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  • Louisa Willcox

Government Threatens Yellowstone Grizzly Bear's Future in Push to Delist

On September 7, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) opened yet another month-long period during which the public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed removal of Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears (“delisting”) (link). Delisting would lead to the eventual renew a trophy hunt of grizzly bears for the first time in 40 years.

This renewed comment opportunity represents a weak attempt by agencies to clean up a process that has become a pig’s breakfast. Last spring, when the FWS first released the delisting rule, the state plans to manage bears after delisting had not yet been finalized, and the outdated 2006 Conservation Strategy, designed to guide the monitoring of bears and bear habitat on public lands after delisting, had not been revised. Recognizing its error, the agency promised to let the public comment yet again on delisting when these plans had been revised.

But the Conservation Strategy and Idaho’s state plan are still not done—and will not be done—prior to closure of the public comment period on October 7. In rushing the process, the FWS, flogged by the states, has created a procedural mess. The Forest Service, Park Service, and states are still slogging through revisions in the Conservation Strategy. And, unlike Montana and Wyoming, the state of Idaho has balked at revising its obsolete 2002 plan because the plan has to be approved by the state legislature – a step which would likely delay delisting until sometime next year.

Thus, in the current (and probably last) opportunity to comment, the public will not be able to evaluate whether post-delisting management is adequate to sustain Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. At the same time, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which conducts all research on Yellowstone’s bears, has stopped disclosing violations of mortality thresholds for the first time ever, so managers and the public will have no ready way to know whether too many bears are being killed and if corrective measures are needed. This comes at a time when grizzly bear deaths have gone through the roof (link).

Question: Why the rush? Answer: Regional politics. Indeed political pressure from the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho has emerged as the number one influence over FWS decisions (link) – rather than science, as the Endangered Species Act requires.

The states are obsessed with wresting power from the federal government (link), and the FWS is complicit in supporting their aims to open a trophy hunt and kill more bears (link). The only agency that is standing up for bears is the National Park Service (NPS), which is concerned about the effects of hunting on the periphery of the Parks, as well as excessive killing being planned by the states (link). But the NPS, especially Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, is being elbowed out of the way by the other agencies in their current frenzy to delist.

But Yellowstone grizzly bears today face a world of mounting threats, including a warming climate, ever more humans, poorly managed livestock, sloppy and incautious big game hunters, and isolation from other bear populations.

It is sad, but true, that without the vital safety net provided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Yellowstone’s vulnerable grizzly bears will likely be pushed back to the brink of extinction. Delisting is premature and needlessly risks the future of the grizzly bear in and around our nation’s oldest park.

Yellowstone’s current population of roughly 650 to 750 grizzly bears is much smaller than the 2000+ animals widely considered by experts to be necessary for long-term viability (link). Altogether, the five remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower-48 states number perhaps 1800, a mere 1-2% of the 100,000 grizzly bears that once roamed the contiguous U.S. in a range that was formerly 100 times larger.

The federal government plans on deliberately perpetuating this precarious situation, even though it means trucking bears into Yellowstone virtually every years to deal with genetic problems, and trusting state wildlife management agencies that have notoriously anti-carnivore track records.

We can do better. Yellowstone grizzly bears can be reconnected naturally to the more robust grizzly bear populations that live in Canada and lands surrounding Glacier National Park. But with mounting numbers of ranchettes, second homes, and hunters prospectively in pursuit of a grizzly bear trophy, the window of opportunity to link these grizzly populations is closing fast.

Caught Between Love and Aggression

The grizzly bear has been called “uncle,” “grandmother,” and “healer” by native peoples around the world, whereas the European-given Latin name, Ursus arctos horribilis, bespeaks a more negative, fear-based relationship.

Today, while more people embrace protecting wild animals and their ecosystems, views of grizzly bears are still conflicted. Just as families flock to Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear in the flesh, ranchers outside the parks pressure state officials to kill them to protect their cows. More fundamentally, the debate about grizzly bear delisting is about competing values, one oriented to life, the other death.

