A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers

There is a peculiar argument favored by politicians, bank managers, airline representatives, and sales-people of various stripes that goes something like this: “Your interests are important. The customer/voter is my top priority. Trust me.” Such claims will sometimes be accompanied by presumably substantiating evidence as part of glossy promotional material. It helps, of course, if the person making the claim is either ruggedly handsome or a gaunt beauty, and groomed to a pitch of stereotypic trustworthiness.

Right. I would hope that the visceral impulse of half-way rational people is to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. Even minimal scrutiny of the behaviors of those fielding the “trust me” argument often reveals the obvious: self-interest is a top priority along with serving the narrow special interests of those holding the reins of power and finances, typically the maximization of profits, prestige, and influence for these select few. Think shareholders, corporate bosses, political donors, and ideological allies. Certainly not the gullible client, customer, voter or larger abstract “public” so devotedly cultivated. The obvious.

“Trust us” with Grizzly Bears?

So when I hear wildlife managers in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho saying “trust us” to manage Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population, my initial response is skepticism and suspicion. And it doesn’t fill me with warm fuzzy feelings when I further hear and read that these state managers are categorically refusing to be held accountable in any authoritative way to the federal government or the national public if and when the reins of grizzly bear management are handed over by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The letter submitted by the States as part of their comments on the FWS’s proposal to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies makes interesting reading. The States are clearly in it for power gains and ideological gratifications.

Moreover, there is little ambiguity about the fact that, in practice, state wildlife managers see predators such as grizzly bears primarily as competitors, nuisances or even varmints—and this despite the palliatives and platitudes you can find in State plans. The reasons are pretty obvious. State management more closely resembles a for-profit venture organized around huntable surpluses of big game than it does an exercise in fulfillment of the public trust. Wildlife managers are slaved to the narrow special interests of hunters, fishers, and livestock producers by shared culture and political vulnerabilities, but more fundamentally by dependence on the marketing and sales of arms, ammunition, and licenses to kill elk and deer (for more on all of this read the first and second blogs in my series on state wildlife management). Unless you are a hunter, none of this is a prima facie basis for “trust.”

Based on What Plans?

And then read the details of State plans for managing Yellowstone’s grizzly bears; plans that the States have offered as evidence of trustworthiness; plans that the States insist are, at the same time, entirely discretionary. Which may actually be a good thing given how unconscionably and appallingly inadequate they are.

The centerpiece of State plans consists of a tristate Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that details methods for managing grizzly bear mortality. These methods specify aspirational mortality rates linked to different estimated grizzly bear population sizes as well as the means by which permitted deaths are to be allotted to the three involved States. The MOA goes on to describe benchmarks that, if “violated,” would putatively trigger discretionary reviews of management. All fine and good.

But read further. The MOA assumes that male grizzlies can be killed at twice the rate as female grizzlies without jeopardizing population stability, and that bears living inside protected areas (i.e., National Parks) will be counted towards estimates of total population size, which will then be used as the basis for calculating total numbers of bears able to be killed during a given year. The MOA considers a certain percentage of this total to be “discretionary,” all of which is allotted to States (i.e., none to the National Park Service [NPS] or involved Tribes), and from which comes the bears available for state-administered trophy hunting. The States pointedly excluded the NPS and Tribes from development of the MOA and make no provision for either to be authoritatively involved in its implementation—this for two jurisdictions that collectively support over a third of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. Your eyebrows should be elevated at this point.

A Recipe for Killing

Without being exhaustive, even this minimal description of the MOA highlights some aspects that are a recipe for trouble. First, you can’t kill males at twice the rate you kill females and have a stable population. Males and females are replenished at an equal rate (i.e., the sex ratio of cubs is roughly 1:1), which means you can’t sustainably kill more males. Second, bears on NPS and Tribal jurisdictions are being used by the States to subsidize their killing of bears elsewhere without explicitly involving either sovereign entity in any deliberations or considering population-level consequences. Because grizzly bears protected by National Parks will be dying at a comparatively low rate, the de facto mortality rate of bears on non-Park jurisdictions will be higher than the population-wide target or guideline. As a consequence, there will be a net outflow of bears from Parks to non-park jurisdictions. The subpopulation in Parks will be a reproductive engine (i.e., “source”) subsidizing otherwise unsustainable killing in the State-administered subpopulation (i.e., “sinks”). And the brunt of this will be borne by male grizzly bears.

And then consider this. Estimates of total population size will be based almost exclusively on sightings of females with cubs made over three successive years. Given a three-year reproductive cycle, this yields an estimated total number of reproductive females. Other classes of bears are accounted for in calculations of total population size simply by applying various fixed multipliers, notably including the assumption that independent males are equal in number to independent females (i.e., a 1:1 sex ratio). The MOA makes explicit provision for adjusting these multipliers (including the ratio of males to females) only if estimated total population sizes fall below certain thresholds, thereby triggering discretionary reviews leading to discretionary revisions. In other words, state managers could be slaughtering males within their jurisdictions and, because this segment is not directly monitored, continue to generate increasingly phony and inflated population estimates driven almost solely by sightings of reproductive females—without dropping below any population triggers and thereby without triggering any corrective actions.

