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  • Louisa Willcox

New Fire in the Battle for Yellowstone's Grizzly Bears

Photo by Gary Shockey.

New fire is burning in the battle for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Just a year ago, it appeared the government was going to ramrod the decision to remove Endangered Species Act protections without a whole lot of opposition. But, for many wildlife advocates, a sense of redoubled enthusiasm and commitment has replaced defeat and despair – with good reason.

Collectively, over half a million people have signed various petitions opposed to stripping endangered species protections for the grizzly bear. More than 99% of the comments submitted on the delisting rule opposed delisting and supported stronger protections. Scientists came out of the woodwork too, providing scathing critiques of the delisting proposal. And a new movement on social media is taking the government by storm and transforming the debate. It is worth understanding how this transformation of the public debate happened, especially because it informs other efforts for protecting wolves, bison, and biodiversity writ large.

What is the grizzly bear debate about? On the uber level, it is about a struggle between an old way of viewing nature as something to be dominated, controlled, killed if it gets in the way, versus a new, but in fact more ancient, way of relating to nature, with reverence, respect, and humility. Wolves, grizzly bears and bison are lightning rods in this battle between the light and the dark, habitual patterns of violence and aggression and new, more compassionate ones that embrace all of creation. Just as police shootings and the presidential election are focusing a national conversation about how we as a society want to relate to one another, so the debates over wolves, grizzly bears and bison focus our attention on how we want to relate to the “wild other.”

But, first, where are we with the delisting issue, what are some highlights from the last year, and what are some coming attractions?

Primer on Delisting

The government has been trying since 1992 to strip federal endangered species protections from Yellowstone’s bears. At root, this was driven by the states’ visceral demand to hold primary management authority over all wildlife, which is a code word for hunting and killing – something the northern Rockies states are especially good at when it comes to large carnivores (link). Industry wanted this outcome too, because it makes it easier to develop, not just grizzly bear habitat, but habitat needed to sustain a host of other animals, including sage grouse, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and bison.

Other states in other parts of the country have softened their approach to wildlife. California is a good example, with its ban on mountain lion hunting and bobcat trapping. But not so Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Here we still have state wildlife agencies driven economically by hunting licenses and controlled by hunters and agriculture. To these states, delisting is a devoutly desired outcome, because they can hunt and kill more bears to satisfy clients, who happen to be almost exclusively ranchers and hunters. In current state governance there is no room for the rest of us, people who value grizzly bears simply because they exist.

Interestingly, the federal government has been complicit in all this, because they see the states as their primary “client”, not the American public. And they espouse a narrative – no, a belief system -- that we need to delist threatened species to save the Endangered Species Act. This story especially targets wolves and grizzly bears, which are seen by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) as the brass rings of success (link). But there is zero evidence to back this story. Opponents of the ESA do NOT lighten up and support the Act when species are delisted, as we saw so clearly in the case of wolves.

Wyoming’s governor Matt Mead provides additional proof that delisting species does nothing to defang the ESA’s enemies. The same month that the FWS announced it was moving ahead with grizzly bear delisting -- a move intended to placate him along with other ESA opponents -- Mead held a mock hearing in Cody featuring stereophonic whining by ranchers and energy executives to set the stage for gutting the ESA (link). And voila, recently, he unveiled his ideas and those of the Western Governors Association which would, if passed, accomplish his vision (link).

To Mead and other conservatives, the real prize is dismantling government (link). And the ESA is perceived by them as the 9th circle of hell when it comes to “interference” by the federal government. Delisting is good, but not enough. The FWS narrative that delisting wins support of ESA opponents is delusional, because opponents desire something else.

But, grizzly bears are still listed. And the reasons why they need to be protected have mounted since 1992 when the FWS first announced its intent to delist. Some of biggest reasons include an absence of accountability on the part of state managers after delisting, and the amount of habitat where development constraints will be removed. The ecosystem is also unraveling for bears – and a warming future promises worse conditions.

Litigation has been the main reason why the FWS’s relentless efforts to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies have been thwarted, starting with the successful challenge of the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, decided in 1995. Then there was the litigation of the last delisting rule issued in 2007, and other successful challenges as well of at least 15 decisions authored by Chris Servheen, the mean-spirited, recently retired FWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator. What sets this litigation apart from other environmental cases is the heavy reliance on science, at one time related to the detrimental effects of road access, but most recently focused on the collapse of whitebark pine.

A New Bear Spirit Movement

What happened during the last year to turn things around? Two new and potent bear forces have emerged. I am not talking here about reliable stalwarts such as the Sierra Club, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Humane Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Wild Earth Guardians, and Cougar Fund, which are doing important work -- but new forces that are the source of fresh creative juice.

Perhaps the most fundamentally important of these forces is a movement towards personal intimacy with bears--towards seeing bears as closely connected. A bear spirit movement? Multitudes of people come to places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton to see bears up close and personal, hopefully safely, many along the roadsides. And there are many who have never seen these bears in the flesh, but who resonate with the Great Bear, and who know how vulnerable they are to exploitation of their habitat, and to trophy hunting, and to heavy handed management by the states.

These opportunities for the multitudes to experience the joy of seeing grizzlies were largely made possible by a decision by the Park Service 20 years ago to no longer haze bears away from roads. These opportunities are also creating safe niches for momma grizzly bears, who are choosing to stay near roadsides in the company of people, in an effort to avoid aggressive male bears who potentially threaten their cubs. And the upshot is not just the immeasurable joy of park visitors, but also a real reciprocal relationship between people and bears. I have called today’s army of roadside photographers, whether equipped with a smart phone or a mega lens, today’s cave painters, capturing the essence of bear in a spirit of celebration (link).

This bear spirit movement is expressing itself politically primarily through social media—which takes me to Don’t Delist Grizzlies and their extended family. This Facebook group includes thousands of informed members who are passionately focused on stopping delisting (link). It was founded just six months ago by Michelle Ida Bean, Carole Deech and Dawn Hatch in response to the killing last summer in Yellowstone of Blaze, a grizzly bear mother of two cubs. (More on them later).

Michelle is a former attorney and a blogger, Carole works in local government (as does another administrator, Marianne Burdick). Dawn Hatch is a Legal Assistant and a Texas Certified Master Naturalist. Another administrator, Mary, designs the group’s graphics.

Michelle Ida Bean has this to say about Don’t Delist Grizzlies: “None of our five administrators live in or near the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Some of us have visited the area while others of us have never been there. All of us have cared about wildlife for decades. Because we cannot be here in person, we use social media to reach out to each other and to people like us all over the country. We have attracted very active members from Europe, Canada and Asia.”

According to the group’s bio, “When the delisting plan came out, we decided not to wait for someone else to stop it. Instead, we founded the Facebook group, Don’t Delist Grizzlies, with the sole purpose of advocating against the delisting of Yellowstone grizzlies. We felt that the group could help raise awareness, act as a hub for information and provide activists with tactics to try and stop the delisting.”

Don’t Delist Grizzlies is not the only social media power to rise out of Blaze’s tragic death, as evidenced in the multiple petitions (7 at last count) aimed at protecting Yellowstone’s bears. Of particular note is the work of Richard Spratley, an amateur photographer and outdoorsman who comes up to Yellowstone when he can, and works full time in manufacturing in Denver.

Here is what he says about himself: “Not only can I make a larger impact by reaching more and more people and fellow advocates, but I can also see and act on many more causes. I fight for all animals across the globe, but there is a special place in my heart for Grizzlies and Wolves that I may tend to put a little more effort into. When 760 was killed [he was a grandcub of the famous mother grizzly 399, killed senselessly by Wyoming Game & Fish two years ago], my advocacy game was brought to an entirely different level. I started to meet people and network with people and organization who were heavy hitters in this area. I started making much more of an impact and getting much more exposure. Although I wish I could put more time into it than I do, I feel great about what I do each and every day. Something is better than nothing!”

There is another social media group, Friends of 760 Grizzly Bear, who formed in response to that bear’s death, and who work to prevent similar outrages perpetrated by state wildlife managers. They too have taken on delisting. Their founders include health practitioner Cindy Campbell and poet Lyn Dalebout.

The point is that, for the most part, these are not people with advanced degrees in wildlife ecology, nor are they staff of a big NGO, nor people with a lot of spare time. These are people with other jobs, who are passionate and informed, and want to make a difference. And they have.

Their arguments for reverence and respect for wild nature closely parallel those being made by the Tribes.

GOAL Tribal Coalition: Fighting for Grizzlies and Tribal Sovereignty

The second important new force for bears is represented by the Tribes (link). In a few short years, the GOAL Tribal Coalition has emerged as the largest tribal alliance in North America, with 50 plus Tribes united in the cause of preserving bears as well as tribal sovereignty. This miraculous unification of a such a large number of diverse tribes around a single cause would never have happened but for the creative vision of Cheyenne Sundance Priest Don Shoulderblade and his nephew Rain Bear Stands Last -- not to mention Rain’s wife Sara and their daughter Tashia, who at the age of 12, coined the phrase “no biz without the griz.”

Their board and advisers include prominent leaders of the Native Community: Chairman David Bearhield (Cheyenne Arapaho), Tom Poor Bear (Oglala Lakota), Ben Nuvumsa (Hopi), James Walks Along (Northern Cheyenne, and Arvol Looking Horse, 19 Generation Keeper of the Sacred Pipe.

Not only is GOAL fearless, inventive and strategic, they are using laws such as the Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Historic Preservation Act to empower tribal concerns related to grizzly bears and consultation of them by the federal government. The government is learning the hard way not to mess with tribes like Northern Cheyenne and Sioux -- remember what they did to Custer.

On a personal note, I can say that working with GOAL over the last few years has encouraged me to express myself in ways I never would have before. I am grateful for their helping to deprogram me from my habit of leaning too much on science and policy for my language, and to speak more of my own spiritual connection with bears.

The point is that most of us want bears, not only because they are barometers of the health of the ecosystems where they live, but also because they matter to our spirit. And they have intrinsic worth as fellow travelers on this planet. It turns out they are also a lot like us, in how they can walk on their hind feet, nurture their young for multiple years, and eat the same foods that we do – but also, love, play, and grieve their dead, as the celebrity grizzly mom known as 399 did earlier this summer when her cub was killed by a hit-and-run driver. The Tribes are doing stunning work, transforming the debate and soon taking on the government’s disregard and disrespect in the legal arena. Racism, in all its forms, cannot be condoned.

So, more specifically, what role has these new forces played?

Cecil’s Legacy: Of Blaze and Proposals to Delist and Hunt Grizzlies

Remember Cecil the lion, killed outside Hwange Park in South Africa by a Minnesota dentist to feed his ego? The incident exploded on social media in an expression of outrage about trophy killing. Trophy hunting is not about subsistence, or anything that could be defined as a legitimate human need. Trophy killing is about personal glorification, mostly done by white guys with small hands, to borrow Marco Rubio’s quip about Donald Trump.

Cecil set the stage for what happened last summer in Yellowstone, a tsunami of protest about a mother bear and her two cubs—a female that was initially thought to be a celebrity known as Blaze but turned out not to be. The momma bear killed a man, Lee Crosby. Reports by government investigators confirm that he had surprised her and that she reacted defensively to protect her cubs. But rather than accommodate her and her cubs, the Park Service chose to kill her and was poised to kill the cubs. Until thousands of people protested, asking: “why can’t bears be bears in a national park?”

Richard Spratley initiated what became a deluge of 150,000 messages to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk in just a few days. The subsequent flood saved the innocent cubs, who are now in a zoo. Wenk is still smarting over his flesh wounds that contributed to his opposition, along with David Vela of Grand Teton Park, to state-sponsored hunting of grizzly bears right outside Park boundaries.

The state-sponsored wolf hunt also contributed to Wenk’s partial conversion. Wolves that have lived largely inside Park borders are being slaughtered as soon as they dare step over the line. These are research wolves that include celebrities such as Limpy and 06, as well as anonymous non-celebrities that are beloved only by members of their own pack -- killed outside the parks in a palpable manifestation of the states’ complete lack of sensitivity to the values of non-hunting wildlife watchers.

The second big event of the last year was the release in March by the FWS of a rule to delist grizzly bears, along with a Memorandum of Agreement written by the states for managing bears after delisting. It turns out that as many as 72 bears out of an initial population of perhaps 700 could be killed by hunting each year. And it also turned out that last year was the most lethal for grizzly bears of any on record, with an estimated total of 85 bears killed (link)-- and this with a population still under federal protection. As a side note, we are well on the way to another record year, with an estimated total of 35 bears dead so far. And this on top of a decade of unsustainably high mortality (link).