With the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, we as a nation rejected the ethos of domination that had resulted in the slaughter of wolves, bison, grizzly bears, and other species. We chose to embrace instead an attitude of respect and reverence for nature. Without the ESA’s protections, including a prohibition against hunting, grizzly bears would likely have been relegated to just a few bears hanging on in the confines of Yellowstone Park.

But under the ESA’s umbrella, grizzly bear numbers have probably doubled in Yellowstone since protections were instituted in 1975 (link). Population growth has been particularly slow because grizzly bears have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any terrestrial mammal; a female in Yellowstone is lucky to replace herself with another reproductive female in her lifetime.

That the population has increased is cause for celebration. But bears are not out of the woods yet. Their future lies in our hands and in our practice of tolerance. Codifying respect for nature, the ESA has helped resolve our conflicted views about grizzly bears, but all bets are off if protections are removed.

An Unraveling Ecosystem, Leading to More Grizzly Killing

As scientists teach us, and as Native peoples know full well, the grizzly bear serves as a window into the complexity of entire ecosystems. The bear eats everything from ants to bison plus hundreds of plants in between. It knows when and where foods are most palatable, and it monitors them constantly for their nutritional quality, teaching their cubs to do the same. To win the seasonal war of calories, in preparation for hibernation and winter birthing, the grizzly bear has to be a champion forager, which means keenly observing the subtlest details of the natural world.

We humans also have long watched what the bears ate, and followed suit. Foods that fatten bears sustain us as well: salmon, acorns, bison, elk, moose, berries, and pine seeds. In Yellowstone, grizzlies have historically depended on just four key foods for most of their energy and nutrients: seeds from whitebark pine, meat from elk and bison, army cutworm moths, and cutthroat trout (link).

Tragically, since between roughly 1995 and the early 2000s, two of these critical bear foods have been essentially wiped out (link). Trout in Yellowstone Lake have been victims of drought, climate warming and predation by a nonnative fish. Mature cone-producing whitebark pine have been clobbered by the spread of a non-native fungal disease called blister rust and by an unprecedented climate-driven outbreak of bark beetles.

That leaves only two of the historically most important bear foods: ungulates (mostly elk and bison) and army cutworm moths. Yet even these foods are diminished or severely threatened. Most elk populations have declined dramatically from highs reached during the 1990s and early 2000s, and moths are imperiled by the projected disappearance of their alpine haunts during the next 50 to 100 years (link).

Meanwhile, bears have been compensating for loss of pine seeds and trout by eating more meat, especially from cows and the remains of hunter-killed elk. Despite protestations of government “experts" that omnivorous grizzlies can survive on anything, dandelions and mushrooms don’t cut it (link). Unfortunately, with the turn to meat, trouble with livestock operators and hunters has mounted, resulting in dramatic increases in the numbers of grizzlies dying each year because of meat-related conflicts (link).

In fact, mortality rates are now at unsustainable levels, with 2015 shattering the record for grizzly bear deaths at a time when the population has stopped growing (link). Federal data shows that the population may indeed be declining, and possibly at a tipping point (link).

Grizzly bears remind us of what John Muir famously wrote: you can’t “…pick out anything by itself [without finding] it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

There is a bottom line to all of this. Now could not be a worse time to remove ESA protections. Yellowstone’s grizzly bears need access to a lot more wild country to compensate for the loss of critical foods. They also need continued protections, incentives, and resources offered by the ESA.

Absent federal control and oversight, the states have little inclination and few resources to deal with mounting conflicts. Worse yet, these states intend to use a sport hunt and freer killing of bears involved in conflicts to deliberately reduce the size and distribution of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population.

Indeed, the central problem with delisting is that grizzly bears would be managed by anti-carnivore states.

State Management: Of Domination and Handshake Agreements

Wildlife management in western states continues to be organized around controlling nature and killing large carnivores to produce a “harvestable surplus” of elk, deer, and other large herbivores. More to the point, wildlife managers in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are locked down in service of a politically influential minority who place top priority on opportunities to hunt big game (link). The interests of outdoor enthusiasts who prize anything other than hunting are not represented on the commissions or among the leaders of the state wildlife management agencies.

