The Bear Minimum

The one true symbol of wilderness today is the grizzly bear–ursus arctos horribilis. Grizzlies and humans (Doug Peacock, excepted) just don’t get along. More humans, less bears; less bears, less wilderness. And since the larger part of American history has been that of humans subduing wilderness, the great bears have not fared well.

Thirty years ago, the mighty grizzly bear of the American Rocky Mountains landed on the Endangered Species list. It was one of the first animals honored with this dubious citation.

By 1973, the giant bears, which once ruled the great plains and Rocky Mountains from the Dakotas to California and struck terror into the Lewis and Clark expedition and many who followed, existed only in a few patches of isolated and still wild land in Montana and Wyoming: greater Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Cabinet Mountains, the Selkirks and the Swan Range.

Even in these last remote refuges, the bear was hardly thriving. Perhaps 350 bears remained in Yellowstone. Then the Park Service closed the open dump, a stable source of food, and the population dropped. The Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and Swan populations totaled less than 200 bears combined. The healthiest population existed in the chunks of wilderness in and around Glacier National Park, which tallied perhaps 500 bears in the early 1970s. But this was something of an illusion, since the Glacier population was being buffeted by Canadian bears crossing the border to escape the merciless hunting campaigns to the north. Grizzly refugees.

Extinction loomed as a real possibility for the greatest living symbol of the American Rockies.

It still does.

From the time the bear was listed, the State of Montana clamored to have the bear removed, particularly in the Glacier area, where it wanted to auction off lucrative grizzly bear hunts. The Forest Service, which manages most of the bear’s habitat in the region, griped that if taken literally the Endangered Species Act protections would put a serious dent in its annual timber sale offerings. The agency refused to interpret the act literally. The Park Service, which manages Yellowstone and Glacier, liked having the bear as an attraction, but chafed at suggestions that the agency should scale back its plans to construct resorts for tourists in bear habitat; when, inevitably, tourists got mauled and dismembered by irritated bears, the Park Service, whose mission is to protect wildlife, sent assassination teams out to track down the killer bears and dispatch them.

Across much of Montana, federal land is checkerboarded with private holdings, a legacy of the railroad land grants. This was, of course, one of the greatest government sanctioned rip-offs of all time, where the railroad barons were given alternating sections of federal land as an inducement for the construction of the trans-continental railroads. In secret deals, the railroads eventually sold of these lushly timbered parcels to big timber companies. The deals were covert because under the terms of the land grants, the land was supposed to revert to the federal government if they weren’t needed for the construction of the railroad corridors.

For decades, the railroad grant lands were owned by two timber giants, Plum Creek and Champion International. Through the 1960s, the timber companies did little logging on these mountainous lands. They were remote and the timber wasn’t that valuable. Then beginning the late 1970s two things happened. The Forest Service began building roads into these lands, thus reducing the logging costs for Plum Creek and Champion. And the price of timber soared.

The timber companies struck while the iron was hot. Over the next 10 years, Plum Creek and Champion went on a logging frenzy, cutting without restraint. By the end of the 1980s, more than 2 million acres of forest, most of it prime grizzly habitat, had been liquidated. Internal memos from executives at both companies unearthed by reporter Richard Manning revealed that each company had logged off more than 90 percent of its holdings. So much for sustainable forestry.

Predictably, both firms began to shut down their operations in the Rockies, closing the mills and laying off thousands of workers despite their repeated pledges to stay in Montana for the long haul. Champion left Montana altogether, moving to the southeast and Mexico. Plum Creek stuck around, but transformed itself from timber company to real estate developer, turning its clearcut forests into wilderness ranchettes and mountain subdivisions.

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with ensuring the bear’s survival, took a laissez-faire approach toward ursus horribilus, partly on its on initiative, partly at the insistence of Wyoming/Montana/Idaho congressional junta. Under the strictures of the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is tasked with identifying the lands that are considered essential for the survival of a listed species and designating those lands as critical habitat. These lands are then considered sacrosanct and the agency is permitted to prohibit any activities therein, which might harm the species.

With the grizzly, this never happened. The Fish and Wildlife Service neglected to designate critical habitat and their decision was backed by congressional rider that prevented environmental groups from suing the agency for violating the law. Without a critical habitat designation, it was almost impossible to challenge incursions into the bear’s last redoubts.

Not that they would have sued, mind you. Nationally and locally, environmental groups considered the grizzly politically toxic. It threatened to put them in conflict with some of their favored politicians in the region, most notably Senator Max Baucus.

So the grizzly never had much of a chance. Its habitat was under assault by loggers, miners, oil companies and real estate barons, while the bureaucrats and NGOs charged with looking out for its survival took a pass.

This all changed in 1990 when a group of young and radical greens came together in Missoula and formed the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Headed by Mike Bader, a former Yellowstone Park ranger who had conducted extensive research on grizzlies, the Alliance unleashed a barrage of lawsuits on behalf of the bear. It frontally attacked Democratic politicians, such as Baucus, Bill Clinton and Representative Pat Williams, who spouted green rhetoric, but worked to undermine the bear at every turn, often through the noxious practice of congressional riders to appropriations bills which shielded destructive logging schemes from environmental challenges in the federal courts.

What other groups in the region took as a liability, the Alliance seized on as a calling card. More than any other animal in North America, the grizzly craved large expanses of roadless terrain. The northern Rockies were the only place in the lower-48 with grizzlies and a sizable chunk of wilderness, about 16 million acres spread across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Protect the bear and you could save most of this land from the chainsaw and oil wells. Save the roadless areas and you ensure a future for the grizzly and dozens of other species, such as the bull trout, lynx, Pacific fisher and gray wolf.

