The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a document in January describing four ideas for reintroducing grizzly bears to the North Cascades region in Washington state. They asked for public comments on the proposals, which range from doing nothing to building a new population of 200 bears within 25 years. Today, no more than 10 grizzlies are believed to roam the 10,000-square-mile area.
As with anything involving predators in the West, this is a controversial topic. It is heartily backed by wildlife conservation organizations and some Native American tribes. It is staunchly opposed by ranchers’ groups and some local officials.
By March 10 — four days before the end of the comments period — the agencies had received an estimated 6,500 comments, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman in Washington said. By Tuesday, however, that number had jumped to about 110,000, she said. On Monday, the agencies extended the comments period by an additional 45 days, citing requests from members of the public and local officials.
What accounted for the big jump in comments? It’s not clear, but Matthew Inman says he is pretty sure he “gave them a kick in the butt.”
Inman is the man behind the super-popular comic website The Oatmeal, which features graphic, whimsical and surprisingly edifying posts on topics ranging from the coolness of mantis shrimps to correct usage of the word “literally.” And on Friday, Inman published a post titled “I need 50,000 comments on a government website.”
The post broke down the very basics of grizzly reintroduction to the northern Cascades ecosystem, and it urged readers to support “Alternative C,” which calls for releasing five to seven bears each year for five to 10 years, with the goal of establishing a base population of 25 grizzlies and building to 200 bears within a century.
“I know it seems odd. But social pressure is how legislation gets made,” Inman wrote, adding that he donated $25,000 to the cause — money that, he said in an interview, would help fund the pro-reintroduction campaigns of the National Wildlife Federation and Conservation Northwest.
The post was uncommonly unfunny, Inman acknowledged on Tuesday, saying that he’d done it in a rush to beat the comments deadline. But the topic — wildlife, and specifically bears — wasn’t unusual for him.
One of his first-ever comics was titled “Things Bears Love.” When Inman launched a campaign to defend himself against a defamation lawsuit in 2012, he raised $220,000 and donated it to the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society. (NWF responded by arranging for him to meet and spoon-feed peanut butter to two grizzly bears at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where he lives, and presenting him with a plaque honoring him as “Champion of Bears.”)
Last year, he helped create a card game called “Bears vs. Babies,” in which the object is to build a monstrous bear — the example Inman gives is “a grizzly bear made of chain saws who can run at the speed of light” — that eats babies. The player who eats the most babies wins.
“Comedically, I use them a lot. I think they’re funny,” Inman said of bears. “It’s like when you see a tiger at the zoo. The way they move, and the way they sun themselves and lay there, they move like a house cat. Your instinct is you want to pet them and play with them, but you can’t. Bears are the same. I see them as dogs. They’re like a cute, 800-pound, apex predator dog.”
Inman’s parents live at the edge of the North Cascades, where he said he hikes and runs fairly often — which, yes, means he’s advocating to share his recreational space with those predators. Initially, he said, “I was like, ‘Oh god, am I going to reintroduce grizzlies and then die at the hands of a bear?’”
But he said he’s since learned more about grizzlies, which haven’t been spotted in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades ecosystem since 1996. For example: They rarely harm or kill humans, even in places like Yellowstone National Park, where there are hundreds. And they eat a lot of plants, including berries when they’re in season.
“With grizzlies in particular, people see them like a Tyrannosaurus rex, when in reality they’re more like scaredy-cats,” he said. “They don’t subsist on hikers.”
Inman said that he wishes he had done his call-out for comments by “starting from the basics” on grizzly bear behavior and diet, then building to the notion that they’re “bunnies who happen to weigh 800 pounds.”
Now that the comments period has been extended to April 28, he’s have time for more pro-bear comics. Also, he said, The Oatmeal will feature fewer bear-mauling jokes.
“Here I am trying to tell people, ‘Bears are sweet, calm down.’ And at the same time I have a card game telling people that bears eat babies,” Inman said. “I might need to do some course correcting.”