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National Park Service Stands Up For Grizzly Bears, Yet Again

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On May 10, among the thousands of comments to US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on its proposal to strip Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone grizzly bears and allow a trophy sport hunt, was a brief letter from the National Park Service (NPS) that packed a big punch: don’t hunt the bears that wander close to Park boundaries (link).

In the letter, author Sue Masica of the Park Service invoked concern for the public interest and the Park’s popular roadside grizzly bears, saying: “The bears contribute to the public’s enjoyment and sense of pride in our conservation heritage.” In the back of everybody’s mind is the April confession by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks that a celebrity grizzly bear known as Scarface had been murdered by a big game hunter last November just a stone’s throw north of Yellowstone Park. The case is still under investigation (link).

The letter was filed at a time when Yellowstone roads are reopening, visitors are swarming the parks again, and female grizzly bears are making appearances with new cubs at their sides – including perhaps the most famous momma griz of them all, known by many simply as bear Number 399, but made famous as the Grizzly of Pilgrim Creek in a recent book by author Todd Wilkinson and photographer Tom Mangelsen. At 20 years old, Number 399 has emerged this spring with just one new cub (not her typical triplets) after the miracle of winter hibernation.

Roadside Grizzly Bears, Such as Scarface and 399’s Clan, Epitomize the Problem of Delisting

For many who filed comments with the FWS, grizzly bears like 399 and Scarface epitomize the problem of delisting: these tolerant bears are protected inside the parks but vulnerable to being killing for any number of reasons when they step outside their borders. The first bears to be killed in a trophy sport hunt are likely to be celebrities such as Grizzly 399 that make their living along roadsides in Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks, where they give thousands of visitors the thrill of a lifetime.

Roadside habitat is also an important niche for females looking to avoid aggressive male bears that can kill their cubs—and which tend to hang back from roads. The Parks’ roadside bears have proved to be very benevolent and tolerant of humans. People have responded with delight.

And the Park Service has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the public behaves responsibly, at respectful distances. Celebrity bears are consequently comfortable with people and, because of that, easy to find. Moreover, certain local thugs and outfitters have stated outright that they will be out to kill these much-beloved grizzlies—out of spite. NPS officials are right to be worried.

In the letter submitted to the FWS on delisting, the NPS expressed particular concern about an area that lies between Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks in Wyoming, known as JD Rockefeller Parkway (for its former landlord). Aside from allowing big game hunting in the fall, it is managed, for all intents and purposes, as a National Park.

No Protected Buffer Zone, Say the States

Yet in a May 10 Wyofile article, Brian Nesvik of Wyoming Game and Fish Department wasted no time in pushing back, announcing that the state of Wyoming would not set aside ANY lands outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton as off limits to grizzly bear hunting (link).  Put simply, Wyoming Game and Fish is obsessed with its power, devoted to an ethos of dominating and controlling nature, and inflamed by any suggestion that reverence and respect for nature should be a consideration in their management of our public wildlife. Grizzly bear delisting can thus be seen as a pitched battle between world views, both inside and outside government.

The NPS letter plays out this battle in another way. In its planned formula to set quotas for trophy-hunting grizzly bears, Wyoming seems to assume that the Park Service will, without fuss, supply grizzly bears for the states to then dispose of by hunting or other lethal “management.” And, the collective agreements being made among Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho don’t even pretend to give the Park Service a seat at the table to talk about any aspect of post-delisting management, much less setting hunt quotas.

For the last seven months, the Park Service has been frozen out of decision-making processes, not just by the states, but also by the FWS–despite multiple attempts to engage in a meaningful dialogue. The NPS letter again requests a seat at the table, and a re-evaluation of how quotas are calculated.

The timing of the NPS letter could not be more critical. Last week, Wyoming and Montana’s wildlife management Commissions gave the green light to plans that could allow grizzly bear hunts to begin as soon as 2017. Hunts in both states would go right up to the boundaries of the National Parks, with no buffer zone to protect Park bears.

