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Money, Politics and the Future of the Grizzly

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Money and politics have driven decisions about the fate of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears for the last 50 years. You often hear that more is known about Yellowstone grizzly bears than any other population of bears. But the truth is that managers and researchers here have benefitted from ample resources to support research and monitoring primarily because of the controversies that surround this population, not because of any greater curiosity or competence on the part of those involved.

Money will continue to matter after the removal of federal endangered species protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, because the government will rely on implementation of the expensive post-delisting Conservation Strategy (CS) to maintain the population. According to the delisting rule published last week (hereafter, the Rule), inadequate funding to implement the CS could trigger a status review of the population and possible relisting (link).

While on one hand the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) touts the CS as a key part of “adequate regulations” for protecting Yellowstone’s grizzlies, the agency at the same time admits that the CS cannot compel any land or wildlife management agency to do anything. (link). Everything in the plan, including funding, is voluntary.

How can both be true? Well, they can’t. Here, the government speaks out of both sides of its mouth, telling all sides what they want to hear.

Even if management agencies want to implement the CS, there is no reliable source of future funding for implementation, which amounts to about $3.8 million per year, not accounting for inflation (link). Agencies can’t obligate funds — Congress and state legislatures jealously guard that duty.  In  the Rule’s discussion outlining which agency is supposed to do and spend what, the FWS reinforces this basic truth, saying that the: “[CS] neither obligates nor implies a requirement for the identified party to implement the action(s) or secure funding for implementing the action(s)”.

The fact is that implementation of the CS relies on funding from no fewer than eight different entities, any one of which could withdraw funding at any time. The likelihood of funding shortfalls is all the greater because successful implementation of the CS requires an astounding 50% increase of annual budgets from pre-delisting levels of around $2.5 million– to roughly $3.8 million. This comes at a time when both federal and state agencies face an unprecedented funding crisis, especially the US Forest Service. More on this later.

Furthermore, the FWS relies on 3 Indian tribes–the Shoshone Bannock, Northern Arapaho, and Eastern Shoshone—to participate in funding and implementing the CS. These very same tribes face enormous financial challenges, and have passed resolutions opposing the delisting decision. What are the chances that the tribes will fund a plan they do not support and cannot afford?

Why Managing Grizzly Bears Post-Delisting is So Expensive

Grizzly bear recovery costs a lot because of the expense involved in monitoring bears and their habitat using all of the requisite radio-collars, airplanes, field checking,  etc. Also, it is not cheap to prevent and manage human-bear conflicts, including buying bear-resistant dumpsters and replacing them when they wear out, as well as educating the many thousands of Yellowstone’s visitors about how to recreate safely in bear country. Adequate funding is especially important in the case of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears because this population is genetically so vulnerable that it will require perpetual life support in the form of expensive importation of bears to address genetic concerns.

And monitoring what is happening with the population and its habitat is particularly critical if, as proposed, the government loosens restrictions, turns increasingly to killing bears to resolve conflicts, and allows trophy hunting for the first time in 40 years. Delisting will lead to a smaller population, thus adding risk to a situation that is already fraught in light of the increasingly excessive human-caused mortalities that have occurred during most of the last 10 years. A breathtaking 61 grizzly bears died in 2015, 55 of them human caused – possibly an unsustainable 12% of the population (link).

If hunting and otherwise killing more bears were not in the cards, it might be possible to spend less money on monitoring.

The Problem of Accountability

When the FWS last attempted to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bears in 2007, they had no accounting system in place to allow the involved agencies or the concerned public to determine when funding gaps had occurred and how large they might be. Nothing has been done to remedy the problem since then.

Worse, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), which oversees management of listed grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states, spent much of last winter’s meeting in Missoula arguing about the purpose and duties of the committee. The identity crisis seems far from over (link).

It is true that there are many in state and federal agencies who have good intentions when it comes to fostering co-existence between grizzly bears and humans. These good intentions that have been expressed in various documents focused on a post-delisting world. But the road to extinction is paved with good intentions.  The Endangered Species Act requires more.

The 2007 Delisting: a Cautionary Tale

The story of what happened when grizzly bears were delisted in 2007 provides a cautionary tale. There are many readers who probably know that the FWS’ 2007 delisting rule was overturned in federal court in 2009, because the rule pretty much ignored all of the science highlighting the threats posed to Yellowstone’s grizzly bears by losses of whitebark pine, a key grizzly bear food source that was all but wiped out by an unprecedented climate-driven outbreak of mountain pine beetle.

But most do not know that, during the two years that Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted, the agencies blew through a windfall of $2 million and still fell far short of funds to implement the Conservation Strategy.

Here is what happened. A strident opponent of the Endangered Species Act and avid supporter of grizzly bear delisting, then Montana Senator Conrad Burns, served as Chair of the Interior Appropriations Committee. In the days when congressional earmarks were as common as mud, he was able to earmark $1 million/year for the first two years after delisting to support grizzly bear management (link). Knowing that inadequate funding would be a problem jumped on by those who opposed delisting, Burns’ intent was to make this issue disappear for a while.

