Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved
The challenge of multiple jurisdictions
Grizzly bears need extensive wilderness to survive. In the spring, bears seek low elevation lands to find winter-killed game and early green shoots. They follow the retreating snow, searching for meals when they are ready to eat, even above tree-line to dig up army cutworm moths. In their roughly seven months above ground, grizzly bears have to pack on the pounds to make it through winter.
Along Alaska’s salmon-rich coast, many grizzly bears don’t have to travel much to get fat, but in the Northern Rockies, they have to cover more ground. Thus it is not surprising that Yellowstone grizzly bears use parts or all of seven national forests, two national parks, two wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management lands, state forests, and private land, over 9 million acres total.
With over 2 million acres at the core of the ecosystem, Yellowstone Park is a sanctuary for bears. The goal of the Park Service is preservation of nature. Most visitors don’t venture into the backcountry, so bears have much of Glacier and Yellowstone Parks to themselves. And, since most people are unarmed, the landscape is fairly safe from humans. Today, Yellowstone and Glacier are seen as success stories for grizzly bears (see YNP success). Grand Teton Park visitors are seeing more bears too now.
Most grizzly bears are killed outside the national parks. These areas include national forests, where hunting is allowed. Although grizzly bears are not hunted because they are federally protected (for the time being), big game hunters are increasingly getting into conflicts with grizzlies as the bears turn more to eating meat as compensation for the climate-driven collapse of whitebark pine—which was once a key food of Yellowstone grizzlies. Similarly, livestock operators on national forests and other public lands are having more conflicts with bears that seeking meat from the carcasses of sheep and cattle. (see food fight).
National forests are managed for “multiple use”, which allows for road-building, grazing and other development. Outside congressionally protected Wilderness, over 75% of occupied grizzly bear habitat is open for exploitation. Road-building is a particular problem because roads displace and/or habituate bears, fragment habitat, and increase access for poachers. (see roads to trouble).
Although private lands are a relatively small part of Greater Yellowstone, they can be “black holes” for bears--places where bears enter but do not leave alive. The main culprit is garbage and other human attractants, including livestock and animal feed. While some communities have made great strides in managing garbage, others have a ways to go.
Driven by the need to bulk up for winter, bears are always on the lookout for the next meal. That means they will tend to find the weak links in any management system. If one landowner is being careful but his/her neighbor is not, the result can be the same: a dangerous confrontation which the bear typically loses.
That is why vigilance and responsibility are so important. So is effective coordination among the 23 management jurisdictions in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: appearance and reality
Purpose and first steps
After grizzly bears were listed in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government was rightfully panicked about their future. Consistent with the principles of emergency medicine, the first step was to stop the bleeding, which is to say, grizzly bear hunting was stopped. Garbage dumps in Yellowstone were closed and cleaned up.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) was formed over the course of the next decade to coordinate management. Coordination makes sense because of the bear’s extensive spatial requirements and because of intrinsic differences between the mandates of different management jurisdictions. Initially the IGBC, which functions in an advisory capacity, included representatives of the federal, state and tribal governments. Decisions are made by consensus, except in very rare cases, most recently with the decision to delist Yellowstone and Glacier grizzly bears.
Beyond stopping the sport hunt and closing large open-pit garbage dumps, there were obvious next steps to prevent extinction: cleaning up smaller sources of garbage, regulating the storage of food outside the parks, and in Greater Yellowstone, ending domestic sheep grazing in key habitat. (Bears cannot resist sheep plus their herders are armed and intolerant).
Significant gains were made, but abundant food years and the advent of army cutworm moths in Yellowstone during the early 1980’s also helped stabilize and grow the population. After the low hanging fruit had been picked—that is, the relatively straightforward steps to reduce mortality--what remained were (and are) hard choices about management of habitat, big game hunters and livestock.
Science and politics
Over time, research made it clear that managers needed to do more than just deal with human-related attractants such as garbage. For example, mounting evidence showed that roads associated with logging activities posed a threat to bears, but during the 1970’s - 1990’s the logging industry ruled the national forests. While the ESA requires that management agencies use the best available science, the Forest Service resisted limiting the construction and maintenance of roads largely because of internal and external pressures. (see Roads to Trouble). The IGBC avoided the problem too, which had become a political hot potato. Successful litigation brought by conservation groups eventually forced limitations on roadbuilding and other development of grizzly bear habitat.
Leaders inside the government responded with anger, although a number of agency scientists celebrated. The IGBC became more polarized, especially when Wyoming officials turned up the heat to delist grizzly bears in the early 1990’s. (see problems of state management). The “us versus them” mentality has worsened with the expansion of the IGBC in recent years to include county commissioners (one from each state), who advocate for delisting and local control. Efforts to include other stakeholders who represent different values, such as restraint and reverence, have been denied.
While many dedicated people in the agencies have been trying make the world a better place for bears and the public interest through respectful engagement with substantive conservation and governance issues, the IGBC culture has become one of technocratic promotion and exclusion, instead of transparency, learning and solving problems.
Appraisals of the IGBC and its various subcommittees are few and far between. The first was done in response to a crisis precipitated by a spike in grizzly bear deaths. In 2000 John Talbott of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (whose brother is the current director) wrote an assessment of the IGBC’s Yellowstone subcommittee that gave it predictably high marks. Of course, he was not exactly a neutral observer, which violates first requirement of a good appraisal.
Several reviews of approaches to reducing grizzly bear mortalities were completed by IGBC task forces, which included some creative and laudable recommendations. The documents did not connect to any decision-making processes though, and are currently gathering dust.
The most comprehensive and objective assessment was conducted by Dr. Susan Clark in Ensuring Yellowstone’s Future: choices for Leaders and Citizens. While Dr. Clark focused on the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, the membership, purpose and operating systems are the same as the IGBC. As Dr. Clark discusses, current governance systems are bogged down in bureaucratic inertia and perverse incentives that undermine efforts to collaborate and learn from experience.
I share her call for an improved and more comprehensive view of the problems, better decision-making processes, more knowledgeable leaders and citizens, and more focus on solving real-world problems. (see core values). For me it is particularly frustrating to see so much energy at the IGBC spent on orchestrating their media machine to spin a good news message as a basis solely for making the case to delist-- rather than inviting a respectful and inclusive debate.
For example, if there was excessive grizzly bear mortality during the previous year, the message was that it doesn’t matter, because it will wash out over time. On the other hand, if there were few bear deaths, that is fine too, because it shows we are doing a good job. No matter what happens – loss of key foods, escalation of conflicts – it can be spun to justify delisting. (see agency spin). To wit: bears are omnivores, let them eat salad.
The IGBC has recently violated its own rules about consensus decision-making as well. It claims unanimous support for Yellowstone delisting, while the three tribes with seats on the committee, Shoshone Bannock, Eastern Shoshone, and Northern Arapaho, (as well as 32 other tribes with a stake in Yellowstone and grizzly bears) have taken official positions opposing delisting. (GOAL). IGBC spokespeople have recently dismissed tribal concerns as “staged”.
Yes, the idea of coordination among agencies to conserve grizzly bears matters, but what does it mean in practice - and what do we want it to mean? Are we moving towards or away from a fair and respectful democratic society in the service of the broader public interest?
As they say, the devil is in the details. Or, perhaps more to the point, substance matters more than veneer.
For more on solutions, see (taking our bearings).