Bear-ly Scientific

Like many in the conservation sphere, I was thrilled to hear President Obama re-affirm his administration’s commitment to scientific integrity in decision-making. Earlier this week, the Department of Interior released new rules on the issue.

President Obama’s emphasis on the integrity of the scientific process to inform decisions has been steady and consistent. As far back as 2008, the LA Times quoted the President as saying:  “I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best available scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predisposition of agency official or political appointees.”

That was the kind of statement that many of us had not heard for a long time.  And it felt like the dawning of a new age in some of the contentious wildlife debates in the Northern Rockies, which have been plagued by manipulations of science to serve political ends.  Sadly, Obama’s admonitions didn’t have the effects in endangered species management that I had hoped for, especially in the grizzly bear arena.  Decision-making has continued to betray scientific integrity as well as the public trust, because uncertainties and risks facing the future of Yellowstone grizzlies were not fully disclosed so that the public could make informed choices. These are especially important principles in the context of saving imperiled species, as the Endangered Species Act requires both the use of the best science and the application of the precautionary principle to minimize risk to species.  And even as we see a new cast of characters come onto the scene in the middle of Obama’s term in office, it is feeling like more of the same old pattern of using scientific information to advance politically driven agendas, at least with regard to endangered species such as grizzly bears.

Take a recent Reuters article about the debate over Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, for example.  Dan Ashe, President Obama’s pick to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has made some pretty confusing statements that seem to run far afield, in substance and in spirit, to the President’s pledges to mitigate the impacts of climate change on imperiled species, to engage the public in a meaningful dialogue about solutions to climate-related problems, and to avoid using scientific information for political ends.

Ashe told Reuters, “the comeback by Yellowstone grizzlies is the chief reason that the Obama administration wants the bears to be delisted, which opens the way for public hunting”.

Before going further, I need to emphasize that there has been intense and persistent political pressure on the federal government to remove federal endangered species protections, or delist, grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  For nearly two decades, there have been resolutions by the state governors of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming and by county commissions, as well as numerous statements by congressmen, such as former Senator Conrad Burns (MT), advocating removal of ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.  Many of the arguments used to support delisting, and voiced by politicians such as Senator Burns, related to economic development focused on extraction of natural resources. For people such as Senator Burns, bears were seen an impediment to industrial “progress”.

The states center their arguments on state control over wildlife management, which is part of an ancient battle between the states and the federal government.  Much to the annoyance of the states, the feds have primary authority over management of endangered species.  One key state agenda, expressed in comments to the FWS during the delisting process, is to hunt grizzly bears, presumably because hunting and fishing licenses provide the lion’s share of funding for state wildlife agencies, and because killing things (hunting) is also central to their culture.  In a 1997 article by Susan Haygood, “State Wildlife Management: the Pervasive Influence of Hunters, Culture and Money,” the author discussed in detail how state wildlife agencies are committed to the interests of hunters, who are the primary source of state wildlife management revenues.  So, it is not surprising that the states would be pushing for a grizzly bear hunt, even if the public opposed a hunt.

In comments on Yellowstone delisting, the public spoke loud and clear that Yellowstone’s grizzly bears were still too vulnerable to be delisted and hunted.

The public expressed overwhelming opposition to delisting and a grizzly bear hunt. In over 99% of the several hundred thousand comments submitted during more than eight public-comment processes extending over a period of nearly ten years, the public has urged the government repeatedly to not delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear.  Many expressed concerns about habitat threats, excessive killing, and grizzly bear hunting.

So, what is behind Ashe’s and the federal government’s pursuit of delisting and a hunt?  Not only does it run counter to strong and consistent public opposition to such a move, it is also inconsistent with Obama’s pledge to restore scientific integrity to the business of the federal government.  And, importantly, it ignores the fact that an earlier U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to delist grizzly bears was overturned in 2009 by a federal judge because the best scientific information, collected mostly by government biologists, did not support FWS’ conclusion that the population was not threatened.  The court affirmed that the best available science overwhelming pointed to the adverse impacts of losing whitebark pine, which produces fatty seeds that were once a critical food for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  Whitebark pine is rapidly being killed by a climate-driven outbreak of mountain pine beetles.  In its decision to delist grizzly bears, the FWS not only trivialized the effects of losing whitebark pine, but also attempted to argue that whitebark pine didn’t matter.  Since the agency’s conclusions were not logically connected with the best available science, its delisting decision didn’t pass muster with the court, which recognized misuse of science when it saw it.