The states clearly revealed their intentions and brazen thuggery in comments that they jointly submitted on the FWS’s proposed rule (link). They asked the FWS to be relieved of any accountability post-delisting for the number of bears they might chose to kill as well as any mandate for monitoring the population and its habitat monitoring 5 years following delisting. The states want power with no accountability other than to resident ranchers and hunters who hold their purse-strings and political tether. They are despotic anti-carnivore institutions, devoted to the purpose of killing things, and should not have the keys to the car of grizzly bear management.

On the other hand, the volume of pro-bear social, conventional, and other media in response to the FWS’s delisting proposal was enormous and attention-getting. This was not lost on government. Their media hacks have howled ever since about the extent to which our side is dominating the media air waves.

There is also fierce opposition by many scientists, including Drs. Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson, as well as professional societies such as the Society for Conservation Biology and American Society of Mammologists. And opposition by retired federal managers, including Tim Bozorth, former Bureau of Land Management District Manager, Mike Finley former Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and Sam Jojola, a law enforcement officer retired from the FWS. These managers maintain that the states cannot be trusted with the public’s precious bears.

And, finally, a schmush of three events, packed into April and May of 2016, gob-smacked grizzly bear managers…

Scarface, Jane Goodall and State Hunts: Escalating Outrage

First, the death of Scarface was belatedly reported by managers in April. Scarface was a gentle giant of a bear, who lived by the roads in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and was beloved by many. He was killed right outside YNP’s border by a big game hunter last fall, but the news was kept from the public for 6 long months. His death is one of 20 in 2015 alone that are under investigation for possible poaching. Like the Spirit of Christmas future, Scarface symbolizes what will happen more often, “legally,” after delisting. Needless-to-say, news of the bear’s death unleashed a fury on social media.

Then there was the move by Wyoming and Montana to finalize their rules for hunting grizzly bears in breathless anticipation of delisting. Both rules generated even more outrage, especially among the Tribes. During one hearing in Cody on Wyoming’s proposed rule one cowboy said, to laughter and an ovation: “if we don’t delist grizzlies, we may as give the land back to the Indians and sail back across the ocean.” Not unlike with Trump and his followers, the impulse to kill grizzlies is intertwined with a culture saturated in racism, sexism, and even brutality.

And then there was a letter signed by 60 scientists, led by Jane Goodall. This sparked even more media attention, encapsulated in this headline in The Guardian: “Can Jane Goodall Stop a $50 Grizzly Bear Tag?”

As an upshot, the government is on its back heel. The states are now trying to duck the hunting issue, while not actually conceding anything related to their post-delisting killing plans (link).

The fierce opposition to delisting has also helped make it safe for the conservation NGOs that had been on the fence to come out against delisting, especially the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Parks and Conservation Association. Nothing like government overreach to unite its adversaries.

But there is a long slog ahead. We still exist in that twilight zone between the light and the dark--the ethos of death and control versus the ethos of life, respect, and relatedness. Many of us face the challenge of staying engaged without burning out.

Who Gets to Have a Voice in Conservation of Grizzlies?

So, who gets to have a voice in grizzly bear management? The states would limit that voice to in-state hunters and ranchers and disenfranchise everybody else, including the national constituents for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. The fact is that grizzly bears, like wolves and bison, are species of national concern and interest—animals that we all care for, whether descendants of Natives who have lived here for thousands of years or summer visitors from New York. All of us. These species will be forever vulnerable to habitat exploitation and the excesses of state wildlife managers. We can never turn our back on them and call the work done.

So aside from continued protections of the ESA, how can we institutionalize a new system nationally that protects these species? There is the Bald Eagle Protection Act, but does that mean we need to pass national legislation for each species?

Towards Kinder, Gentler States

More fundamentally, how do we go about reforming state wildlife management agencies, recognizing that state managers have important legal authority, even if bears are kept on the endangered species list. They can be stupid and callous, like when they murdered 760, the grandcub of 399. And they can do good things, as in the numerous instances when they supported the installation of bear-proof garbage dumpsters. The challenge is to get the regional states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana to do less killing and more coexistence work, as other states have done.

As Stephen Pinker points out in Better Angels of Our Nature, time is on our side. He argues that worldwide we have become less violent, more compassionate of the “other”, people of other races, genders, and beliefs, although you might not know it to read the papers. The next frontier, he argues, is extending our moral universe to include animals -- nothing new to the Tribes of course.

The narrative of reverence and respect for nature will prevail over domination and killing, although we may not see this fruition in our lifetimes -- and even if, as author Ed Abbey exhorted us, some of the younger among us will have to simply outlive the bastards.

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