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  • Louisa Willcox

Grizzlies Symbolize Transformation, And Challenge Us to Transform Governance

Photo by Roger Hayden

Bears are up and about again, a living announcement of spring. With their miraculous ability to hibernate, bears have always symbolized transformation and renewal (link). A mother bear seemingly dies in winter, interred in the earth, only to re-emerge with new life in the spring. The process is a mystery which scientists do not yet fully understand -- as perhaps it should be.

Transformation is a central issue, because our society, as well as perhaps the rest of life on Earth, needs us to abandon our technocratic despotism --which leaves everybody but an elite, empowered few largely excluded from decisions that affect us all.

Apropos of transformation, we have seen a softening of our relationship with large carnivores, including grizzly bears, during the last half-century. Without protections offered by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), wolves and grizzlies would likely have disappeared from the contiguous United States.

But, even after 40 years of protection, grizzlies still occupy just 3% of their former range (link). Worse, bears have been relegated to ecological islands. Vulnerability to inbreeding as well as climate-driven deterioration of habitat predictably follows. We can and must do better.

The Surprising Speed of Change

Our relationships with bears and other wildlife can, in fact, change quickly. It took only 60 years during the late-1800s and early-1900s for European settlers to wipe out grizzlies in 97% of their former range -- leaving only five remnant populations, with most grizzlies relegated to islands in and around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Armed with guns and Bibles, settlers eradicated anything and anybody that got in the way of “progress,” including peoples who had been here thousands of years -- and had coexisted with grizzlies who they still see as relatives, healers and guides.

More recently we have seen a remarkable and more benevolent shift. After wreaking havoc on ecosystems throughout the world, people have begun to rediscover their empathy for the “wild other.” Passed in 1973, the ESA codified this shift in values.

Progress Toward Recovery

With the implementation of ESA protections in 1975, grizzly bear numbers have increased (link), along with occupancy of habitat south and west of Yellowstone Park and south and east of Glacier. Venturesome bears are showing with their paws that our current fragmented populations can be reconnected.

The most promising linkages between Yellowstone’s long-isolated grizzlies and their kin to the north runs through Central Idaho’s vast wildlands (see map below). Grizzlies once flourished in this remote wilderness, but were extirpated by hunters, miners, and sheep-herders with a genocidal attitude.

Map by David Mattson

A broad-scale and vigorous vision of recovery for grizzly bears is shared by an ever- increasing number of scientists, whose work builds on that of a previous generation of giants such as Drs. Chuck Jonkel (link) and Frank and John Craighead (link). The Northern Rockies could support more than 2500 grizzlies, up from the current 1800 or so individuals scattered among isolated populations.

To be clear, we have made progress towards recovery of grizzly bears. Science and compassion have been central, as has the authority of the ESA. Tourists and seasonal and permanent residents of local communities, as well as employees of federal, state, and local government agencies have been critical players, along with actions as simple as disposing of human-created garbage (link).

This progress has not been easy, for it entails multiple scales and sustained efforts. It takes long periods of time to mobilize people and bureaucracies, and for grizzly bears to learn necessary lessons. Making recovery even more challenging, grizzly bears reproduce and often disperse at an agonizingly slow rate. Daughters settle in or near the home range of their mothers, which makes colonization of new areas a slow process. Connecting populations is a lot more difficult for grizzlies than for wolves or mountain lions.

The Threat of Delisting

Despite progress, we are a long way from achieving the vision of bigger connected ecosystems. Yet wildlife managers are rushing to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone’s long-isolated grizzly bears, probably this summer. Bears living on the periphery of the ecosystem -- the potential pioneers of connectivity -- will likely be the first shot under state-sponsored trophy hunting after delisting.

