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  • Louisa Willcox

Black Snakes and Grizzly Bears: The Tribes' Fight for Nature

Photo: Chief Stanley Grier, Piikani Nation.

In an unprecedented series of events, Tribes from across North America are rising up to protect land, water, and wildlife such as the sacred grizzly bear from degradation by greedy corporations. Last week, in one of the latest developments, Chief Stanley Grier of the Piikani Nation of the Blackfeet Confederacy submitted a declaration to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell reaffirming their opposition to removal of federal protections for the Yellowstone grizzly bear (“delisting”) and support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their protest against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) (link).

Chief Grier also demanded a halt in the federal move to delist bears until meaningful government consultation with Tribes occurs. Such a moratorium would be consistent with the recent federal decision to halt construction of the DAPL until the government could assess impacts and more meaningfully consult with the Standing Rock and other Tribes.

The Dakota Access pipeline, called by Tribes “the black snake”, would degrade lands regarded as sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux. The federal government stopped construction in response to a tense standoff in North Dakota that has drawn support from over a hundred Tribes from across the country.

The latest Piikani declaration follows a similar one submitted to Jewell by the Navajo Tribe in August (link). During the last three years, 50 plus Tribes, from the Blackfeet Confederacy in the north to the Hopi in the south, have submitted letters, declarations and resolutions to the Department of Interior and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) opposing delisting and trophy hunting of grizzly bears (link). This includes the Standing Rock Sioux, led by their Chairman, David Archambault II, who was one of the first tribal leaders to engage with the grizzly bear issue.

Yet, so far, the FWS has failed to initiate formal consultation with these Tribes, and has even misrepresented tribal opposition to delisting in the press, in stark contrast to the federal government’s response to Tribal demands for government-to-government consultation in the case of the Dakota Access pipeline. In a joint statement on DAPL, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Justice and Interior departments called for an initiation of formal consultation with Tribes to “better ensure meaningful tribal input” into the decision and “protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights.” (link)

Today, Jewell praised "the unprecedented solidarity that so many of you across Indian Country have shown to the Standing Rick issue over the past weeks, through prayerful and peaceful assembly, to make your voices heard." (link) She said that the pipeline protests touch on an issue broader than the pipeline itself. "Looking beyond the Dakota Access pipeline, it's clear that there needs to be a conversation about something much larger than a single pipeline project. How a federal action impacts your land, your water, your sacred sites, your treaty rights, your sovereignty, is relevant, it's important, and your voices are important."

It is deeply disturbing that, in contrast to the approach taken with DAPL, the government continues to deny Tribes legal rights and to disregard their concerns about the future of the grizzly bear, an animal that is viewed as a relative and teacher. Cynically, the government is barging ahead to issue a final delisting rule shortly after the November 8 elections, in an apparent effort to bury the story in post-election news. This decision would set the stage for a trophy hunt sponsored by state governments next spring, as well as increased killing of bears by notoriously hostile state managers.

Raising Broader Public Concerns

The debates over Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and the Dakota Access pipeline are not just about tribal concerns, they are about matters vital to all of us -- our relationships with the land, and choices about the kind of planet we want to leave for future generations.

In the fight for grizzly bears, water, and the sacred, the Tribes are transforming the discussion about the future of our shared ecosystems. Tribes are standing for the rights of both native and nonnative people to a healthy environment, a fair and functioning democracy, and protection against the excesses of corporate greed.

In the Piikani declaration, Chief Grier notes: “Water is the lifeblood of our Mother Earth, and the grizzly bear is the guardian of both.”

Much is at stake.

The Stakes

At stake in the Yellowstone case is one of our most iconic populations of grizzly bears. Can this population of perhaps 700 grizzly bears in and around our nation’s oldest park survive the combined impacts and insults of trophy hunting, a decade-long spike in bear deaths, an unraveling ecosystem, and management by anti-carnivore states? Almost certainly not. Because of its vulnerability, the grizzly bear is not only a measure of the integrity of the wild landscapes where it lives, but also an animal that brings both our culture and our democracy to account.

Yellowstone is one of the last bastions for the bear, which was extirpated in 98% of its former habitat by European settlers in less than 100 years. Despite 40 years of protections under the Endangered Species Act, the population has only grown modestly (link); and current trends in mortality promise to reverse this progress towards recovery (link). At a time when the bear’s foods are threatened by climate change, delisting would allow industrial-scale development on 3 million acres of public land (link), including the kind of rampant energy development that has spawned the Dakota Access pipeline.