With Predictable Destructive Outcomes

This doesn’t need to be left as a verbal hypothetical. I found it easy enough to specify a model that embodied the essentials of the methods contained in the States’ MOA, including a source-sink structure, variable but lower death rates within Parks, procedures for estimating total population size based on sightings of females with cubs, the meting out of “discretionary” deaths according to population-level guidelines for mortality rates, the realization of resulting de facto death rates on non-Park lands, and changes in prescribed mortality rates in accord with changes in estimated population size driven by numbers of reproductive females. Once specified, I was then able to use this model to project what would likely happen with implementation of MOA protocols employing the notable (and probably untenable) assumption that Yellowstone’s grizzly bear habitat would remain static. Key results are in figure 1, immediately below.

Figure 1. Results of a stochastic model simulating implementation of methods for post-delisting management of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population described in the tristate MOA. Figure 1A shows trends in numbers of independent males and females in source (i.e., Park) and sink (i.e., non-Park) populations. Figure 1B shows trends in “real” and estimated total population sizes relative to population thresholds linked to management triggers, along the magnitude of discrepancy—or error—between estimated and real population sizes.

Hopefully without belaboring the obvious, there are some more-or-less guaranteed outcomes from implementation of the MOA. First and foremost, numbers of independent males will tank outside of National Parks, primarily because they will be subject to grossly unsustainable mortality rates. Numbers of independent males inside Parks will decline slightly because of losses to net out-migration. Numbers of reproductive females will remain steady to slightly increasing, leading to increasingly inflated estimates of total population size, despite a collapse of the male segment on non-Park lands. Within eight or so years population estimates will have been inflated by roughly 200 bears over “reality,” but without detection and without triggering any corrective measures.

And this is probably an optimistic scenario. The model does not include the on-going and foreseeable effects of unraveling habitat conditions (see this blog for a synopsis). Nor are the effects of declining female reproductive success included, foreseeably attributable to lack of sufficient breeding males outside the Parks and, before that, an ephemeral pulse of elevated cub mortality caused by social turmoil.

What do I make of this? It’s pretty obvious. The methods contained in the States’ MOA are so egregiously flawed as to call into question the competence and motives of the wildlife managers who concocted them. The Plan certainly does not build a case for trust.

And Then There is History

And then there is the history of state management. Without being exhaustive, there are two observations of particular relevance to the rather dismal track record that the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana have established managing our endangered large carnivores.

First, consider how the states of Idaho and Montana have managed wolves since ESA protections were removed in 2011. I don’t have the space here to elaborate on all of the relevant details (see the third point in this document), but a consistent pattern emerges. It is clear that both states unapologetically embarked upon a post-delisting wolf-killing program that was designed to reduce wolf populations in service of, first, controlling depredations on behalf of livestock operators disinclined to take the most basic of precautions; second, achieving inflated goals for elk and deer populations; and, third, offering essentially unlimited sport hunting opportunities. There is no evidence that either Idaho or Montana were attempting to serve other “values,” foster something as apparently inconsequential as wolf-derived ecological services, or, even, Heaven forbid, accommodate the inevitable toll of predation in goals for ungulate populations. Wyoming and Montana have both made clear that these are the outcomes planned for grizzly bears as well, barring, perhaps, a more circumscribed approach to sport-hunting.

Second, consider why grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem ended up on the Endangered Species list in the first place. Between 1959 and 1970 grizzly bear deaths in areas under state jurisdiction accounted for the majority of mortality in this region. Of these deaths, 84% were attributable to sport hunting. And, of these, 59% were adults—33% adult males and 26% adult females. In short, the states of Wyoming and Montana were administering a sport hunt that was unsustainable, manifest in the patently small size of the grizzly bear population at the time it was given ESA protections in 1975. The States were clearly not managing for recovery nor increases in Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population during the 1960s and early 1970s. More certainly yet, the States remained wedded to a regime of sport hunting on the basis of principle and custom, and with little apparent reference to or regard for information on population trend. Montana’s devotion to the ethos of hunting is evident in the fact that this state continued to administer a sport hunt of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem until forced by litigation to stop in 1991, sixteen years after the population was listed by the FWS as Threatened.

“Trust us.” Are You Kidding?

The institution of state wildlife management in the tristate region of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana is despotic, corrupt, and fundamentally anti-predator. By design, it disenfranchises the vast majority of Americans and, because of transactional financial dependencies, overtly caters to a small number of special interest groups. It is interesting to me that very few people are even aware of these structural problems, and of those who are cognizant there is an alarming tendency to concoct narratives (e.g., the North American Model of Wildlife Management) that justify the corruption. Moreover, the demographic profile of hunters (mostly white less-well-educated males) overlaps almost exactly with Trumps’ misogynist, racist, jingoistic, and otherwise bigoted core supporters; the very same people who seem to have little respect for or understanding of democratic institutions. We can pretty much count on state wildlife managers catering to this crowd in their management of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, including the pathetic few who apparently need a stuffed grizzly bear in their den to prop up a frail ego.

“Trust us.” Are you kidding?

David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago.