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  • Louisa Willcox

Park Service Stands Up for Grizzlies and Us

Last week, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park Superintendents, Dan Wenk and David Vela, spoke out publicly for the first time about their concerns regarding the impact of state-sponsored hunting of grizzly bears that split time between Parks and adjacent non-park lands. Hunting is not yet a part of the literal or figurative landscape for Yellowstone grizzly bears, but once these bears lose Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections—prospectively as soon as this spring—the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho plan to jump on the opportunity to implement a sport hunt that could kill as many as 30 bears in the next year alone.

In last week’s Jackson Hole News and Guide, Andrew White, a spokesperson for Wenk and Vela said, “We are concerned about the potential harvest of grizzly bears adjacent to Grand Teton… this is a very important issue that may negatively affect grizzlies using the park as well as bear-viewing opportunities for visitors.” (link).

For agency careerists such as Wenk and Vela, it was a gutsy move. The kind of move you don’t risk unless you have exhausted all other communication channels. Because public expression of this kind of concern not only takes on sport hunting—a proverbial sacred cow—but also puts you crosswise with a sister federal agency. The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which currently has authority over Yellowstone’s grizzlies, is pushing removal of ESA protections as hard and fast as it can and, along with it, the implementation of a sport hunt. For Wenk and Vela, life could get a whole lot more complicated and stressful.

Management of Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears has always been a lightning-rod issue, with currents running to Washington DC and the state capitals of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. With the states chafing to wrest management authority over grizzly bears from the federal government, the stakes are high.

The first bears to be killed in a trophy sport hunt are likely to be celebrities such as Grizzly 399 that make their living along roadsides in Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks, where they give thousands of visitors the thrill of a lifetime. These tolerant bears, which live partly on National Forest lands outside parks, would be especially vulnerable to hunting if federal protections are lifted later this year. These bears are comfortable with people and would be relatively easy to find. Moreover, certain local thugs have stated outright that they will be out to kill these much-beloved grizzlies—out of spite (link).

In raising concerns about the hunt, the Park Service is responding to the popularity of roadside bears, as well as the public outcry in response to the trophy hunting of wolves along park boundaries in Wyoming and Montana. These wolves are protected inside the parks but freely available to be shot by hunters along park boundaries since federal protections of wolves were removed in 2011. (Wyoming’s wolves iare protected again, for now).

The recent killing of Cecil the lion outside a park in Zimbabwe similarly precipitated outrage around the world. And, Yellowstone officials are still smarting from unprecedented public fury expressed at their decision last summer to kill Blaze, a mother grizzly bear that had killed a man in defense of her two cubs. (Yellowstone managers responded by sending her cubs to a zoo in Toledo, Ohio).

The Park Service’s decision to speak out on the sport hunt comes at a time when FWS is poised to release a draft rule that will remove ESA protections for grizzly bears. So far, the Park Service has been ignored by the states and FWS in their rush to develop policies and set quotas for a grizzly bear hunt. Which is odd given that the Park Service manages over two million acres of grizzly bear habitat at the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is critical to long-term conservation of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. More to the point, it is shameful that the Park Service has not yet been granted a seat at the table. More on this later.

The Parks’ Roadside Bears: Into Our Hearts

For many years, the Park Service has allowed grizzly bears to live along roads that wind through Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks. This habitat is an important niche for females looking to protect their cubs from aggressive male bears that can kill their offspring—and which tend to hang back from roads. The Parks’ roadside bears have proved to be very tolerant of people and are not aggressive. People have responded with delight. And the Park Service has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the public behaves responsibly and keeps respectful distances (link).

The upshot is that park visitors are connecting with grizzly bears in more intimate ways, learning about their lives and families, and sharing their stories. These relationships take expression in the social media which has exploded around celebrity bears such as Grizzly 399, made yet more famous in a recent book by Tom Mangelson and Todd Wilkinson.

It would be no surprise to ancient people who lived among grizzly bears that they have personalities, quirks, backstories, and bad days – just like us. But for park visitors, many who come with little previous exposure to wild nature, these are new ideas. Simply put, seeing a grizzly bear up close and personal can be a heart opening experience.

Regardless of your perspective, these relationships make it harder for government wildlife managers to kill them with impunity.

States and the Ethos of Manifest Destiny

In contrast to the approach of the Park Service, state managers are concerned more with abstractions such as population numbers and hunt quotas. Ironically, the parks’ roadside bear policy threatens state managers because it undercuts their depersonalized, controlling approach to managing wildlife. Dan Thompson of Wyoming Game and Fish Department summed up this viewpoint: “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of.” (link).

State managers have long displayed a tough-minded view of wildlife in general and grizzly bears in particular. Wyoming officials have been leading the charge to remove federal protections and renew a grizzly bear hunt since 1992. In an effort to force progress on delisting, the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho sent a letter to FWS director Dan Ashe, dated December 7, 2015, saying that delays in delisting are “needlessly straining relationships vital to responsible grizzly bear management” (link).

It is no wonder that the Tribes, which consider hunting grizzly bears to be an anathema, see the states as an anachronistic bastion of Manifest Destiny—an ethos that perpetrated their own genocide and that of the buffalo and grizzlies. To the Tribes, grizzly bears are seen as relatives, healers and guides. A coalition of 41 Tribes (link) have mobilized to question not only the entire delisting agenda, but also the government’s disrespectful treatment of themselves and their relatives the grizzly bears. They are not the only ones.