In the case of the protest at Standing Rock, North Dakota, the Tribes are seeking protection for their water and their sacred sites, some of which were bulldozed during pipeline construction. At issue is whether an 1100 mile pipeline, with $3.8 billion of funding from Wall Street speculators, is allowed to carry 470,000 barrels of Bakken crude a day across a tribal Reservation to refineries in Illinois. In addition to threatening sites sacred to the Tribes, the pipeline threatens water quality as it crosses the Missouri River. Pipeline breaks are common, as with one that recently polluted the Yellowstone River.

Protesters are raising questions about the impacts of continued unchecked fossil fuel use on our climate, as well as environmental and social justice issues. Less affluent Tribes commonly bear the brunt of impacts generated by exploitation of the environment designed to enrich privileged shareholders of indifferent corporations.

Unprecedented Alliances

About 100 tribes from across the United States are standing in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in an unprecedented show of unity. Similarly, the alliance of 50 plus tribes that comprise the GOAL (Guardians of our Ancestors Legacy) Coalition has been campaigning to protect the sacred grizzly bear and its habitat. Not since the Indian campaigns waged by Tecumseh roughly 200-years ago have so many tribes united around common causes in the spirit of Tecumseh’s famous admonitions: “…we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire! Brothers, we are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens.”

No one has been more astonished by the recent developments, unprecedented in living memory, than me. Although I have worked as an advocate for grizzly bears for more than thirty years, I have never seen anything like the current tribal uprising for bears. My work with the Tribes has transformed me too, changing my views on Indian people, their aspirations, and the possibilities they offer bears and the earth.

Tribal Calls for a Moratorium on Delisting

In the Piikani declaration, Chief Grier calls for a pause in the government’s fast track efforts to remove protections for the grizzly bear. Grier reminds the United States government that its relationship with the Piikani is enshrined in treaty. The Piikani Nation, the Blood Tribe and the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana and adjacent lands in Alberta have held government-to-government relationship with the US since the Lame Bull Treaty of 1855.

Grier also reminds the government of the Tribe’s ancient connections to grizzly bears and Yellowstone. The people of the Blackfoot Confederacy “harvested plants in the region, and collected medicines the grizzly taught us to use. Our ancestors named many of the prominent features in Greater Yellowstone, such as the Beartooth Mountains, Heart Mountain, The Bull’s Nose (Bull Mountains), and The Rattle (Rattlesnake Mountain). They gave their lives to protect the sanctity of that land in encounters with Anglo-European explorers and fortune seekers like Daniel Potts (near West Thumb, 1826), Osborne Russell (Pelican Creek, 1839), and Baptiste Decharme (Indian Pond, 1839).”

Importantly, Grier notes that all Tribal Nations, including the federally recognized Associated Tribes of Yellowstone, have been excluded from development of the federal Conservation Strategy for post-delisting management of grizzlies, despite continued appeals for inclusion. A failure to grant a moratorium in the delisting process until meaningful consultation has occurred—including tribal involvement in development of the Conservation Strategy—would be a violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. President Barack Obama supports this UN Declaration, yet his appointed leaders of the Department of Interior are failing to abide by it.

As pointed out by Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear (link), Grier also notes that the delisting process is fundamentally corrupt. The process for reviewing the science used in the government’s delisting rule was led by a one of the world’s largest oil and gas multinationals, Amec Foster Wheeler. And, FWS Deputy Regional Director Matt Hogan, the agency’s point person on the grizzly bear issue, is the former chief lobbyist of the Safari Club International. Grier reiterates Poor Bear’s request for a congressional investigation regarding conflicts of interest.

The integrity of the delisting process matters not just because of the importance of grizzly bears to Indian culture and spirituality, but also because of implications for the health of our democratic institutions.

The Anathema of Trophy Hunting

With grizzly bears seen by Indians throughout the West as kin, it should be no surprise that trophy hunting of grizzly bears has been called “dumb”, “a violation of natural law”, and “sacrilegious”.

Traditional Blackfeet Chief and Spiritual Leader James ‘Jimmy’ St. Goddard, who now serves as Vice Chairman of the GOAL Coalition, and said this: “Our true brother, ‘Book-sah-gooh-yeeh,’ the grizzly bear, is closely related to us. All the indigenous of this Turtle Island are related to the grizzly. At this time on Mother Earth, the sacred beings called ‘animals’ are giving the people that love them their sacred medicine.”

