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  • Louisa Willcox

The Zombie March

Zombies have been on my mind lately. No, I have not been seeing too many horror films. I just have been noticing lately how easy it is for all of us to dissociate and become numb to the pain and even the joy of the world in mindless thrall to urges that hurt not only ourselves but others as well. Not uncommonly, these pitiless urges seem to arise not only from our own dark places, but also from the culture and institutions that surround us.Consider the behaviors of officials at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), who are marching mindlessly—certainly heartlessly--to fulfill a decades-old mission to strip endangered species protections from the threatened Yellowstone grizzly bear, perhaps releasing a draft rule to remove protections by early next year. If successful, the FWS would turn grizzly bears over to a state-administered agenda that features killing bears for “sport” and eliminating any inconvenience to the ranchers and hunters who are the masters of state wildlife agencies (link).

So, why do I think of zombies when I think of the FWS’s relentless efforts to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies? According to the relevant but varied lore, zombies have a few key traits. They obsessively pursue what, at first glance, seems like irrational, even self-destructive, ends. They have no soul and are incapable of thought, certainly not any self-reflection. They are empty husks.

All of that said, the logic of zombie behavior becomes clear as soon as you know who their masters are, because zombies are simply the puppets of powerful sorcerers. Are zombies helpless victims? Often. But they can also be complicit with a necromancer’s purposes, even before they become enslaved.

At this point, I need to make one thing clear. Any connection that I make between zombies and real people is at the level of metaphor—and behaviors. Clearly we all have souls and minds and feelings. But… in the grizzly bear case, there is ample evidence of zombie-like behavior on the part of some within the FWS in their obsession with the play of power and a seemingly mindless adherence to an agenda that is, in many regards, destructive to not only the public interest and grizzly bears, but also in the long run, to the FWS itself.

In lore, zombies are created by sorcerers with the aid of magic. In the case of the FWS, when you look behind the obscuring fog of technocratic rhetoric, the sorcerers who are orchestrating the delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are not hard to see: they are the conservative politicians who have striven for decades to gut the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Many of these politicians are, in turn, mere puppets of ranchers, hunters, and energy industry officials in the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, where our few surviving grizzly bears are struggling to survive.

It is tragic to see agency leaders acting as automatons in the service of conservative state politicians, even as their actions destroy the morale of the FWS and the integrity of ESA, as well as harm the species they are entrusted to protect for the benefit of the broader public.

The state of Wyoming can be seen as a stereotypic necromancer. Just 15 years after grizzly bears were listed, when recovery was in its infancy, the Director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department led the charge to remove ESA protections and reinstate a sport hunt. FWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen capitulated to these demands and has led the campaign to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears ever since. Since then, Idaho and Wyoming governors and legislators have issued resolutions and actively lobbied for delisting.

More recently, in 2012, Governor Matt Mead of Wyoming demanded reassurance from then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that grizzly bears would soon be delisted – and was granted his wish (link). Just a few weeks ago, he convened a mock workshop which served primarily as a platform for calling the ESA a failure, citing delays by the FWS in delisting grizzly bears (link).

It should be noted that the political institutions of Wyoming and most other western states continue to be organized around an ethos of domination and death that led to the extirpation of grizzly bears in the lower-48 states from 99% of their former range in just 100 years. The passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 represented a pendulum swing away from this ethos, to one of respect and reverence for nature. The two value systems, one oriented to life, the other death, have been pulling at the FWS and at ourselves, ever since.

There is no doubt that FWS efforts under auspices of the ESA have benefited grizzly bears enormously. The Yellowstone population has probably doubled since it was listed in 1974. Without aggressive protections, grizzly bears would likely have been relegated to just a few bears hanging on in the confines of Yellowstone Park. Key measures included stopping state-sponsored sport hunting, improving sanitation, eliminating domestic sheep, and closing roads on public lands. These efforts would not have succeeded without the blood sweat and tears of public servants with heart, prodded, occasionally, by watchdog environmentalists.

But the sorcerers did not rest. They infected all-too-susceptible FWS leaders with a story: “In order to keep the ESA from being weakened, the FWS must demonstrate ‘successes‘ defined by delisting as many species as possible, and handing management authority over to states game agencies. Further, delisting must be expedited for species such as wolves and grizzly bears that are both a symbolic affront to, and viewed as constraint on continued exploitation of natural resources by conservative politicians.”

This helps explain the recent triumphant tweet by Gary Frazer, the number two man at the FWS: “We are on track in this administration to delist more species than the last 3 administrations combined (link)!”

And it explains a pattern that emerged in the FWS on grizzly bears (and other politically fraught species, such as wolves) that involves hiding data, spinning facts, burying the public with paper, and sidelining staff or research that threatens the delisting agenda.

Given this insidious narrative, it does not seem to matter that the habitat of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears is unraveling. Cutthroat trout and whitebark pine have collapsed at the same time that elk herds and one of the two bison herds have declined dramatically (link). Which accounts for three of the four most important bear foods in Yellowstone. Grizzly bears are omnivores, so let them eat salad, concludes a recent FWS-sponsored report -- as if dandelions are a substitute for a steak dinner (link).

And, it does not seem to matter that grizzly bear mortalities continue to spiral out of control, as bears forage increasingly for meat from elk and livestock to compensate for the losses of whitebark pine and cutthroat trout (link). This year is shaping up to be a record year for dead bears, many of which were apparently killed illegally (link). But the FWS and other agencies continue to foment the rhetoric of denial (link). Delisting is right around the corner -- and after that, dead bears won’t be such a big deal.