Reminding us that, to the states, delisting is fundamentally about power, a Wyoming official said in the press, “It is time for Wyoming to be in control of its grizzly bears (link).” In Montana, the public expressed so much interest in this farcical process that officials were forced to allow public involvement through real-time video. But the Park Service, it seems, must resort to writing letters.

What is going on? Why do the FWS and states seem to think it is OK to ignore the National Parks, the engine that drives recovery of grizzly bears in the entire ecosystem? Especially given that the FWS is charged by the Endangered Species Act with, not only recovery of endangered species, but also protection of the ecosystems that these species depend upon. And when, moreover, the Park Service is a sister agency of the FWS inside the US Department of Interior.

What the heck explains the FWS’s reckless disregard for the Park Service?  There is no answer other than a political one.

Dismissing Concerns of the Park Service Is All About Politics And Power

For a variety of complex reasons that partly have to do with self-styled narratives about “saving” the Endangered Species Act—a topic I have written about elsewhere (link)—promoters of grizzly bear hunting have been put in charge of the grizzly bear delisting agenda, even within the FWS. Needless-to-say, these leaders are supposed to serve the broader public interest.

For example, Matt Hogan, one of the key FWS spokesmen for the delisting issue, is a former leader of Safari Club International and the radical pro-hunting Sporting Congress (link). Recently retired Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Serhveen is a founder of Bear Trust International, a front group of Safari Club International (link).  And, FWS Director Dan Ashe himself is hardly a neutral party on the topic of hunting grizzly bears, saying at an October 2015 conference of the Humane Society of United States that: “We need to reestablish and reground hunting (of grizzly bears) as part of an ethical tradition…. (link). ”

Further, as I have previously discussed in detail, the FWS has enslaved itself to its perceived political masters in state government (link). FWS Director Dan Ashe appears joined at the hip to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead on the topic of delisting grizzly bears and reforming (read: “gutting”) the ESA, as evidenced by a breathtaking piece of pure political propaganda co-written and published by both of them last winter in the Jackson Hole News and Guide (link). The piece promoted delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears by dismissing naysayers outright.

The Ashe-Mead opinion piece was also noteworthy for its complete lack of substance. No mention of science, even though that is what the decision to delist presumably rests on.  No nod to the Endangered Species Act’s legal benchmarks and how they think they have been met. No recognition that their audience includes many people who cherish their experiences with Grizzly 399 and her brand new cub of the year.

Paradoxically, while fighting the states on some fronts, the FWS has been doing much of their dirty work on many others, especially when it comes to grizzly bears and wolves. And to some inside the FWS, delisting grizzly bears is seen as a political prize, a career capstone. After 35 years as Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Chris Servheen retired a few weeks ago after he kicked the draft delisting rule out the door and claimed almost single-handed responsibility for “recovering” Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

Scientists Overwhelmingly Oppose Delisting

Aside from the response of the NPS, scientists have been coming out of the woodwork to slam the many problems of delisting rule, including almost total disregard for the threats of climate change and genetic isolation. My husband, Dr. David Mattson, wrote 72 pages. Dr. Jane Goodall was joined by 60 scientists in a fiercely critical letter. The headline of the Guardian story that covered this letter was lovely: “Jane Goodall’s Bid to Save Grizzly Bears Threatened by $50 Hunting Licences” (link). It ran all over the world.

The debate is far from over. FWS has to sit down with the thousands of pages of comments, and respond to each and every one of them.

Meanwhile, many are already flocking to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks to celebrate the centennial birthday of the National Park system. They are coming to the parks to connect with grizzly bears in intimate ways, learn about their lives and families, and share their stories – not to grieve more dead bears such as Scarface.

Let’s give the Park Service the respect it deserves and a seat at the table in the decision-making process. It’s their bears that millions are coming to see. The Park Service really does represent in the interests of millions of people worldwide, while the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho seek to disenfranchise all but those who want to hunt them. It is time to stand with the Park Service that is standing up for grizzly bears.

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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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