Today marks the release of a film entitled Keep Grizzlies Protected (http://www.keepgrizzliesprotected.com/) by noted filmmakers Anthony Birkholz and Marni Walsh. The film features leading scientists who speak out about threats to the future of the grizzly bear, and raise concerns about the federal government’s stated intention to strip federal protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem early next year.
Delisting would expose the threatened population to trophy hunting. World-renowned scientists, as well as leading scientific societies, have expressed deep concern about the risk that state-sponsored sport hunting and other harmful policies will pose to grizzly bears. The grizzly bear is especially vulnerable because of its low reproductive rates, and much-diminished numbers since European settlers arrived. Even with federal protections, grizzly bears still number just 3% of what they once were in the lower 48 states. An unprecedented number of citizens share these concerns about the future of the grizzly in and around the Nation’s first park.
The film features a cast of the “who’s who” of experts on large carnivores, endangered species and climate change. Scientists include Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. David Mattson, Dr. Rob Wielgus, Dr. Jesse Logan, Dr. Diana Six, Dr. Brad Bergstrom and Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter. Yvon Chouinard, world-famous climber, founder of Patagonia, and conservationist, also spoke in an interview about one of his passions: climate change.
I felt compelled to take on producing this film after reading the inspired comments of these and other experts submitted last spring to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in response to a draft delisting proposal. I have read countless comment letters to the government in my 30 plus years as a conservationist in the Northern Rockies. But in its most recent delisting plan, the FWS so overstepped the bounds of commonsense and scientific integrity as to unleash a stunning backlash by experts. Rarely have I seen such a sweeping condemnation by independent scientists of a government grizzly bear management proposal.
What the Experts Say About Delisting and Trophy Hunting
In its draft delisting proposal, some of the FWS’s claims were “ludicrous”, according to retired Forest Service ecologist Dr. Jesse Logan. Logan was referring here to FWS’ bald-faced assertion that climate change has not had and would never have adverse impacts on grizzlies. In fact, “climate change is affecting everything that the grizzlies use for food and habitat,” said Dr. Diana Six, Forest Pathologist at the University of Montana.
Dr. Jane Goodall, primatologist and ethologist, observed: “Two of the bear’s major foods have been all but wiped out due to climate change, disease, and invasive species.”
In the interviews, a number of the scientists focused on the threat of renewing trophy hunting after 40 years of federal endangered species protections. Dr. Rob Wielgus, Director of Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Lab said: “The largest obstacles for recovery of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton bears is human-caused mortality and the greatest potential future obstacle is even greater human-caused mortality as per the proposed hunting seasons in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.”
Dr. Jane Goodall offered: “I was really shocked to hear about this. Actually, I found it hard to believe, because they face so many threats to their survival. If the grizzlies are delisted, and states open a hunting season, I think many hearts would break. I know mine would.”
Many scientists cited the problem of the grizzly bear’s long isolation from other populations. “Grizzly bear recovery really comes down to whether we can connect the Yellowstone population with populations of grizzly bears elsewhere,” said Dr. David Mattson, retired biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we can’t, the ecosystem continues to unravel, densities continue to decline, they’re going to be that much more vulnerable potentially to extirpation.”
Experts challenged the recovery targets as being too low to ensure the long-term health of the population. Dr. Jesse Logan noted that: “Fish and Wildlife contends that we have a viable population with 700 bears. Analysis by the American Society of Mammalogists says no, the effective breeding population is going to require over twice that many bears, so we have to allow enough habitat for bears to expand into –– and it exists here, it’s just that they’re not allowed to do it.”
Dr. Brad Bergstrom, Conservation Biologist and Professor at Valdosta State University, put the grizzly delisting decision in the context of a deeper problem inherent in FWS’ approach to endangered species recovery: “The whole idea of recovery planning and recovery goals, they (FWS) seem to be stuck in this outmoded philosophy of picking a magic number. We’re going to set a target and 20 or 30 years later we’re going to come back to that target that we set… and we’re going to just be faithful to that target number… without regarding any of the scientific advances made within those last 20 to 30 years. Now that, to me, does not honor the letter of the Endangered Species Act, which says that their decision should be based on the best currently available science. The science changes. But their quotas, their goals, their magic numbers, they don’t change.”
Unprecedented Public Outcry Over Delisting, Sport Hunting
The film comes at a time when people across the country have expressed unprecedented and passionate opposition to the proposed removal of Endangered Species Act protections, along with clear support for vigorous recovery measures. Over 800,000 people recently signed petitions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior, asking for continued protection of Yellowstone grizzlies, rather than devolution of management to the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, which are notoriously hostile to carnivores (link).
Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter, a social scientist with The Ohio State University said: “We have really good public data that suggests that while people are generally supportive of hunting, they are not supportive of trophy hunting. I don’t want to say no one, but let’s just say very few people are going out to hunt grizzly bears that are going to hunt them for food. Right? They’re hunting them for the purpose of trophy for self-gratification, and that from a public standpoint is very, very controversial. It’s something that the data show that clearly the public just does not support.”
Over 50 Indian Tribes have also formally opposed sport hunting the Great Bear, an animal they have long viewed as sacred (http://www.goaltribal.org/).
The Solution: Connect Populations, Improve Coexistence Practices, Keep Grizzlies Protected
In the film, scientists’ offer simple and clear recommendations: keep bears protected, redouble recovery efforts to connect the long-isolated Yellowstone grizzlies to neighboring sub-populations, allow bears to expand into suitable habitat, and improve practices that allow humans to coexist with bears. These measures will also improve the ability of bears to adapt to a changing climate.
Such steps are also consistent with widely shared public attitudes. Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter noted that: “Public opinion polling suggests that people generally want bears to be listed. They want to see further recovery efforts. We can glean some information from the public comments that were filed on behalf or in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services proposal to delist bears that suggest that people would like to see more grizzly bears in more places, and would like to see those populations protected.”
The Endangered Species Act matters for another important reason. According to Dr. David Mattson, “the ESA is one of the few laws that unambiguously gives all the American public a voice in management of wildlife. Otherwise, management of virtually all wildlife is in the hands of state wildlife management agencies, which is a problem. The American public should have a voice under other circumstances than just jeopardy. For example, with Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, regardless of whether you think they are endangered or not, here we have a population of a species that is of national interest. And the national public deserves a voice in their management, not only now but in perpetuity.”
The film concludes by asking viewers to request that President Obama respond to public opinion and withdraw the proposed rule to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears, and employ the best available science to promote the long overdue recovery of this iconic species.