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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.

In short order, then Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney disabused me of this notion. Being involved in the debate over what became the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1982, I had the opportunity to interact with Dick on several occasions. The only logic that mattered to him was that which served the interests of the oil and gas and timber industries. Fair? Compassionate?

Another major influence was my 18-year marriage to Earthjustice litigator Doug Honnold. He only entered the fray when all efforts to persuade government or industry using commonsense and science failed due to the influence of well-heeled interests. Doug had particular expertise in forestry and endangered species. There was no one better in this line of work. In fact, during three decades he only lost one case—his first— among what turned out to be 15 cases devoted to protecting grizzlies.

Despite my hopes that science, integrity, compassion and fairness would prevail, I had to conclude that such hopes were illusory, given the enormity of political forces enslaved to the purposes of those interested primarily, or solely, in economic gain from extracting natural resources on public lands. While I may have been more comfortable with approaches such as education and rational argument, it was obvious that litigation and public protest were, at times, necessary tools.

Science Cannot Answer Questions About Public Values

As I also came to learn, science can inform, but fundamentally cannot answer key questions which are fundamentally about public values. For example, regarding delisting, science cannot tell us how many of a species are enough. How many grizzly bears and how much habitat in what condition are needed?

You read in the newspapers that the recovery target for Yellowstone is a population of 500 bears, and because we may now have 690 or so grizzlies, delisting is justified. But this was a number developed by a team of technocrats 25 years ago who had made a lot of assumptions that were never disclosed.

Based on several conversations with people who were intimately involved, the basic consideration was a ballpark guess as to how many bears could fit in then-occupied habitat without causing a risky backlash from conservative regional ideologues and their political lackies. There was essentially zero consideration given to future environmental change, most notably climate warming.

There were lots of assumptions about public opinion and how much habitat was “socially acceptable” for grizzly bears to live in, even though there were never any rigorous surveys or assessments (link). And assumptions about what was “politically possible” were never disclosed, because they were based on behind-the-scenes conversations with governors and senators who sought to minimize grizzly bear numbers and protections.

But, despite these political influences, a surprising number of involved people in government agencies objected -- and this is undoubtedly still the case, not just with bears, but in the climate and pollution arenas. Up until the mid to late 1990s, I routinely received brown paper envelopes from anonymous agency folks, including hints that I should submit requests for certain government documents.

As a result, it was possible to obtain evidence of political influences more then than now. Unfortunately, high-level administrators in agencies have become ever more ruthless and efficient in rooting out dissent in the name of anti-science and anti-law agendas.

The Holy Grail of 500 Grizzlies, and the Problems Posed by Recent Changes

Despite the problems attached to a recovery target of 500 animals, the number stuck, and even became a kind of Holy Grail. It was no coincidence that by the early 90s when that number was codified, there were nearly 500 bears in the ecosystem (link). So, by tautology, it was time to delist.

But, much has changed since 1992, not just with bear numbers and where they live, but also with people and what they want. Study after study has shown that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, along with the rest of the northern Rockies, has gone through an economic transformation, with tourism as the number one industry now, coupled with expenditures by footloose businesses and retirees settling here for the quality of life and environment (link). The world of the politically possible has changed for people living in places such as Driggs or Ashton, Idaho, but not for Idaho Governor Butch Otter in Boise, or Senator Mike Crapo in Washington DC.

In some ways, the world has become more benign for bears, as more people are more careful about how they store garbage and other human-related foods that cause conflicts with bears. The sport hunt on grizzlies was stopped in 1975, which was critical to stabilizing the population.

We also have 23,000 or so fewer domestic sheep now on Idaho’s Targhee Forest than we did 40 years ago. Bears cannot resist sheep which, to the detriment of bears, come accompanied by well-armed herders. Many public sheep-grazing allotments had essentially become black holes for bears. These black holes are no longer black thanks to retirement of sheep allotments by government officials and nongovernment organizations.

Five large timber mills have also closed after they cut most of the easily accessible timber on Greater Yellowstone forests. This fact, combined with successful litigation brought by conservationists, created the impetus needed for the Forest Service to close some of the spaghetti mess of logging roads, to the benefit of bears, elk, fish and other wildlife.

But new threats have arisen during the last 25 years, including climate change, invasive species, and the press of humanity inside and settling on the fringes of National Parks. Already two of the four major grizzly bear foods in the Yellowstone ecosystem—trout and whitebark pine—have functionally collapsed due to a warming climate, non-native predators, exotic disease, and unprecedented outbreaks of native insects. Elk, another major bear food, have experienced major climate and predation-driven declines, most ultimately attributable to humans. And projections of climate change suggest more foods, such as berries, may suffer collapse.

Yet in their 2016 draft rule to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, FWS authors baldly asserted that climate change does not now nor will ever threaten this population -- which prompted a few people to wonder what the FWS authors had been smoking.

More Bears in More Places

Comments submitted by scientists on the 2016 draft delisting rule were more compelling and diverse than any tendered since 1992, when delisting was first proposed by the FWS. These scientists argued that there are too few bears, in populations too isolated from each other, exposed to too many unmitigated threats, to be left without federal oversight and subject to the tender mercies of state game managers in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho (link). Many commentators, including the American Society of Mammalogists and Society for Conservation Biology, emphasized that Yellowstone’s grizzlies cannot be recovered without being connected to other populations, logically via Central Idaho, which currently has ample habitat but no grizzly bears.

These comments underscore the need for more compassion and more commitment to recovering grizzly bears in more places—which is a view remarkably consistent with that of most Native Americans. A Treaty of the Grizzly was launched last fall (link), signed so far by 125 Tribes—more than have signed any other treaty in history. The Treaty of the Grizzly opposes sport hunting and demands that Tribes be formally consulted as sovereign nations by federal and state governments before delisting is pursued.

While consultation is required by law, and co-management of grizzlies on tribal lands is certainly a possibility, so far the FWS has blown off the Tribes, some of whom are now readying themselves for litigation. Again, lawsuits are what happen when the politics of exclusion leave people with no other recourse.

Yellowstone’s grizzly bears have a national constituency. State politicians and managers do not and will never represent interests of the national public. Aside from all the scientific and legal reasons, keeping grizzly bears protected is the only way to give people nationwide a voice in the bear’s future.

Moreover, grizzlies embody the prospect of transformation and, with that, the opportunity for inspiration—something long imprinted in stories told by native peoples throughout the northern hemisphere. We can transform our relationship with bears—and life on Earth more broadly—from one of control, domination and death to one of reverence and respect. And we can start by transforming how we govern ourselves.

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