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Tribal Grizzly Bear Treaty Redefines Recovery of the Great Bear

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Last weekend marked the signing of an historic tribal grizzly bear treaty in Canada and the US. Entitled “The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration,” the treaty was carried from Ottawa to Jackson Hole, where it was signed by traditionalists and supporters of all generations.

The treaty marks a new chapter in the battle for native rights and environmental protection.

“Within this struggle to protect the grizzly and see the Great Bear reintroduced to tribal nations from the Rockies to the Pacific where biologically suitable habitat exists, we find many of our struggles – the struggle to defend our sovereignty, our treaty rights, consultation mandates, and our spiritual and religious freedoms,” explained Chief Stan Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation, in Jackson Hole last Sunday (link).

The treaty movement comes as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is poised to strip federal protections from the grizzly in Greater Yellowstone, which will unleash state-sponsored trophy hunting for the first time in over 40 years. Tribes across North America revere the grizzly as sacred. Some fifty federally recognized Indian tribes, as well as Canada’s Assembly of First Nations (some 640 tribal bands in Canada), have formalized their opposition to delisting the grizzly from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Speaking to a crowd of over 200 in Jackson Hole, numerous tribal leaders linked the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to the fight for the threatened grizzly bear.

Eastern Shoshone Chairman Darwin St. Clair, Jr., said: “Nowadays our tribes have to get along. We don’t have a choice. We have DAPL going on in Cannon Ball, North Dakota to protect the water, and today we have our grizzly that we’re trying to protect (link).”

What the Tribes Want for Grizzly Bears, Their Culture

The tribes are seeking respect for their spiritual views, their rights and the laws that protect their interests, including legally required processes such as consultation by the federal agencies with tribal governments. Tribal leaders have also carried their concerns about grizzly bear management to decision-makers in Washington, DC, where they offered an alternative management plan for grizzly bear recovery featuring co-management of grizzly bears and inclusion of tribal lands in a vision of recovery.

But thus far, the messages from tribal leaders have fallen on deaf ears in the government.

Because of the location and enormous size of tribally owned lands, which includes key habitat on reservations such as the Wind River, Blackfoot, and Flathead, as well as other unoccupied but suitable lands, the tribes offer real and exciting prospects for achieving meaningful and long term grizzly bear recovery.

Bringing the Great Bear back to tribal lands would help reconnect Indian people with a cherished animal that now only lives in story and song on many reservations. And by requiring the involvement of trained tribal biologists and managers, grizzly recovery on tribal lands could inspire a young generation to discover new relationships with nature and with their cultural roots. In fact, that is one of many leaders’ central aims.

Piikani Councilman, Brian Jackson told me after the Jackson Hole event, “We must reconnect our youth to the land and their heritage.”

Another aim of the tribes is to fundamentally reconfigure governmental relationships when it comes to managing wildlife, perhaps catalyzed by co-management of grizzly bears on tribal lands.

Prospects for Tribal Co-Management of Grizzly Bears

The Tribes’ concerns about grizzly bears have erupted at a time when many were saying the Endangered Species Act is broken, that we need another model to save imperiled species. The tribes are providing a promising model, predicated on co-management of species that not only occur on tribal lands but also in areas where tribes have legal claims under treaties codified by the federal government.

“Delisting and trophy hunting? How about an alternative: creating linkage zones between these fragmented, isolated populations; returning the Great Bear to sovereign tribal lands; and committing to a future day when the grizzly on the flag will not be the only one you can see in California,” said Piikani Chief Stan Grier (link).

I admit that despite my long involvement with conservation of grizzly bears, I have only recently begun to appreciate the possibilities engendered by tribal lands for recovering and connecting our remaining grizzly bear populations. And the possibilities are substantial, both biologically for the bear and culturally for Indian people.

Interestingly, government officials said recently that they would not rule out relocating bears to tribal lands (link).

Tribal co-management of endangered species has worked well in many cases, and holds considerable promise. And, in helping to recover grizzly bears and other imperiled species, Native tribes are perhaps uniquely positioned to help break the current ideological logjam between local, state and federal governments over who should be in charge of endangered species and land management in the West. As descendants of the continent’s oldest inhabitants, they are anchored in the land, and offer important spiritual, economic and cultural perspectives. Because of their unique position, Tribes can bring to the table a broader and more nuanced perspective than you see in the today’s political slugfest over land and wildlife.

In fact, there is a shining example involving grizzly bears that live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. In 2006 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) completed a series of safe wildlife passages, called “The Peoples’ Way,” on a stretch of highway running through the Flathead Indian Reservation, in collaboration with the state of Montana and federal Department of Transportation (link). Many species of wildlife, including threatened grizzly bears, had — or had not– been making the perilous crossing often unseen by the stream of passing motorists. The new wildlife underpasses and overpasses make the motorway permeable to animal movement, while reducing both traffic accidents and the likelihood of wildlife becoming roadkill. The tribe uses remote cameras to objectively assess animal movements through the passages.

Jim Williams of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks calls the Tribes’ wildlife passageway system “cutting edge” and adds that “as far as I know, it’s the most significant, large-scale habitat-linking wildlife project in the western United States (link).”

The Nez Perce Tribe was also in charge of wolf recovery in Idaho for nearly a decade after wolves were reintroduced to the Selway Bitterroot Ecosystem in 1995-1996. The Nez Perce happily stepped in to manage a species they had lived among for centuries when the state of Idaho refused to be constructively involved (link). Under the tribe’s watch, the wolf population grew from 20 or so individuals to hundreds.

Given ancient tribal relationships with wolves, this should come at no surprise. One of the old stories that singer and Blackfoot Indian and musician Jack Gladstone told me once centered around tribal chiefs who were sent to live among wolves as young men, where they learned how to live properly in society – including the importance of feeding and caring for the weak, playing with the young, and celebrating on full moons.

Positive examples of co-management are not relegated to large carnivores. At the Jackson Hole treaty signing, former Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvumsa spoke about successful co-management of Mexican Spotted Owls in Arizona. The owl is endangered due to the loss of old growth forests it relies on.

Black-footed ferrets, which were nearly exterminated in the wild, have been restored to tribal lands of several Sioux tribes (Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Rosebud) in South Dakota (link).

In addition, seven tribes in Oklahoma (Citizen Potawatomi, Chickasaw, Eastern Shawnee, Miami, Muscogee, Osage Nation and Seminole) are currently collaborating to plant thousands of milkweed plants to bring back the imperiled monarch butterfly (link). Along their 3,000 mile migration, monarchs need places to rest, breed and eat. The milkweed they normally deposit eggs on—it’s what the larvae consume—has been decimated by herbicides, and monarch numbers have plummeted. With nearly all of the monarch’s migration route in critical condition in Oklahoma located on tribal lands in the state, the tribes stepped up to restore the butterfly’s habitat.

Jane Breckenridge, owner of the Euchee Butterfly Farm said this about the tribal efforts earlier this year: “We haven’t seen any interest about this come from the leadership of the state of Oklahoma. However, I knew all along to save the monarchs and other endangered pollinators that this effort needs to come from the tribes (link).”

Similarly, in the Northern Rockies, the effort to save grizzly bears is not coming from the states, but rather the tribes. Sergeant-at-Arms Lee Juan Tyler of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, (depicted in the photo, along with Shoshone Bannock Vice Chairman Darrel Shay) concluded at the Jackson treaty signing: “The grizzly bear is sacred. The grizzly needs more habitat and so let’s give him some.”

I say amen to that.

More articles by:

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

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