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  • Louisa Willcox

Under the Czar’s Shadow

It is hard to fathom why the government, which supposedly operates on behalf of the larger public trust, would spin the science and push delisting as it has for over two decades. While we may long speculate on this question, this conundrum poses a particular problem for reporters.

All roads lead back to the iron fist of the federal Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen, who has been long known as the grizzly “czar”. He has a well-established track record of being vindictive to anyone who crosses him -- reporters, staff of nongovernmental organizations, and even fellow agency personnel. While we do not comment on his motives, which may be laudable, we question his methods, and their effects on a democratic decision-making process.

It is unclear whether reporters appreciate that Servheen have been pushing for delisting for decades to mark the capstone of his career at US Fish and Wildlife Service. Or whether they know that the current policy of FWS is to placate the states (see recent rule) no matter what the science says. No matter, as a reporter it is considered unprofessional to get personal (without a high profile scandal). What counts is protecting access to key sources.

So the easiest default is a “he said, she said” story, with Servheen and other government officials having the lions’ share of the quotes. Others who have been silenced can go talk to judges if they will listen.

Servheen has a long established pattern of playing both sides against the middle and spinning the facts to maintain his iron grip on bear management. And of spinning the science which is hard to fathom even when it is simple, which is never the case with grizzly bears. Unless you are a motivated and fearless reporter, you can easily fall into this trap especially if you are short on time and funds for research.

To some reporters, Servheen argues that it has not made decisions (though Yellowstone area managers passed resolutions several times to delist bears over the last few years). To others, he says that federal decisions are based on science. (If so, why it is high-grading a few points to justify its preordained course?)

To the states (close to revolt due to delisting delays), he says, hang in there, delisting is only a stone’s throw way. To 35 Indian tribes, which have been left out of the process and are opposed to delisting, he says virtually nothing at all. To a reporter he feels betrayed by, he says even less.

So what is the real news below the bleeding headlines? As in Game of Thrones, it is personal, political and cut-throat. There are carcasses of bears and careers of well-meaning agency personnel lying in the burrow pit. Because recovery of the high-profile grizzly bear, like the Throne of England, is a prize. The gold ring of endangered species recovery.

The truth of what people need to know -- science and power arrangements – is itself endangered by the nature of reporting.

Declining budgets for in-depth reporting exacerbates the problem. So do shrinking attention spans of most of us readers.


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