States Prove Playground Bullies In Push To Delist Yellowstone Grizzly Bears
Photo by Tom Mangelsen.
State wildlife managers from Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have recently dispelled any illusions about how they intend to treat grizzly bears after wresting management control away from the federal government. Removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections will probably happen later this year and, if that happens, the states have made clear that they plan to go on a blood-letting binge involving the slaughter of hundreds of bears. They are already showing their thuggish nature in dealings with the public and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). State managers, most notably those representing Wyoming, have been the proverbial playground bullies during recent public meetings and, unfortunately, the FWS is rewarding this nastiness by acquiescing to every demand.
Not only do the states intend to allow trophy hunting, they also want a free hand to kill more grizzlies without any accountability to the national public that treasures these bears… or even any accountability to the majority of state residents who don’t support hunting grizzlies. At a meeting of grizzly bear managers earlier this month, only Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk had the courage to speak out in defense of the grizzly bears that define the nation’s oldest Park (link). Wenk objected to hunting grizzly bears in lands bordering Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The state managers who were present responded by saying, basically, “bugger off.”
The battle lines are clearly drawn. On one side, the states are representing the ethos of death and violence, slaved to the interests of hunters and ranchers. On the other, the Park Service is upholding an ethos of preservation and respect, on behalf of the broader American public. The states are about guarding the franchise of a few and their exploitative pursuits, while the Park Service is about empowering the many, who tend towards more benign, even altruistic, treatment of wildlife and wildlands.
The Park Service’s philosophy reflects a broader cultural trend towards greater inclusiveness, greater tolerance, and greater respect for those who are different—increasingly including animals. (Among other great books on the topic is Stephen Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature). This trend is reflected in the fact that, according to Acting FWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Wayne Kasworm, over 99% of the 290,000 comments submitted during May of this year to the FWS in response to its proposed removal of ESA protections opposed this move, opposed trophy hunting, and supported increased protections.
The states, which have the upper hand right now, are making no secret about their agenda or their disregard for the widespread concern about their prospective treatment of grizzly bears. A letter submitted in May to the FWS by Wyoming, Idaho and Montana makes this agenda crystal clear (link). More on this later.
As institutions, the states are obsessed with power and meting out death, which are not unrelated. State wildlife managers still adhere to the archaic view that nature must be subdued to enable economic progress and provide killing opportunities for those who find gratification in such pursuits (link). Reflecting past, more regressive times, state game agencies and their commissions are mostly for and about white guys, as evidenced in their sexualized literature that surrounds sport hunting (link). Elsewhere, I have written about the numerous times I have been belittled and ridiculed by the thugs who lead Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department, because I am a woman standing in opposition to the state’s destructive policies, and thus not an enfranchised member of their clientelle… nor apparently even worthy of being treated respectfully (link).
But nothing rankles state wildlife managers more than a perceived threat to their power from the federal government. Any federal restrictions on their ability to kill things are seen as an anathema -- especially when it comes to large carnivores such as grizzlies that these managers see as competitors for opportunities to sell licenses to hunt elk, deer, and moose (link). Never mind that they depend on welfare payments from the federal government in the form of huge annual grants. Never mind that the weight of scientific evidence shows that weather, habitat, and sport hunting govern population dynamics of large herbivores far more than does predation.
It is no surprise that the states have demanded that the FWS revoke the few requirements being imposed as a condition for removal of ESA protections and instead substitute handshake agreements. And they have demanded that the FWS eliminate provisions for triggers that could lead to reinstating ESA protections if the states fall down on the job and the bear population tanks. They also reject provisions for monitoring habitat five years after delisting, especially the current FWS requirement that such monitoring be “in perpetuity.” In essence, the states are saying “trust us” with the future of the grizzly bear, even though their historic hostility toward bears was the main reason why this species ended up as an endangered species 40 years ago.
At the recent meeting of state and federal bear managers, the states were brazen enough to press FWS even further by insisting that they be allowed to manage for a population decline. This would make grizzly bears the only species in the history of the Endangered Species Act where population decline was an explicit post-delisting goal.
The consequences of such a policy would likely be catastrophic for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, which are the members of the slowest reproducing land mammal species in North America, faced with unprecedented threats from climate change and human population growth. According to one model employed by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, the population may already be decline, the likely result of a spike in across-the-board mortality that began more than a decade ago (link). Indeed, some experts fear that the population could already be at a tipping point, headed towards a crash if bear deaths continue to mount.
Recovery Target of 500 Was “Pulled Out of the Government’s Ass”
Put simply, the current threshold of 500 bears set for determining population recovery by the FWS is far too low. And it is this number that is driving much of the states’ rhetoric as well as backing the FWS into a corner of its own making. As a bit of historical context, grizzly bears in Yellowstone were once part of a contiguous population of many thousands of grizzly bears that extended from the Bering Strait to central Mexico. But European settlers managed to wipe out over 95% of the bears in the western United States in little less than 100 years. By the time Yellowstone’s bears were given ESA protections in 1975, they were down to perhaps 300 to 350 animals totally isolated from grizzly bears anywhere else on Earth (link).