But it didn’t. As I pointed out earlier, there was no central recordkeeping of how the funds were spent. After repeatedly being denied requests for whatever records the agencies had kept, I secured a response through a request from then Montana Senator Max Baucus. Even with the extra cash, the funding gaps were striking. The Forest Service showed a funding shortfall of at least $0.5 million during these 2 years post-delisting management, and Montana was $170,000 or so short (link). The problem was likely worse, but records from other agencies were so incomplete as to be incomprehensible. Burns’ $2 million funding buffer proved far from enough.

Since that time, congressional earmarks were banned because of their widespread abuse. They no longer provide an option for filling the gaps, which are likely to be greater this time around.

Government Agencies are Strapped More Than Ever

Delisting comes at a time when funding for agencies such as the Forest Service has been tanking, with support for management of wildlife habitat hit hardest. By contrast, fire management and related extractive uses such as “forest restoration” logging now get the lion’s share of funding. The Bridger Teton National Forest budget has declined by 30% (link), and the future is not likely to bring improvements.

State wildlife management agencies are in no better shape. Even though Wyoming was relatively flush until recently due to energy-related revenues, it is loath to spend on conservation of grizzly bears, which are seen a competitors for their cash cow, big game such as elk (link).

In light of the States’ zeal to keep the grizzly bear off the endangered species list once they wrest control away from the federal government, there is little chance that funding shortfalls could trigger a relisting, no matter how bad the problem. Meanwhile, given the larger economic forces at play on both the state and federal levels, funding shortfalls will likely only increase.

Hunting Grizzly Bears Won’t Generate Net Revenue

You hear from some quarters that hunting grizzly bears will generate revenue for the states that will offset the cost of management. This is bunk.

Wyoming officials have announced that they will charge nonresidents a fee of $6,000 for a tag to hunt a grizzly bear and residents a fee of $600 (link). It is not yet clear what Montana and Idaho will do: they could follow Wyoming’s lead, or possibly the example of Alaska or British Columbia. In Alaska, the costs of a brown bear tag for residents are $25, for nonresidents $500, and for “aliens” $650. In British Columbia a tag for a resident is $80 and a nonresident $1,050. Given the level of harvest, none of these tag fees come close to covering the costs of bear management in either Alaska or British Columbia.

Given that the northern Rockies states will, combined, be sport hunting no more than a couple of dozen grizzlies, license-related income will only be a trivial fraction of grizzly bear-related expenses, outweighed by the rising costs of management outlined in the CS.

To the extent that a hunt has economic value, the lions share goes to the outfitter – and outfitted hunts start at $15,000. But right now in Greater Yellowstone, outfitters are increasingly dependent on watching rather than killing wildlife – and this is the overall trend in recreation and public demand regionally and nationally. The fact is that hunting is an industry in decline. Since 1998 hunting has declined by over 40% in Greater Yellowstone (link), and the trend is expected to continue. In any case, while you can still justify subsistence hunting of birds and big game, killing carnivores is about little more than gratifying the ego and libido.

By contrast, alive, wildlife is worth over a billion annually (link), and provides the base of the economic and cultural well-being of the region.

Rather than generating revenue, hunting grizzly bears will give the Northern Rockies states a black eye. It will come at the cost of the growing outfitting industry that depends on something other than killing. Further, by hunting bears at a time when the ecosystem is unraveling (link), states are risking the future of the Great Bear. Hunting will invite an even more expensive emergency response if and when relisting is necessary.

Grizzly Bear Trust Fund?

To fill the funding gap, people inside and outside the government have been talking for the last 25 years about creating a trust fund for managing grizzly bears, and possibly other large carnivores such as wolves. No matter how you cut it, large carnivores are expensive, with high costs entailed by both monitoring and reducing conflicts. It makes sense to establish a stable source of funding not subject to the vagaries of Congress and state legislatures.

But no one has sorted out how to do this. No billionaire grizzly bear fan has decided to part with several millions to make this idea a reality. Given the government’s chronic accountability problems, I doubt that this idea can be realized unless it is made truly separate from the government, with a rigorous system of transparent record-keeping.

Funding is important to sustaining Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. It is time for the government to come clean and admit that the funding is not in place to manage grizzly bears after delisting and fulfill the terms of the Conservation Strategy. Nor is there a system of accountability in place.  Sport hunting and the promotion of ever more bear killing will increase risk for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. With this risk comes a demand for rigorous monitoring at a time when the government is increasingly short on funds.

What happens if the needed funds are not forthcoming? A likely scenario over time is that we will know less and less about the status of bears and their habitat. As is the case now, the government will likely continue to hold its monopolistic death grip on Yellowstone’s grizzly bear data as a means of preventing close scrutiny of its science. Meanwhile, the states will probably continue unsustainable levels of sport hunting until population problems are so obvious that they cannot be denied. At which point, interventions are hideously expensive – but more important, too little, too late.

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

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