What could have been behind Ashe’s statements but a political agenda and pressure from the states?  It certainly was inconsistent with the best available science, public opinion, and the judgment of a federal court judge.

The fact is that whitebark pine does matter because its absence prompts human-bear conflicts—which jumped to unprecedented levels this year.  And we can expect the situation to get worse in the coming years as grizzlies forage in areas closer to people.  With the disappearance of whitebark pine, bears that are desperately seeking the food they need before denning will find new dining options, which increasingly include meat.

Look at the record number of conflicts with cattle in Wyoming, as well as mounting conflicts with big game hunters, who are increasingly contesting their deer and elk kills with grizzlies.  Those conflicts contributed to the death of an estimated 75 bears out of roughly 600 in the ecosystem, which is roughly 13% of the population. This level of mortality is simply not sustainable.  During the similarly fatal year of 2008, when an estimated 79 bears died, the population declined.

In the Reuters article, officials chalk up increasing bear/human conflicts to a growing number of bears.  But the federal data tell a different story.  According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which is the official source of information about Yellowstone’s grizzlies, the population’s growth rate has flattened over the past four years, coincident with loss of whitebark pine and other key foods such as cutthroat trout (another victim of climate change and harmful non-native species).

To propose killing more bears through a grizzly bear hunt, as FWS now proposes, on top of current unsustainable levels of mortalities and deteriorating habitat conditions, is a highly risky course.  It is like playing Russian roulette with an icon of our nation’s first park, and a species that has been brought back from the very brink of extinction in just 20 years — years of incredibly hard work, and work that easily can be reversed through a relatively few years of excessive high mortality.  This is especially true because bears are the slowest reproducing mammal in North America: it does not take very many years of high mortality to turn a conservation success story into a grizzly tragedy.  (This in fact, is what happened in the 1970’s, when so many grizzly bears were killed that some experts predicted that the population was doomed to extinction.)  Yet nowhere has FWS disclosed the level of risk to the public of its proposed action, so the public can decide how much of a chance it is willing to take with the Yellowstone grizzly population, one of the last strongholds remaining for grizzlies in the lower-48 states.
Don’t get me wrong:  NRDC is not ideologically opposed to a grizzly bear hunt, when the population is fully recovered.  But it is not.  Given what is happening with recent high years of human-caused grizzly bear mortalities (many avoidable), the functional loss of whitebark pine and cutthroat trout, and the well-established link between whitebark pine and grizzly bear mortality rates, the population is still threatened.

It is the job of government to fairly and honestly present the facts, along with information on uncertainties and risks, so that the public can debate the issue.  After the court ruling that overturned its delisting decision, the government would have been wise to go back to the drawing board and reflect on how it could better avoid risk to the species, and restore integrity to the public debate about how to interpret recent alarming trends of bear numbers and foods.  It would have also been well advised to include scientists from outside the government in this process, and to open up a meaningful public dialogue about how to reduce human-bear conflicts and resulting grizzly mortalities.

This approach would have been consistent with statements by the administration about the importance of meaningful public engagement in a dialogue about the challenges of climate change and its potential impacts on fish and wildlife.

President Obama needs to force his agencies to live up to his promises about restoring scientific integrity in decision-making, and truly implement the new policies recently adopted to achieve that goal.   And we need more action on the administration’s pledge to help mitigate the impacts of climate change on wildlife.

Both imply a very different course for the grizzlies of Yellowstone.  It is not too late.  Experts have demonstrated that there still is ample suitable habitat to compensate for climate-driven declines in habitat quality in the core of the Yellowstone ecosystem—in areas such as the Wind Rivers, Palisades, and Centennial Mountains, which connect Yellowstone with Idaho’s extensive wildlands.  But the window of opportunity is closing rapidly as human development spreads.  Distorting the science to deny the problem will only shrink that window of time, and delay the actions needed to save grizzly bears in the last 1% of their former range in the lower-48 states.

It is time that the government presents a balanced picture of what is happening to the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and create a long overdue democratic forum to debate the best ways to respond.  Restoring scientific integrity to the recovery process, and engaging the public in a new, fair and meaningful way are the only means of crafting policies that will ensure the Great Bear survives in one of its last refuges. Such changes will also put meat on the bones of what has so far only been rhetoric from the Obama administration about new directions in management of endangered species such as grizzly bears.

LOUISA WILLCOX is a Senior Wildlife Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingstone, Montana. She can be reached through her blog.


Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.