Why is delisting being rushed? The short answer is that grizzly conservation has become a battle of ideology and symbolic politics. Listed, bears represent a perceived constraint on development, regardless of whether these constraints are real. To state politicians and wildlife managers, ESA protections for grizzlies symbolize the “tyranny” of the federal government, despite the fact that the vast majority of people in the U.S. support protections in the interest of recovering grizzly bears. Simply put, political ideologues in western states have long been at loggerheads with the federal government and want to wrest primary control over all wildlife, endangered or not.

On a more functional level, delisting is about further catering to those who currently benefit from the present despotic arrangements between power and wealth elites inside and outside government. The energy, timber, and motorized recreation industries seek easier access to exploit millions of acres where limits currently apply because grizzlies are protected (link), and executives in these industries have state politicians and managerial minions securely in their deep pockets.

This corrupt system is the antithesis of democracy. And, for me, a fully functioning democracy is essential to not only saving grizzly bears, but also protecting the full spectrum of people who have been, and continue to be, oppressed by politically-empowered bigots and despots. Not only is the fate of persecuted wildlife at stake, but also the well-being of religious and ethnic minorities, members of the LGTB community, and women.

I suspect that my critique of state-sponsored wildlife management and its associated systems of governance strikes some people as being too strong, even unwarranted. But I have good reason for this critique based on a lifetime of experience. I have participated in the policy debate surrounding grizzly bear management for over 30 years, including 10 different federal and state public processes related to momentous decisions affecting the fate of grizzlies. I know what I am talking about.

Overwhelming Public Support for Stronger Protections

In every one of the government-sponsored processes that solicited public input, people voiced overwhelming support for redoubled protections of habitat and bears, and opposition to removing ESA protections. Grizzly bear supporters included independent scientists, members of the religious community, businessmen, tour guides, landowners, and tourists (link).

Even more surprising was—and is—the opposition voiced by people with no aim or ability to go to Yellowstone, but with a desire to ensure that their grandchildren would have the opportunity to see a grizzly in the flesh in and around the nation’s first Park.

During last year’s public comment period, previous records were shattered, with roughly 850,000 comment letters and petitions received, over 99% opposed to delisting, according to Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials. Yet FWS and state managers have completely disregarded this public input, if not outcry… as they have every other time before.

Those expressing opposition include scientists such as Drs. Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson and George Schaller, as well as former Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley and grizzly bear experts and former managers from the FWS, US Forest Service, and other agencies. Their main message? Grizzlies are a national treasure and we can’t trust the states to do the job right.

I recommend listening to one of these managers, Tim Bozorth of the Bureau of Land Management, articulate his concerns on my podcast (Episode 4) on Grizzly Times (link). Tim served for over a decade on the committee that oversees management of grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies.

Delisting Would Disenfranchise National Interest in Grizzlies

Aside from the substantive problems, delisting would disenfranchise anyone living outside Idaho, Montana and Wyoming from decisions affecting a species that is of national interest. Under the ESA, all of us have a voice in grizzly bear management. But after delisting, anyone who does not live in the three states encompassing the Northern Rockies has no say in what happens to grizzlies. And because hunters, fishers and agriculture interests dominate decision-making by state game and fish managers, if you are not a white guy with a gun and a hunting license, you do not get a voice, no matter where you live (link).

This undemocratic situation is what drives people and groups to court, because there is no other way to have their voices heard. But it does not have to be this way. Other approaches can work, but only if there is a level playing field in terms of power arrangements.

I have had a good taste over the years of what alternative approaches look like, including collaborative efforts involving local communities and governments focused on better handling of garbage, highway construction mitigation -- even road management on forest lands. But productive collaboration only happens if power is shared among those who are concerned. And sometimes the playing field can only be leveled through litigation.

A Personal Confession

I did not come to this view about power politics naturally. A little personal story. I grew up in a Quaker family in Pennsylvania, where compassion, logic, fairness and personal integrity mattered. After I moved West, drawn as many of us were by the mountains and wildlife, I just assumed that if you mean well and have a thoughtful argument, you had a good chance of affecting how the government makes decisions.