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A Primer on Grizzly Bear Advocacy


The Endangered Species Act (ESA) gives the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) ultimate authority over grizzly bear recovery, although more concrete actions affecting grizzly bears or their habitat are undertaken by a number of different wildlife and wildlands management agencies that the FWS oversees. All grizzlies in the lower 48 are listed as threatened under the Act.

The Act has greatly benefited grizzlies by requiring that management of this species on public and even private lands be guided by the precautionary principle and informed by the best available science. Indeed, we may have lost the grizzly entirely were it not for the ESA.


The ESA prohibits people from killing grizzlies except in cases of self-defense. The ESA also requires that the FWS ensure that decisions by other agencies such as the Forest Service do not directly or indirectly jeopardize grizzlies.

Although these requirements may sound clear-cut, in reality they are not because pressure from politicians and those invested in exploitation of natural resources chronically distorts the decision-making of land and wildlife managers, typically to the detriment of grizzly bears. And, as we discuss below, the FWS chronically neglects it legal duties in response to bullying by politicians and wildlife managers from Northern Rockies states. In the process, the FWS tends to neglect the best available science and contravene other ESA mandates, which is why many FWS decisions, including several attempts at removing ESA protections and routine approvals of destructive logging projects, have been overturned in court. 

US Fish and Wildlife Service: Conservator of Endangered Species



Punting to Pro-Development Committees

In contrast to recovery efforts for other endangered species, the FWS has not appointed a grizzly bear recovery team comprised of diverse stakeholders and topical experts. Instead, it relies on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) and its ecosystem-specific subcommittees comprised of representatives from government agencies, augmented by regressive representatives of county governments. Conservation voices have been explicitly excluded, and Tribes have not been afforded a meaningful role.

These committees strongly favor exploitive land uses that favor status quo interests. They also disproportionately represent those who are interested in hunting — potentially including grizzly bears. Because the FWS tends to dodge controversial actions that contest status quo arrangements, the agency often hides behind and otherwise defers to decisions made by the IGBC and the inbuilt bias towards exploitive and harmful actions.





Outdated Recovery Plan

The FWS has been reluctant to revise an outdated and defective Recovery Plan for grizzly bears that was last updated in 1993 — nearly 30 years ago. Since then, there has been an exponential increase in scientific information relevant to managing and recovering grizzly bears, none of which has been incorporated into the authoritative guidance that the Recovery Plan is supposed to provide.


Among the plan’s most critical deficiencies are complete disregard for the threats posed by climate change, and perpetuation of standards for judging recovery of grizzly bear populations that contravene the best available science. Even so, the FWS has refused thus far to update the plan, and instead relies on guidance provided by various unenforceable “strategies” that incorporate more recent science, but with the notable proviso that most of this science is cherry-picked to accommodate status quo exploitation of public lands and wildlife.


What the FWS Should Do

The FWS should keep grizzlies on the endangered species list; strengthen enforcement of the ESA’s ban on harassing and killing grizzlies; update the recovery plan; and give Tribes and conservation voices a meaningful role in recovery. These imperatives are all the more pressing because the alternative to ESA protections and FWS management is devolution of management to the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – and more dead bears.

What You Can Do

Of the many agencies that are responsible for grizzly bears, the Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service are the most important – and one place where you can make a positive difference. The key decision-makers are Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Interior oversees Fish and Wildlife Service), Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams, and Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley.

There are many ways that advocates can affect FWS’s decision-making processes. If you are interested in and have the capacity to engage with policy-making arcana and scientific details, there is always a need for more people to make substantive comments on Biological Opinions that the FWS issues for specific projects and activities of other agencies, notably the Forest Service, that could harm grizzlies.

There is a similar need for comments when the FWS predictably makes yet another effort to remove ESA protections for grizzlies or revises plans for managing grizzlies after delisting.  

And, there is always a need for comments supporting coexistence with grizzlies and opposing bad FWS decisions in Letters to the Editor or other opinion pieces in local media; on social media; or in comments to members of Congress who are engaged with grizzly bear conservation.

Inadequate Law Enforcement

Curbing the illegal killing and harassment of grizzlies by people is critical to recovery. But law enforcement in the FWS and the Forest Service has been woefully inadequate. Over the years, staffing of law enforcement positions and the related capacity to investigate poaching cases has significantly declined due to budget cuts. Prosecution of suspect cases has also been chronically lax. These deficiencies matter because humans are responsible for nearly all grizzly bear deaths, and because many human-caused deaths involve suspect circumstances or are demonstrably caused by poachers. There is no doubt that poaching or questionable “self-defense” cases have increased during the last 10 years – but we do not know the actual extent of the problem.


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