State managers commonly see large carnivores as tacit competitors for big game hunting licenses, which are the cash cow of these agencies (link). This despite the fact that there is no evidence that carnivores typically harm big game populations -- and plenty showing that excessive hunting does have major negative impacts, along with climate change and drought.

Nonetheless, sport hunting has been used during recent decades by state managers to drive down populations of mountain lions and wolves, and accounts for roughly 70-80% of adult carnivore deaths in the Northern Rockies. State managers will almost certainly treat grizzly bears in the same ways as they do other large carnivores -- which will preclude ever securing connections between ecosystems.

This is especially true given the inherently slow pace at which grizzly bears colonize new habitats, primarily due to the tendency of young females to stay in or near their mothers’ range. (This lack of resilience contrasts with that of wolves and mountain lions, which reproduce at higher rates, and readily colonize areas hundreds of miles away.)

For these and other reasons, grizzly bears will be acutely vulnerable to the effects of sport hunting. Moreover, the first bears to be killed will be those on the periphery of ecosystem best positioned to connect with other bear populations, as well as the highly popular and tolerant bears that frequent roads inside National Parks and occasionally range into non-park jurisdictions.

One big problem with the plans developed by state agencies to manage grizzly bears after delisting is that there is no binding commitments to do anything other than hunt bears. Despite some laudatory language on coexistence, all suggestions are voluntary.

The same is true of the post-delisting Conservation Strategy (CS). As the FWS admits, the CS cannot compel any agency to do anything (link). It is a 100 plus page handshake agreement.

One of the biggest problems facing grizzly bears is the lack of any enforceable limits on mortality once delisting has occurred. What will happen if grizzly bear deaths exceed prescribed levels? The post-delisting plans do not compel ANY response. In fact, state laws don’t limit but rather promote killing grizzly bears. The best we can hope for is that the FWS will step in, as they currently assure us they will, if the population drops below 500. But that assumes that monitoring by states will be able detect such a decline which, under current protocols, is almost certainly not the case.

Even if the states were inclined to do more for grizzly bears after delisting, they lack most of the relevant authority. According to the federal government, over 40% of habitat currently occupied by grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone lies outside an antiquated Primary Conservation Area (PCA) that was delineated decades ago primarily to serve political purposes (link).

After delisting, no habitat protections would apply in the extensive areas excluded from the PCA (link) at a time when development pressures are mounting. More than 3 million acres of public land are vulnerable to roadbuilding and other development after delisting (link). The states, dominated by the ranching and energy industries, have a notoriously poor track record when it comes to saying “no” to development of any kind. Moreover, most areas occupied by grizzly bears are federally-administered public lands over which the states have no direct control.

In short, nothing in state management is about compassion for grizzly bears, which will get anything but a safety net after delisting. The fact that there is no free board and huge uncertainty regarding the size of the population exacerbates the problem.

We Can Still Achieve Grizzly Bear Recovery

We can still achieve lasting recovery for our remaining grizzly bears, and in a way that respects the interests of all Americans. We have ample wild habitat capable of sustaining a grizzly bear population contiguous from Yellowstone to Canada (link), but only if we protect these wildlands now and expand programs that foster coexistence between the people and grizzly bears living in connective habitat. We do not need to truck bears around to address genetic problems – bears can deal with the issue naturally, if we let them.

The grizzly bear is as an ESA success story even if bears in Yellowstone are not delisted any time soon. Science shows that grizzly bears are still threatened throughout the Northern Rockies, and will probably remain so for the indefinite future. But by sharing space with them as they seek the food that they need in ever-larger areas, we will insure that grizzly bears will be here for generations yet unborn to marvel at.

With their ability to awaken after a long winter of seeming death, the grizzly has long embodied the promise of transformation. In fits and starts, as a society we have been of transforming our relationship with grizzly bears to one that is more life-affirming. But now is not the time to gamble with their future.

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