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Blackout on Grizzly Bears

In grade school, I was taught that our democratic society depends on citizen access to good information to make good choices. That in order for journalists to serve their function as citizen watchdogs, government must be transparent, both in terms of information used and in processes employed to reach decisions. And that science involves a healthy debate about what conclusions are best supported by the data at hand.

I was also taught that totalitarian regimes are obsessed with controlling the flow of information. So I was puzzled to discover how tightly controlled information about grizzly bears was, and still is, by managers, and how opaque decision processes are. I have written about the impenetrable management arena in previous essays and elsewhere on Grizzly Times (link).

I was especially disturbed to find that what seemed noncontroversial — raw data on grizzly bear demography, conflicts and mortality — is being held in a death grip. I had thought it was fair to disagree about policy, but hoped to agree with the government and others on the important facts about the status, trends, and threats to the population. Allowing scientists outside the privileged enclaves of government to evaluate the raw data and engage in discussions about what they found seemed a reasonable part of a healthy scientific process.

After all, grizzly bears are threatened and the stakes are high. There is only one data set on Yellowstone grizzly bears and it lies in the hands of a small number of government scientists. Monopolies do not serve the interest of good science, which depends on vigorous and even challenging exchanges between different experts using different analytic methods to examine the same data set.

Yet, starting in the early 1990s, the government denied requests for all data just as it sought to remove federal protections from the Yellowstone’s grizzly bears (i.e., delist this population) for political reasons. Requests for data included not only information on how bears are counted, but the details of how they died, and even of human-bear conflicts.

This matters because under the Endangered Species Act, science is supposed to be the basis of decisions to list and delist species. A clear understanding of status and trends of the population is key. So are factors affecting the health of grizzly bear populations, such as habitat destruction, climate change and human-caused deaths.

In the case of the grizzly bear, science has long been driven by a political agenda: delisting. Although the US Geologic Survey (USGS) touts its scientific impartiality, here it serves its primary paying customer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which has promoted delisting and catered to the states’ campaign for management control for over 20 years (link). So, why should we trust the science coming out of the agencies regarding the health of the grizzly bear?

Current confusion about how well the Yellowstone population is doing again raises questions about what is inside the government’s black box that contains grizzly bear data. According to one view expressed by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), the grizzly bear population is no longer growing and may be declining (link).

Adding to this, last week at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meetings, the IGBST stated that the population count this year appears to have dropped from 757 grizzly bears last year to 714, without having yet accounted for the 52 plus bears that died during the last six months (link).

Needless-to-say, the agency tried to explain away the drop in numbers as an issue associated with the counting method. Still, a 6% drop in population numbers was not lost on those present, including the media.

But then you hear other grizzly bear numbers being bandied about, perhaps 1000-1200 bears, using a different methodology, Mark Resight (link). And now there are rumors that this supposedly superior method is being scrapped for reasons that have not been explained.

Then just last week, USGS released a genetics study claiming that the effective population size quadrupled since the 1990’s. Never mind that grizzly bears would have to reproduce like bunnies if the claims were true (link). The timing of the release was late on Friday, to capitalize on weekend press, with no possibility of a response prior to the latest meeting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear managers. Hardly the hallmark of non-political science.

What the heck is going on?  The answer is that no one knows and no one outside a small circle inside the government and their handpicked colleagues can know, because no one can get free and unhampered access to raw data about Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

I have had many conversations with reporters who are similarly confused about the numbers, what they mean, and the contradictory statements of various agency staff. This confusion is reflected in their stories, which handicaps readers in making informed choices about policies such as delisting.

As I said before, the failure to get the data is not for lack of trying. At least ten requests, including Freedom of information Act (FOIA) requests, informal requests, and open documents requests to the USGS, FWS and the states have been submitted since the 1990’s. This includes a written request that five tribal leaders handed to US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe last week.

Initially, the government rejected these requests based on claims that poachers could use data on locations of bears to kill grizzlies. Independent scientists suggested ways around these problems, and were still denied.

