Later this month, in late July 2017, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears outside Yellowstone National Park and nearby Grand Teton National Park will lose their Endangered Species List protections. Jurisdiction over the bears will be handed over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
In general, that will mean fewer restrictions on killing the bears. States alone will now make the call on dealing with bears that harm livestock. Hunting seasons for grizzlies will probably be established, providing that the regional population stays above 600 individuals over the next five years. However, bears within the boundaries of the national parks will remain a federal responsibility and will not be hunted, unless they step outside park borders.
Another group of about 1,000 grizzlies that lives in northern Idaho and Montana, near Glacier National Park, and a very small number in Washington’s Northern Cascades will remain protected.
Many conservationists and scientists oppose the delisting of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears, maintaining that they are still in grave danger of extinction. The decision is also contrary to the beliefs of several Native American tribes—sovereign nations that rightly have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government—that the grizzly bear has not yet recovered.
Are we starting a slide back down the hill to another population crisis for one of our nation’s largest land mammals, a Medicine Man to the Blackfeet, Hopi and many other tribes?
Protections build bear numbers
In the mid 1960s, Congress passed its first endangered species legislation, the Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966. The intent was to “conserve, protect, restore and propagate certain species of native fish and wildlife.” Under this act, the very first list of threatened and endangered species in the United States was created. Grizzly bears were on it.
In 1969, the act was replaced with the stronger Endangered Species Conservation Act. It extended protections to some invertebrates and set the framework that would later become the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Four years later, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973, considered to be one of the world’s most important conservation laws. Through it all, grizzly bears remained protected.
In 2007, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) removed the distinct population of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears from the threatened species list and instead implemented what it called a “Conservation Strategy.”
A federal court overturned that delisting in 2009, stating that the Conservation Strategy that was formulated was unenforceable and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the impacts of the potential loss of whitebark pine nuts, a major grizzly bear food source. Due to rapid climate change, insects are decimating the pine as the region’s temperatures continue to soar.
A year later, in 2010, the USFWS appealed the decision; and in 2011, it was ruled that the grizzly bear should remain on the threatened species list. The court determined that while the Conservation Strategy did provide adequate regulatory mechanisms, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not sufficiently address the potential impacts from reduction of whitebark pine and other foods.
In 2013, the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team recommended that grizzly bears once again be removed from the threatened species list because alternative foods were available and the reduction of whitebark pine was not having a significant impact.
On June 22, 2017, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that Greater Yellowstone grizzlies have officially been delisted, proclaiming them “one of America’s great conservation successes.”
The National Wildlife Federation supports the decision, stating that they are counting on a “conservation package developed by federal and state natural resource management agencies for Yellowstone’s grizzlies to ensure that the bears continue to thrive once taken off the list.”
Statistics suppress the whole story
In the mid 1970s, it was estimated that 136 grizzly bears lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Today, it is thought that 700 bears may reside there.
But current population estimates alone fail to tell the whole story. Today, grizzly bears occupy only about 2 percent of their original territory south of Canada. The bears also have a very low birth rate. Sows have their first cubs at five to eight years of age. Just one in three cubs survives to adulthood, living an average of 30 years. If their population declines, it could take years to recover.
Today’s rapid climate change has thrown another challenge into the mix. The whole Yellowstone region is now in ecological uncertainty that could imperil the bears in the near future.
Others point out that delisting the bears creates a Yellowstone “island population,” cut off from others. That leaves them potentially without enough genetic diversity to adapt to the changing environment. If trophy hunting commences outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks—a possibility under state management—the very bears critical to connecting with Yellowstone’s isolated population will be the first to die. The U.S. National Park Service has written, “Connectivity with other populations outside of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be essential for further restoration.”
They add that the Endangered Species Act was not designed to make national parks into zoos, where only small subpopulations of species exist. Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, has predicted “a dire future for grizzlies as Endangered Species protection is stripped. This premature decision to remove endangered species protections could set grizzly recovery back by decades.”
Failure to know when to stop
In large part, Native Americans are standing with those who are against delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies. In fact, 125 tribes from seven states and Canada say this decision violates their religious freedom, and they’re suing the federal government because it failed to consult them. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, one of the Associated Tribes of Yellowstone, asserts that they were completely ignored in this delisting process, despite their declaration, resolution and petition for inclusion.
Even some who argue that the bears have recovered from the brink of extinction express concern about how the states will manage what is known as “discretionary mortality,” or the willful killing of bears by hunting or in response to preying on livestock. For example, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk has stated that while he is not against the bears’ removal from the Endangered Species list, he worries that too many bear deaths could affect the park experience for thousands of visitors.
I accept that grizzly bears will never regain their historic numbers in the American West. I think we all do. But I don’t believe that humans have yet learned to realize when enough killing of wildlife is enough. In 2015, humans killed a record 59 grizzlies.
There is more evidence to suggest that we don’t know when we’ve gone too far. In addition to delisting Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears, Republican Senator Rand Paul has introduced a bill that in the future would require Congressional approval to add a species to the Endangered Species List and would delist a species after five years of protection. It would also mandate that a state manage a species that lives entirely within its borders—not the federal government.
These are dangerous times for Medicine Man, our bear brother. Are we on the way to pushing grizzlies to the brink of extinction again?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,