LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Who owns the bears? Who has the right to decide if they are jailed or killed or released back into the wild? What standing do tribes with spiritual relationships to bears have in determining their fate? And who speaks for the bears?
Those questions continue to plague the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) after it refused to allow a veterinarian and team of animal rights advocates to give medical assistance to a black bear that had been shot and suffered without help for nearly a month last fall.
At a Sept. 6 meeting, tribes and advocates for "Arthur," a seven-year-old black bear, will once again raise concerns about his shooting, his long-term suffering, his capture and months-long incarceration in a sweltering hot cement cell, and options for his future under California's black bear policies, which are slated for revisions.
Under current California law, adult black bears captured by CDFG are not allowed to be "rehabilitated" and returned to the wild. Instead, they are often euthanized.
The Washoe, Paiute, Pomo and Miwok tribes ? whose traditional territories span the 14,000-foot high Sierra Nevada ? have called on Gov. Gray Davis and state wildlife officials to release the bear back into the wilderness or onto tribal lands.
They say the bears are sacred beings honored and revered in the Bear Dance and other ceremonies that many tribes still carry on, not just "animal resources" for which the state sells 1,500 hunting permits each year.
"Too many of our relatives are already incarcerated under federal and state laws," said Chairman Brian Wallace of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada. "Now they are imprisoning our cultural relatives.
"Bears are our spiritual brothers and are part of our ceremonies, including the one for young men coming of age," he said. "We have lived peacefully with them for thousands of years and they are a part of us. These bears are not just the property of the state to be disposed of or jailed or mistreated at will."
Wallace said Arthur has become a symbol of institutional ignorance about Native peoples and their cultures, and underscores that current state laws do not respect Indian religious freedom issues. He and other tribal leaders have vowed to change state bear policies that they say are a metaphor for the bloody history and ill treatment Indian people have suffered in California.
Arthur is presently incarcerated in a 1,000-square foot cage in Galt, near Sacramento for what could be a lifetime, several hundred miles from his cool-weather mountain habitat in the Eastern Sierra.
His crime? He was ambling on the outskirts of the ski resort village of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. when he was illegally shot with a small caliber weapon on Oct. 18 and wounded in the hip. The open wound disabled him from walking on his right rear leg and residents noticed him limping around in search of food, appearing to get worse by the day.
In a "bear-friendly" town like Mammoth with a "no-shooting" zone and residents who are accustomed to seeing some 30 black bears who live in the area, many people called local CDFG wardens to report the injured bear. Time passed and nothing was done.
"Let nature take its course is what they told me," said Ann Bryant, director of the Bear League in Lake Tahoe. "But it wasn't nature that injured this bear and under California law, they have a responsibility to respond. This agency has the duty to preserve, protect and restore wildlife. "
After three weeks, residents began to ask why the bear was not rescued or medically treated. Laying in a culvert, Arthur showed alarming signs of physical suffering and distress while people pleaded with Fish and Game wardens to treat him or put him out of his misery if necessary.
Mammoth Lakes bear expert Steve Searles, who operates "Bear Affairs" a program that uses a non-lethal approach to dealing with bears, attempted to help Arthur several times, only to be told it was illegal to offer humane assistance to injured bears.
On Nov. 9, Searles accompanied a veterinarian and members of the Bear League, the Humane Society and Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care to find the bear after lengthy negotiations with Fish and Game officials to assess the bear's condition.
Arthur, still injured, was hiding in a culvert on the Sierra Star golf course and had to be lured out of the culvert with food by Searles to show Fish and Game staff the extent of his injuries.
Dr. Kevin Willets, who had been flown in from Lake Tahoe for his expertise in working with bears, wanted to sedate Arthur, examine the wound, remove the bullet and check bones for damage. He planned to treat the infected wound, dose the bear with antibiotics and let Arthur heal without putting him in captivity.
"The most inhumane thing happened to Arthur," said Searles. "After making him get up and hobble around and seeing he was in a great deal of pain, Fish and Game staff refused to allow Willets to treat him. They put Arthur through hell and then said we had to leave without helping him. They forced us to leave him. It made me physically sick."
What followed was nothing short of a public uprising over Fish and Game's decision not to help a suffering animal. School children and community members wrote thousands of letters and email to the governor, state senators and CDFG officials.
Local news sources featured daily coverage of the bear's plight and "Free Arthur" signs and t-shirts appeared everywhere. Protest marches were held and editorials in the local newspaper carried scathing indictments of CDFG staff.
A number of medicine people from local tribes conferred and conducted a Bear Dance in Mammoth to pray for Arthur. Tribal elders and youth called for his release.
Aaron Ma'Wi' Wallace, the Washoe tribal chairman's 12-year-old son, said he and other Washoe youth spent weeks writing letters, protesting, educating people about how to live in bear territory, and even meeting with the governor to free Arthur.
"There were hundreds of school kids that wore Free Arthur t-shirts to school one day," he said. "We're trying to teach people that we can live with bears as long as we respect them. We're asking people to respect our ceremonies and our brothers, the bears."
The enormous public support for Arthur finally forced Fish and Game to take some action. A month after his shooting was first reported to the agency, CDFG wardens tranquilized him, muzzled him, pulled him onto a golf cart and hauled him on a 24-hour trip to a Fish and Game facility in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento.
He spent four months there in close contact with humans who helped heal his wounds, fed him, and generally cared for him in a 12-by-15 foot concrete and steel cage centered in a parking lot. By then, officials said he could not be released into the wild because he had too much interaction with humans.
Requests by tribes to return him to the Sierra wilderness were refused and Bryant said offers by three bear sanctuaries in Texas, Colorado and Florida to take Arthur were turned down.
In March, Arthur was moved to the Performing Animal Welfare Society in Galt, Calif. near Sacramento where he lives in an enclosure of about 1,000 square feet filled with honeysuckle bushes, straw and redwood bark.
"The problem is, he's not a performing animal," said Searles. "He's a wild bear from Sierra who needs to come home. I know they are taking good care of him at PAWS with their exotic animals, but Arthur should not have to spend the rest of his life in a cage."
In an effort to release him from captivity, Searles recently purchased five acres of mountain acreage where he and other Arthur supporters plan to create a sanctuary where the beloved black bear can live under the distant, but watchful eye of Bear Affairs.
Meanwhile, tribal leaders and animal rights advocates promise they will move forward with efforts to change California's black bear policies to reflect greater respect and care for the bears under state jurisdiction.
Critics say Fish and Game officials also could use some training in cultural sensitivity and respecting the religious beliefs of indigenous people and animals that lived in the region long before California became a state.
They have promised to seek broader support from tribes and individuals nationally to free Arthur and promote greater awareness of the strong spiritual ties between Native people, the environment and animals that are culturally revered.
"If we save Arthur's life, we are saving Washoe lives," said Chairman Wallace.
"The longer he stays in detention, the less free he becomes, the less of a bear he is. I translate that to what is happening to our people and I see that times have changed, but places and issues have not.
"By imprisoning Arthur, they are imprisoning all of us and our spiritual beliefs."