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Great Sioux Nation (a sort of Dalai Lama figure in Indian Country) had this to say about delisting:

“What they are trying to do to the grizzly population is hurting us spiritually because our ceremonies are connected to them. As you walk upon the earth you are going to recognize that everything has a spirit. Like the grizzly bear knows because it is a spirit. Our way is to understand how everything in this life is about how sacred spirit is, but they want to trophy hunt this sacred spirit. The grizzly is our relative.”

Oglala Sioux Tribal Vice President Tom Poor Bear put it this way: “When I look at what the US government and the states intend to do to the grizzly bear, I look at what they did to our ancestors. They tried to annihilate us like they did the grizzly, the buffalo and the wolf. They forced us from our homelands and made us live on reservations. Today they want to keep the grizzly on two reservations called Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. They put bounties on our ancestors’ heads. They paid for their scalps, and they are doing the same thing now – this time with our relative, the grizzly bear – when they start trophy hunting her for her head and skin. This is a violation of natural law, and our spiritual and religious rights.”

And, cultural and spiritual issues are not the only problems with the delisting rule.

The Problems of Delisting

Delisting would return management authority from the federal government to the states, and allow trophy hunting of as many as 72 grizzlies annually, beginning next year. Leading scientists maintain that this added increment of deaths could potentially be catastrophic for Yellowstone’s vulnerable grizzly bear population. Mortality has been unsustainably high during the last decade (link); the status of the population is uncertain; and habitat conditions are rapidly deteriorating due to global warming and infestations of nonnative species (link).

By removing federal constraints on land development, delisting would allow unfettered exploitation by corporations intent on extracting energy and other resources from millions of acres of public lands in Greater Yellowstone — with little regard for impacts. It is no accident that delisting is supported by ranchers and corporate executives, who stand to benefit from access to public lands heretofore curbed by measures taken to conserve grizzly bears.

Most people seem to be unaware that devolution of authority to the states is tantamount to turning management over to the hunters and ranchers to whom state managers are slaved by culture and financial dependencies (link). By essentially limiting management decisions to such people residing in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, delisting would disenfranchise all who are interested in the fate of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, but do not live in the region, or simply value bears for reasons other than the opportunity or excuse to kill them.

The Government’s Racist Treatment of Tribes

Amplifying concerns about representation, Tribes are not just any member of the public—they are sovereign nations, with laws that protect their interests. Aside from the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and National Historic Preservation Act, numerous Presidential orders have been signed that also protect Tribes’ rights to be treated with the dignity and respect deserving of their sovereign status, and of themselves as indigenous people.

But state and federal wildlife managers have treated tribal representatives with shocking disrespect in matters related both to grizzly bear management and deliberations over the Dakota Access pipeline. Over the Labor Day weekend, local law enforcement personnel unleashed attack dogs on peaceful protestors at Standing Rock, and at least 30 people were pepper sprayed (link).

A similarly outrageous incident took place last year in Cody, Wyoming, when James Walks Along, Northern Cheyenne Historic Preservation Officer, was forcibly prevented from speaking to members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that oversees grizzly bear management. Walks Along had been sent by the tribal president and council to present the official opinions of the Tribe, and attempted to make a comment after a session entitled “Collaboration with Tribes,” which was presented by Dan Thompson of Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF), who is white.

Another WGF official, Brian Nesvik, also white, had James’ microphone unplugged and physically manhandled him (Click here to see the video). Needless-to-say, Nesvik is point man for the state and federal governments pushing the delisting rule over the finish line.

I was dumbfounded at this incident, thinking that such overtly racist actions by government officials were a thing of the past. The Governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead, who is leading the charge for delisting, still has not issued an apology for the behavior of his minions.

As many are learning to do with police, tribal representatives filmed this incident – and the video went viral in Indian Country, further raising the profile of the government’s callous treatment of them and its disregard for their concerns.

Adding insult to injury, government spokespeople continue to downplay and distort Tribes’ concerns and their exclusion from the process. Emblematic of this dishonesty, Chris Servheen, the former FWS Coordinator for grizzly bear recovery, falsely claimed that all of the 26 Associated Tribes of the Yellowstone region had been invited into a consultation process by the FWS, when in fact records show that only 4 letters were sent, and only one was received.