Under federal protections that prohibited hunting and excessive killing, the population had stabilized at around 350 bears by 1992 when the federal government revised its grizzly bear recovery plan. In the plan, the government adopted 500 animals as the recovery target, largely because that was considered to be a generous increase over what they thought they had at the time, with little other justification. The states, already agitating to delist the population and renew a sport hunt, resisted higher recovery numbers.
One expert, who advised the FWS in the recovery planning process, later offered this: “The FWS basically pulled this number out of its ass.” He and a number of scientists argued -- then and since -- that 500 animals, only about 27% of which are capable of breeding, was far from enough, especially since the Yellowstone population was (and is) entirely isolated.
Since 1992, scientists’ understanding of endangered species recovery has advanced greatly. Today, there is scientific consensus that an interconnected population of populations, or “meta-population”, of as many as 6,000 bears is needed to ensure long term persistence in the face of rapid change, as is occurring now (link). This would necessitate reconnecting Yellowstone to other ecosystems in the Northern Rockies, including Glacier, which boasts the largest population of grizzlies. Numerous analyses have been done showing that ample habitat is available to achieve a recovered meta-population of grizzly bears. In light of today's scientific understanding, a recovery target of 500 isolated mammals does not pass the laugh test – except where politics, rather than science, rules.
Nodding ever so slightly towards the newer science, the FWS included in its conditions for removing ESA protections a provision that limited the number of bears that could be killed by hunting, saying that if the population, now estimated at 717 animals, dropped below 674, hunting would stop. And, the agency stated that maintaining at least 600 bears is important to the population’s genetic health, and that if the population dropped to or below 500 animals, “the population would not be considered demographically recovered.” Importantly, the FWS encouraged—but did not require--connectivity between Yellowstone and other grizzly bear populations.
But the states are having none of this. Instead, they are demanding that the FWS remove all language that might even encourage managing to connect populations. They are asking that hunting be allowed to continue until the population hits 600, not 674 individuals. Perhaps most disturbing is their rejection of the FWS’ claims that a population of fewer than 500 would be considered in peril, indicating that the states may not be willing to sustain even this minimum number of bears.
Instead, the states argue that adherence to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is good enough.
The States’ Answer to Grizzly Bear Recovery: The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation
In lieu of the FWS’ meager post-delisting restrictions, the states maintain that grizzly bears would be fine because they will be governed according to principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (link). This model argues that hunters are the major if not sole drivers of wildlife conservation. The Model espouses a fanciful rendering of history in which hunters have been the primary agents of wildlife protection, and have benefited not only targeted big game species, but all other species as well. Advocates of the Model claim that this ”just so” history is a prescription for the future, and that, to be effective, conservation must be based on providing hunters and trappers hunting and trapping opportunities as repayment for their presumed ardent support of all things preservable.
But the Model is, in fact, a “just so” story designed to serve a political purpose. It is not based on a comprehensive or accurate understanding of history. Among other powerful critiques, Thomas Dunlap’s Saving America’s Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind: 1850-1990, shows wildlife conservation to be the product of efforts by non-hunters as well as hunters – and that hunters have actually persecuted and striven to eliminate a number of species under the rubric of “varmints” and “vermin”. Read: carnivores such as grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions.
It is a fact that the major wildlife and environmental laws enacted from the 1960’s to the present, including the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act, were NOT passed due to the influence of hunters, but rather due to the efforts of a broad-based national constituency. According to Department of Interior data, hunter numbers have been shrinking in recent decades, and the primary “consumers” of wildlife are increasingly those who watch, rather than kill, wildlife. Simply put, those who value wildlife alive for moral, aesthetic, spiritual and scientific reasons are the biggest force behind wildlife conservation today—not hunters or trappers.
And, even if hunters did contribute something to wildlife conservation in the past, this does not mean that they should dominate the policy process now. The fact is, as I noted earlier, those advocating preservation rather than hunting of grizzly bears constituted over 99% of those who submitted comments to the FWS during the period during which the public had an opportunity to comment on the proposal to remove ESA protections. Overwhelming opposition to delisting was similarly expressed during the last 9 public processes that occurred over the last 15 years (link). Yet the FWS and state wildlife managers are catering to less than 1% of hunters and ranchers who expressed the a desire to kill bears, under the guise of a “Model” that is, in reality, nothing more than a myth.
Knowing that they are flying in the face of public opposition, the states are now ducking the hunting issue, while attempting to rewrite history.
Of Trophy Hunting and Human-caused Mortality
Although state officials have been advocating a return to hunting grizzly bears for over 20 years, recently codified in their state plans, they asked for the first time ever in their May letter to the FWS that hunting not be mentioned in the delisting Rule. Why? Because of the tsunami of public protest against trophy hunting grizzly bears – and against trophy hunting more broadly—that has occurred in the last months and years. Since at least the early 1990s, the overwhelming majority of the American public has disapproved of killing wildlife for fun and ego-gratification, rather than for food.