In a recent case, IGBST gave independent scientists access to data but only on the condition that they be co-authors on the publications (which meant strong influence over what was said). Given the orientation of IGBST to grizzly bear delisting and its relationship with its primary paying client, the FWS, the relationship could hardly be neutral, and the scientists resisted the stipulation.

The most recent explanation for denying open, unconditional access to the data is career maintenance. Here is the Leader of the IGBST, Frank Van Manen, saying that he can’t give out the data because his career depends on holding on to it, as a basis for pumping out publications (see a video of his statement). Is that why we taxpayers have spent millions on grizzly bear research, including handsome salaries for people like Van Manen?

Recently, agencies have not been denying requests outright, but typically respond with boxes of press releases and other readily available material as an unexplained substitute for the requested records. A few weeks ago, in response to one FOIA request for information dating back to 1979, I got two years of records, with no explanation for why more years were not included. In response to another two-year-old request, I only got email correspondence, without the attachments that contained the meat of what I had asked for.  In response to yet another, I got no data at all.

There are good reasons for you to demand that a lot of scientists look at the Yellowstone grizzly bear data. This is a world class data set, representing the most grizzly bear data ever collected on one population. As research has shown, scientists using different methods to answer the same question can reach radically different conclusions.

That does not imply that the whole scientific enterprise is just a product of whatever toy you are playing with. It means, rather, that humility is warranted. A battle of the brains actually serves the democratic process. Without providing open access to Yellowstone’s grizzly bear data, the IGBST might as well relegate all of its publications to the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

There are reasons for the public to have access to raw grizzly bear data other than just allowing for independent assessments of status and trends of the population. One reason would be to allow more people to critically think about the factors that drive human-bear conflicts and the resulting inevitable bear mortalities. The fact that we are seeing escalating human-caused mortalities and conflicts in recent years (link) indicates that more can and must be done to prevent them (link).

In order to effectively prevent conflicts, a complete understanding of all possible contributing factors is necessary – weather conditions, time of day, topography, behavior of the people involved, behavior of the bear, number of people present, use of deterrents such as bear spray, under what conditions, etc. The information in the government’s annual grizzly bear reports lack such detail, which was why requests for the raw data have been submitted by several people, including myself.

Although the government has attempted to synthesize some information on conflicts from time to time, it has indulged in selective interpretation. Moreover, the most recent synthesis was reported back in 2009 (link), before the full impact of losing whitebark pine (a critical bear food) could be assessed.

Again, this is a case where more eyes examining the data are better than fewer. Given that the distribution of Yellowstone’s grizzlies has been changing dramatically, a spatial analysis of conflicts and mortality would be especially helpful at this juncture (link).

For safety reasons, we all share an interest in reducing conflicts, no matter where we stand on the question of delisting and hunting grizzly bears. Conflict and mortality data have been used locally in some problem-solving efforts by communities, particularly in efforts to improve sanitation. These data can be used more broadly to help address the growing challenges involving big game hunters and livestock.

So it was particularly disturbing when after a year’s delay, Jackson Hole News and Guide reporter Mike Kosmrl recently got only about 20% of the data that he requested  on hunter-caused grizzly bear mortality, with no explanation for why the rest was withheld (link).  As previously stated, conservationists, including myself, received essentially nothing in response to similar requests, also without explanation. All of these requests were made under Freedom of Information Act and similar state laws which presumably mandate a good faith response on the part of the public employees who are on the receiving end.

Free access to information lies at the root of our democratic system. In the case of grizzly bears, access to the raw data on demography, conflicts and mortality serves several purposes, including the production of more reliable results, informing the debate over delisting and recovery, and preventing human-bear conflicts. Access to the grizzly bear data could also inspire and intrigue generations of graduate students, not just a few agency scientists and their cronies who have already “made it”.

We as a society may fight about the wisdom of delisting, but we can surely agree on the wisdom of a transparent government. We should have access to the data we paid for, about an animal that we all care about.

More articles by:

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

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