But it turns out you have to go beyond merely saving the roadless areas and wildernesses. They are now islands, isolated refuges in a sea of clearcuts, ranchettes and oil patches. To give the grizzly a real shot, these archipelagos of forest need to be linked together through a network of wildland corridors that are off-limits to logging, road building, mining and oil development. That’s the logic behind the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

NREPA, or something even bigger, may be the last chance to save the grizzly. The news has not be good for the great bear. In early 2007, the Bush administration moved to strip the Yellowstone population of bear of its protections under the endangered species. This unwelcome event occurred despite the fact that several sinister internal assessments have concluded that the grizzly faces dire threats in all three of its final strongholds, a crisis brought on by Homo sapiens voracissim. Otherwise known as ranchers, timber companies and the oil and gas industry.

If there’s been one human subspecies more antipathetic to Ursus horribilis than any other, its probably been the bear’s supposed protector: Homo bureaucraticus, AKA the federal lands bureaucrat, who sees the irascible bear as an unmitigated nuisance. That’s because grizzlies are the original sylvan Luddites, frightening tourists (occasionally taking one out), shredding pretty North Face tents, rummaging around dumpsters at local resorts and generally raising hell in the neighborhood.

You can hardly blame the bear. One example: after the grizzly was put on the endangered species list, the Park Service approved the huge Grant Village resort complex on the western shore of Yellowstone Lake, right in the middle of prime grizzly fishing habitat. In exchange, the Park Service promised to dismantle the Fishing Bridge campground on the other side of the lake, also favorite habitat for the bear. Enter Senator Alan Simpson, who put a stop to that. So the bears went fishing for cutthroat trout as they have done since time immemorial and got caught up in the tourist traffic. First time ursine intruders get drugged up with sodium pentothal (which turn many into psychotics) and airlifted to remote, troutless regions of the park. Two strikes and you’re out. Repeat offenders are shot to death. In 2004, 19 grizzlies were killed in the Yellowstone region, half of them by wildlife and Park Service officials.

So after thirty years of this, the Feds have had enough. They’ve pronounced their work done and have moved to de-list the grizzly in Yellowstone. The rationale for such de-listing is an old stratagem of Homo bureaucraticus, namely: a robust declaration of victory. The Bush administration (following a template laid down in Clinton time) declared flatly that the government believes it has “achieved recovery plan goals for the Yellowstone ecosystem.” And then wash their hands of the blood.

Grizzlies, for obvious reasons, are hard to count, except for the ones you’ve dispatched. But most non-government scientists believe that there are fewer female grizzlies in the Yellowstone and Glacier regions now than there were when the bear was first listed. In fact, of the 19 bears killed in Yellowstone in 2004, 10 were adult females, some leaving behind cubs to that soon perished as well. Does this mean the Endangered Species Act is a failure? No. It means that federal bureaucrats have lacked the will to enforce the law.

To truly defend the bear, those bureaucrats would have been forced to confront the designs of some of the most ruthless lobbies in America-for whom Ursus horribilis has been an irksome obstruction to making money. The grizzly stands in the path of oil and gas companies such as Chevron, which wants to sink wells in the Rocky Mountain Front east of Glacier Park; in the path of Boise-Cascade and Plum Creek Timber, which wants to log off the remaining six million acres of wild forest in the Northern Rockies; in the path of Club Yellowstone, and other elite ski resorts; in the path of mining companies, who want to excavate giant holes in the Absaroka and Pioneer Mountain ranges in search of gold.

Facing these opponents, where may the beleaguered grizzly turn for succor, aside from an unwary hiker? An apparent ally would seem to be the wildlife lobby, but here too peril lurks in the path of Ursus horribilis. A few years ago someone sent me an internal memo from the National Wildlife Federation set forth a plan for establishing a “grizzly recovery zone” in central Idaho. The plan was written in consort with Defenders of Wildlife and, yes, two timber industry groups. Alas, the Idaho grizzlies won’t, in all likelihood, be given much chance to recover. Plowing through the virtually impenetrable prose of the memorandum, we find that these two conservation groups placed some codicils on the tails of their plan. For example, oversight of the recovery zone was to be partially surrendered to local boards, dominated by such disinterested parties as Potlatch Timber and Hecla Mining.

The bear’s status under the scheme is somewhat of a giveaway, as any alert Ursus horribilis skimming the contents would speedily realize. The intent is to reclassify the great bear as “a non-essential experimental population”, which means the bears could be killed by any rancher or hunter claiming thereafter that their lives or livestock were at risk.

Characteristically, this cautious approach surrenders the fruits of a tremendous legal victory for the Endangered Species Act in the so-called Sweet Home case by the Supreme Court. The court ruled that destruction of a listed species’ habitat is the same as killing the species outright. But in their “fair compromise” with industry, the neoliberal green’s conceded that the notion of “harm” should not be understood to include “any actions that modify grizzly habitat.” In other words, the grizzly should not be considered an impediment to timber sales or gold mines. They were expendable.

Under these perilous conditions, give the grizzly another 50 years at most in the lower-48. The only hope for their survival resides in legislation like NREPA that locks up huge chunks of land away from the bulldozer and the chainsaw, locks the land up tight as inviolate wilderness, with no exceptions.

No wilderness, no grizzlies. No grizzlies, no real wilderness.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. This essay will appear in Born Under a Bad Sky, to be published in December. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

 

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3