The deep and irrational fear of grizzlies.

"When they saw me, wet and covered with blood, they became excusably excited and wanted to know what was the matter. I told them that I had been killing a grizzly. ‘But what did you kill him with?’ they said. ‘Your gun is here in camp.’ ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘as you fellows did not come when I yelled for help, I had to kill him with my pocketknife.’"

That was William H. Wright, writing in his 1909 book, The Grizzly Bear: The Narrative of a Hunter-Naturalist, of a little trouble he ran into in 1891 along the banks of Idaho’s Clearwater River.

Men are made of lesser stuff in today’s land of Famous Potatoes.

The very thought of seeing a grizzly bear today is enough to give Idaho’s Gov. Dirk Kempthorne a bad case of the shakes. His mewled objections to "these massive, flesh-eating carnivores" and his fears of "injury or death of members of the public" proved decisive in the Bush administration’s recent decision to scrap plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Kempthorne is governor, but not of the same Idaho that once was home to the likes of Elmer Keith and Ernest Hemingway.

Keith, the legendary gun writer and hunter who lived in Salmon, wasn’t afraid of bears. He knew any menace in North America he couldn’t handle the easy way could be adequately addressed from the business end of his .35 Whelan. You would not have caught him pleading with the woman at the Department of Interior for protection. It’s hard to imagine him reacting with anything but disgust to someone who did. Hemingway? Well, he wrote about Francis Macomber, but only because he didn’t live long enough to meet Dirk Kempthorne.

Keith and Hemingway sprang quickly to mind when the governor bleated about "flesh-eating carnivores," but those two are mere icons of a braver, more confident and woods-wise Idaho we once knew. There would not even be an Idaho, at least one settled and developed as it is today, if previous generations had been as cowed as Kempthorne by bears. Early Idahoans found grizzlies so plentiful that William Wright once killed five in five minutes with a single-shot rifle. Old Idaho was not a place where men unabashedly aired their most fantastic fears of the natural world. Perhaps that Idaho died with Wright, Hemingway, Keith, and others of their generation and constitution.

Irrational fear of grizzly bears is perhaps more understandable, although no more forgivable, when it comes from an Easterner like Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist who confesses "an awful fear of almost all animals, even fish." Cohen penned a column July 5th expressing solidarity with Kempthorne. He also bemoaned the white-tailed deer that nibble his shrubs, dismissing their right to exist, much less roam free, in the countryside near Washington D.C., land occupied by deer long before he laid claim to it.

"I point out to the deer lovers that the saber-toothed tiger was here first — or maybe the wooly mammoth," he wrote. "Should they return, I would take the totally unreasonable position that they should be put in zoos or restricted areas. I happen to feel the same way about the grizzly. I know they were in the Bitterroot before people, but so what? People are there now, and some of them, I’m sure, are not prepared to die..."

Why is that such attitudes borne of breathtaking ignorance and fear are instantly recognized as simple-minded bigotry when directed at two-legged creatures but peddled as serious and legitimate public-policy positions when focused on four-legged ones?

How do you suppose such people, the Kempthornes and Cohens of America, regard us Montanans? We hikers, hunters, berry-picking families, end-of-the-road recluses, tree-hugging hippies, and stoop-shouldered editorial writers who so happily and securely live in this land populated, albeit sparsely, by the Great Bear? Our encounters with grizzlies are uncommon but not altogether rare, and still we sleep peacefully at night. We who regard grizzlies with appropriate respect but not debilitating fear must seem like minor gods to those who cower in their brick, marble, or concrete fortresses, worrying about being eaten by "flesh-eating carnivores."

Whatever danger we risk when we walk out into the woods is far preferable to us than a life limited and defined by ignorant fear.

The preceding article was written in 2001 by the Editorial Board of the Missoulian, the daily newspaper in Missoula.