Many have tried to wake the FWS zombies up and point to alternative paths with more heart and mind. These include independent scientists, citizens, Indian tribes, and the courts. Not to mention a number in the agency’s own ranks (link).

For example, in 1995, delisting was blocked in court through litigation led by conservationists. The FWS was sent back to the drawing board to revise the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. Astonishingly, the agency had tried to define recovery based on population numbers alone, with no requirements for protection of habitat – even though habitat threats were one of the reasons the grizzly bear was listed. Was this just mindlessness at play?

It took over a decade for the FWS to re-gather its forces, paper over the problem and try again. When it did release a draft grizzly bear delisting rule in 2006, a flood of independent scientists and others raised concerns about provisions for too few bears, weak habitat protections, and lack of attention to reconnecting the long-isolated Yellowstone grizzly bears with other grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies. Over 99% of the 212,000 comments submitted to FWS opposed removing protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears (link).

Sadly, FWS zombied on. Again, the agency was blocked by the Courts in response to litigation brought by conservationists. In 2009, a federal court ordered the FWS to relist Yellowstone grizzly bears because the agency had failed to take into account its own science showing the many threats entailed by the on-going loss of whitebark pine. Among other things, the Court took exception to the FWS’s “full speed ahead damn the torpedos” approach to delisting, given the ESA's policy of institutional caution (link).

In response, the agency promised another look at the whitebark pine issue, while at the same time recommitting to delisting (link). Meaning that the FWS had already concluded it would proceed with delisting before the analysis began. With release of the “Foods Synthesis Report”, the FWS has again buried the public with yet more paper while playing games with the science (link) to reach the preordained conclusion that the loss of a key food did not matter.

Internal communications, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed a sense of growing urgency among FWS decision-makers to delist grizzly bears to appease conservative politicians at both the national and state levels (link). As if in fear of the sorcerers’ whips, FWS has maintained a drum roll of anticipation about delisting, most recently this week at agency grizzly bear meetings in Missoula (link).

During the last two years, the Tribes have entered the fray. Numerous tribal resolutions have reminded the FWS of ancient connections between grizzly bears and Native Americans, along with the agency’s duties to recognize these connections (link). The Tribes see the grizzly bear as relatives and a sport hunt as sacrilegious. Recently FWS Director Dan Ashe met with tribal leaders and apologized for his agency’s failure to fulfill consultation duties, but then went on to say that a delisting rule would be released by the end of the year anyway (link). Zombie on.

The FWS has all of the legal tools it needs to conscientiously and mindfully pursue recovery of the numerous species continuing to need protections of the ESA. They can choose to leave behind the zombie-like behaviors that have served the public, endangered species, and the long-term interests of the FWS itself so poorly. There is a way out.

First of all, the leaders of the FWS should remember that they are in charge of an administrative agency, not a lobbying firm. The FWS does not make laws, it implements those passed by Congress. The leaders of the FWS should not try to play legislative politics, dodging this way and that, anticipating what Congress will or will not do to the ESA. It is not in control anyway. Nor should it be. If these leaders want to be legislators, they should run for political office.

Second, FWS can take pride in the positive effects of endangered species protections for wildlife, ecosystems and people. ESA opponents use grizzly bears and wolves as poster children to depict how the federal government and the ESA are ruining communities and economies. Yet people are flocking to the Northern Rockies in record numbers to enjoy bears, wolves and other wildlife. Indeed, wildlife and wild places are the engines driving the economic and even cultural health of communities in the Northern Rockies region.

Third, FWS’ should revise its views of ESA’s foes based on reality and experience. In its bones, FWS leaders know that conservative politicians are not looking to make peace with the federal government or with endangered species. They are looking to make points with their radical conservative base. No number of delistings will satisfy these foes of the ESA. The sorcerers’ real goal is to starve and suffocate the FWS and any other administrative agency that has a mission of serving values other than domination and use.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, the FWS needs to realize that it has other friends and allies who are more important than the sorcerers, whose power is waning in the West. There is overwhelming support for the ESA throughout the country, where people believe we have a moral obligation to prevent species’ extinction. Last June, a poll sponsored by Earthjustice and Defenders showed that 90% of Americans strongly support the Endangered Species Act (link).

By not recognizing these basic truths, FWS has made a bad situation worse for endangered species, the ESA and the public it is supposed to serve. It has set itself up for repeated adverse court rulings, as well as protests by citizens and scientists outside as well as inside the agency. This hurts everybody, especially those with no voice. It does not have to be this way.

The FWS can easily shift its story about needing to delist grizzlies to save the ESA, to one that goes something like: “The grizzly bear is as an ESA success story even if the bears in Yellowstone are not delisted. Science shows that grizzly bears are still threatened throughout the northern Rockies, but by improving our relationships with bears and each other, we ensure a better future for all of us.”

The FWS has legal duties, a strong public constituency, and responsibilities for protecting grizzly bears and other endangered species that desperately need help. This is an agency with a life-affirming mission, and there is much to celebrate!

The leaders of the FWS might yet pursue a more fulfilling story -- maybe not for those who embody the death-oriented ethos of yesteryear, but the life-affirming view shared by most of us. With its ability to emerge in spring after seeming death, the bear itself embodies the promise of transformation.

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