It must be noted that wildlife managers in the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana have not had a change of heart. Rather, here they espouse Lefty Gomez’s epithet: “if you don’t throw it, they can’t hit it.”
As part of their plans for driving the Yellowstone grizzly bear population down to basement levels, the states are also seeking permission to kill more bears, even bears that have not been involved in conflicts with humans. Under the post-delisting Memorandum of Agreement developed by state managers, as many as 72 bears could be killed per year. To facilitate this outcome, the states are pushing the FWS to remove any mention in the Rule of excessive human-caused bear mortality as a problem -- even though this was one of the major reasons that grizzlies were listed in the first place and continue to be threatened. Ironically, all grizzly bear management agencies, including the states, have prioritized co-existence practices and voiced support for reducing bear deaths. Indeed, progress in this area has been perhaps the key reason that delisting is even being discussed today.
The states are now demanding that the FWS rewrite history, ignore science, and be silent on the need to place limits on killing bears. Instead the states want the FWS to help pave the way to killing even more bears after delisting. If the current level of killing was not enough of a problem now, the states would guarantee a crisis soon after delisting.
But wouldn’t the FWS reinstate ESA protections if the population crashes under the heel of state management? Not if the states also gets the FWS to remove any of the current provisions in the Rule that would automatically lead to a relisting process.
States Seek Responsibility without Accountability
The FWS has so far included a few triggers (which many consider inadequate) that would potentially lead to relisting. One is if the states fail to adequately fund post-delisting monitoring and management requirements. If funding is inadequate enough to indirectly jeopardize the population, the FWS currently provides assurances that it will step in and begin deliberations that could lead to relisting Yellowstone bears. The states are asking FWS to strip this provision.
The FWS also requires that the states and federal land managers commit “in perpetuity” to a post-delisting habitat monitoring program outlined in the Conservation Strategy, which is a companion document to the delisting Rule. This is a tacit admission by the FWS that the future will not necessarily look like the past, and that the government must keep watch over the quality of the bear’s habitat. The collapse of two key bear foods, whitebark pine and cutthroat trout, over the last few decades demonstrate how quickly habitat can deteriorate (link). But predictably, the states want monitoring after the usual 5-year post-delisting period to be eliminated.
The states are also requesting that all other requirements pertaining to population distribution and composition be eliminated and replaced by the Memorandum of Agreement among the states. But the MOA is a killing, not a conservation policy (link). Furthermore, the MOA is a handshake agreement, and thus completely discretionary. Given the states’ notorious anti-carnivore histories (yes, despite propaganda to the contrary, they have indeed treated carnivores badly), why should they be trusted with a handshake?
The ball is in the FWS’s court to either accept or reject the states’ demands.
Will FWS Bow to the Bullies, or Defer to the Wishes of the Broader Public?
So far, the FWS’s leaders, most notably Director Dan Ashe, have demonstrated an unqualified desire to placate the states rather than uphold the ESA when it comes to dealing with grizzly bears (link). Unprecedented public outcry on behalf of bears seems to have made no difference. Nor has harsh criticism by numerous independent scientists, including Drs. Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson. Why?
Because the FWS is enslaved to the narrative that delisting of grizzly bears (and wolves) is needed to “save” the the ESA. This seems to translate into obsequious kow-towing to the states. Elsewhere, I have written that this story has zero justification (link). Hatched in the mid-1990’s, the narrative has taken on a life of its own and is now embedded in the culture of the FWS where it seems impervious to critical examination.
As outrageous, the FWS’s point person for delisting Yellowstone grizzly bears is Deputy Regional Director Matt Hogan, who was formerly the head lobbyist of Safari Club International, one of the hunting groups that stand to benefit directly from a grizzly bear trophy hunting (link). And equally outrageously, the FWS also contracted with a company that services the oil and gas industry, headed up by an ex-Haliburton executive, to conduct the scientific peer review of the delisting Rule (link). The reviewers predictably gave the Rule a green light. Conflict of interest, anyone?
In response, the Oglala Sioux, one of fifty Tribes opposed to delisting, have requested a Congressional investigation of the matter (link). The Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) letter says: “the FWS is not, the evidence suggests, conducting the process in good faith with either the OST or any other tribal nation.” Or the rest of the nation, I would add.
Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, who has yet to respond, should see this as an opportunity to correct the FWS’ tragic course on delisting, and support the Park Service’s efforts to introduce some sanity in the process. It is the centennial of the National Park Service, after all. She should respect the views of the Tribes, and comply with legal requirements to consult with them on the fate of the bear. She should heed the advice of scientists who advocate caution. She should uphold principles of democracy and serve the interests of the majority of Americans who want to see the grizzly bear protected, not hunted. And she should clean house at the FWS while she is at it.