As I said earlier, the stakes are high. After delisting, officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana will answer only to a minority of people who see nature largely as something to be dominated and used, and who primarily identify with agriculture, energy development and hunting. In the decision-making process, who will represent a philosophy of respect and reverence for nature? Answer: no one.

That is why what the Park Service did last week is so important. Aside from the Tribes (the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho actually own a big chunk of grizzly bear habitat around Yellowstone), the Park Service is the only entity that so far has expressed concern about what non-hunters and “nonconsumptive” users think regarding grizzly bears. Said another way, this is the only public agency that has stepped up so far to represent the interests of Grizzly 399 and her kind.

Why Isn’t Fish and Wildlife Service Protecting Grizzly Bears?

I mentioned earlier that the states and FWS have been setting hunt quotas and developing post-delisting policies without involving the Park Service. Most egregiously, a recently leaked draft Memorandum of Agreement, which purports to divvy up opportunities to kill delisted grizzly bears, makes no explicit mention of a role or place for National Parks (link). Nonetheless, this document was agreed to in principle by the states and FWS director Dan Ashe (link).

The assumption seems to be that the Park Service would, without fuss, supply grizzly bears that the states could then dispose of by hunting or killing in other ways.

What is going on? Why it is OK to ignore the National Parks, the engine that drives recovery of grizzly bears in the entire ecosystem? Especially given that FWS is charged by the Endangered Species Act with the recovery of endangered species and protection of the ecosystems that these species depend upon. And when, moreover, the National Park Service is a sister agency nested inside the Department of Interior.

FWS is legally bound to protect grizzly bears. And it is supposed to cooperate closely with the National Parks rather than ignore them – especially when they are flagship parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton involving high-profile species such as grizzly bears.

What the heck explains the FWS’s reckless disregard for the Park Service? There is no answer other than a political one.

As I have previously discussed in detail, FWS has enslaved itself to its perceived political masters in state government (link). The most recent proof of FWS priorities can be seen in a piece of pure political propaganda co-written last month by FWS Director Dan Ashe and Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and published in the Jackson Hole News and Guide (link). The piece promoted delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears by over-stating common ground and dismissing naysayers outright.

Its complete lack of content was noteworthy. No mention of science, even though that is what the decision to delist presumably rests on. No nod to the Endangered Species Act’s legal benchmarks and how they think they have been met. No recognition that their audience includes many people who cherish their experiences with Grizzly 399 and her offspring, and look forward to seeing them again this spring and many springs to come. People who are legitimately worried about what will happen to these bears if a hunt is opened up.

Mead and Ashe conveniently do not mention that for over two decades, the public has consistently and overwhelmingly opposed delisting and hunting grizzly bears. In seven separate processes, when asked how they view bears and how bears should be managed, people have said “no” to delisting and argued for a more cautious and compassionate approach (link).

It should be noted that besides gunning for grizzlies, the states have long been trying to gut the Endangered Species Act. As recently as December, 2015, Governor Mead held a mock hearing on why the Act has presumably been a failure, featuring stories of grizzly bears (link).

While fighting the states on some fronts, FWS has been doing much of their dirty work on others, especially when it comes to grizzly bears and wolves. And to some inside FWS, delisting grizzly bears is seen as a political prize, a career capstone.

But when you are a public servant working for Fish and Wildlife Service, protecting imperiled species that have no voice should be the vital thing – not pursuing political power or promoting your career. Science shows that these bears are still vulnerable (link). Plus they have lives. Bears are not widgets.

The Park Service has, for now anyway, stood up for Yellowstone’s grizzlies and their fans. We need to stand with them.

Expanding Our Moral Universe

Park Service officials may not be consciously aware of it, but they are tapping into a shift in attitudes that has been underway for a long time. More and more, people are recognizing that animals have feelings – joy, pain, grief, tenderness – just like we do. The idea of inflicting pain or hunting animals for personal gratification, not food, is being questioned as never before.

As author Stephen Pinker points out in his authoritative Better Angels of Our Nature, violence around the world has been declining, as humans live increasingly packed together in cities with others from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. He shows how humans have expanded their moral universe to include the rights of children, women, other races, those with other religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Pinker believes that the next frontier includes animals, and that the process is already underway.

Pinker is one of many who see this trend. In his theory of moral progress, Peter Singer philosophizes that we human beings are on the path of extending our circle of living things, from kin and allies, to other species and all sentient life.

It is a fact that blood sports, such as bull fighting and fox hunting, are on the wane, and hunting generally -- whereas wildlife watching is on the rise. So to vegetarianism. Farmers markets are popping up in response to increasing demand for more locally grown food. Young people are growing up with the intertwined ideas of improving health and reducing environmental harm, including harm to animals.

The possibility of an uproar of unprecedented proportions over the hunting death of Grizzly 399 or any other Park bear is very real. Park Service managers are right to be concerned. Here, they represent the interests of all of us, not the few who will be at the table after delisting.

This year is the centennial birthday of the National Park system, which many consider America’s best idea. What better time to give Yellowstone and Grand Teton a break, and include them in a fair democratic process to manage grizzly bears. Many say that democracy was another great American idea. Here, the Park Service deserves a taste of that too.

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