Compounding the lie, FWS spokesperson Selena Baker misrepresented what had been done to engage the tribes in a story recently published by Wyofile, claiming that “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reached out to federally recognized Native American tribes… We’re still continuing to have an open dialog. That is an ongoing process.” (link)

There is, in fact, no ongoing process or dialog about consultation. And, the three tribes that serve on the subcommittee for managing Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are on record as opposing delisting. Further, none have been included in the process of developing the post-delisting Conservation Strategy, even though the Wind River Reservation has key habitat, including some still-healthy whitebark pine, a source of important bear food.

States as Perpetrators of Cultural Genocide

While the Dakota Access pipeline involves mostly federal permitting agencies, the grizzly bear case involves both federal and state governments. While ostensibly in charge of grizzly bear recovery under authority of the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has long capitulated to pressure from the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, all of which seek control over bears (link).

In addition to being a despotic institution that serves the interests of a politically-entrenched minority, current state wildlife management is also founded on a system of laws codified over a century ago that treats both wildlife and Indians as expendable dependents. Both are viewed as wards of the government and disposable if they got (and get) in the way of “progress.” The logic of the government was (and is): Indians are savages, less than fully human, and thus not able to manage their own affairs.

What manifests today as the states’ insatiable thirst to manage, manipulate, dominate, and kill wildlife, especially large carnivores, is a hangover from colonial times. The narrative sustaining such anachronistic attitudes is that we can’t just let wildlife self-regulate or Indians self-govern. We, the dominant white culture, know best and our management is needed to keep order. We need to control and dominate, and protect the status quo.

In the case of grizzly bears, that means allowing hunters, ranchers and developers to dictate the terms of management. In the case of pipeline permits, it means giving energy companies who are in cahoots with agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers dominance in decision-making.

In challenging current status quo arrangements, Tribes such as the Piikani and the Standing Rock Sioux are standing for the interests not just of the Tribes, but for all of us who seek compassion from government decision-makers and a fair democratic process.

What the Tribes Seek

In the case of both grizzly bears and the Dakota Access pipeline, the tribes are seeking respect for their rights, their spiritual views, and the laws that protect their interests, including legally required processes such as consultation by the federal agencies with tribal governments.

If the administration will listen, the Tribes offer very practical solutions to the challenges of grizzly bear recovery. Because of the location and enormous size of tribal lands, including key habitat on the Wind River, Blackfoot, and Flathead Reservations, the tribes offer real and exciting prospects for achieving meaningful and long term grizzly bear recovery.

Bringing the sacred bear back to tribal lands would help reconnect Indian people with a cherished animal that now only lives in story and song on many reservations. And by requiring trained tribal biologists and managers, grizzly recovery on tribal lands could inspire a young generation to discover new relationships with nature and with their cultural roots. This, in fact, has occurred along the British Columbia coast among tribes like the Heiltsuk, where a strengthened economy and reviving culture is centered on eco-tourism and sustainable development (link).

But, beyond protecting their own interests, the Tribes are working for the sake of all who seek to preserve the sacred grizzly bear for future generations. In essence, the Tribes have emerged as protectors of the broader public trust.

Protecting the Broader Public Trust

The federal government currently protects bears as part of the public trust under terms of the Endangered Species Act. All citizens are trustees. The Act gives everyone, no matter where they live, a voice in decisions regarding management of grizzly bears. The Clean Water Act does the same.

With their status as sovereign nations, the tribes are presenting the federal government with concerns shared by all of us who object to the sport hunting of grizzly bears that would come with divestiture of authority to the states.

This includes visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks who are horrified at the notion that popular roadside bears, such as the celebrity grizzlies of Jackson Hole, could be killed by hunters as they roam between protected park lands and unprotected national forest and private lands (link).

In North Dakota, the tribes are representing those of us who want to get beyond dependence on fossil fuels and to protect our limited, precious water. A win on the Dakota Access pipeline would be yet another powerful message that days of dependence on fossil fuel are numbered and that more needs to be done to promote clean, renewable and sustainable alternative energy.

Because of the number of tribes involved, their legitimacy, and the legal arrows in their quiver, they may in the end succeed in ensuring continued protections for our bears and our water. They may slay the “black snake” and recover their ursid kin. In so doing, they may also protect the broader public interest embodied by the majority of us who are repulsed by unfettered corporate greed and who want a continued voice in decisions affecting our shared natural legacy.

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