matter was dropped.
But the chief ranger treated Maria differently after that. He made sure she got laid off—after enough time had passed that she’d have a hard time proving discrimination. I felt bad that I had helped get her in trouble. She wished she’d deleted her Facebook comment. Sometimes, selling out was the better option in the long term.
* * *
A few days after I received the felony warning, Congress voted to end endangered species protections for grey wolves in Wyoming. The cattle and gun lobby paid them off. It was open season on wolves, except inside the boundaries of national parks. Well wolves don’t read signs and there’s no fence around Yellowstone. Alpha 06 wandered outside the boundaries and, although she had a visible collar identifying her as a park wolf, a hunter shot her. “Legally harvested,” as they say. Her partner, the alpha male, took the same stroll not long after, met the same end. And without its leaders, the pack dispersed into nine lone wolves, each far less safe on its own.
I believe animals grieve; I believe the Lamar wolves grieved the loss of their alphas, the loss of their connection to the pack, even as their DNA told them to disperse, continue their fight as lone wolves.
And me, I howled with them. I will howl forever. But at least we saved one bear.
About the Author: Kristin Barendsen is a Santa Fe writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, American Poet, Nailed, and many other venues. Awards include the Academy of American Poets Prize and two Southwest Writers awards. She is co-author of Photography: New Mexico and a former contributing editor of Yoga Journal.