Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Tom Udall Back Tribes in Grizzly Fight

Summer is exploding in Yellowstone with new life. Orange baby buffalo chase each other as watchful moms look on, wolf pups discover the big wide world outside their dens, and grizzly bear cubs imitate their mothers digging for biscuitroot. Families are flocking to Yellowstone to partake of this exuberance – and one of the animals they most hope to see are grizzlies.

Most of these families do not yet know that any day now, the federal government is expected to strip protections from Yellowstone’s grizzlies (“delisting”), allowing sport hunting right up to the Park borders. With bears’ huge home ranges, killing Park grizzlies will be inevitable, especially those bears that have chosen to live near roads and are accustomed to having their pictures taken by enthralled Park visitors.

But some Congressmen are not sitting idly by – and neither are Indian Tribes which have united in an unprecedented campaign to protect Yellowstone’s iconic bears. To Indian people, grizzlies are seen as guides, relatives and healers. Over the past six months, 126 Tribes have signed a treaty, The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, to support protection of grizzlies, as well as restoration to suitable Indian lands where they have been extirpated (link).  

On June 2, US Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) joined other congressional requests that Department of Interior officials comply with legal requirements to uphold tribal rights  threatened by delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear. In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Senators expressed concerns about the failure of the agency to formally consult with affected Tribes.

The letter states: “The federal government has a trust and treaty responsibility to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes when tribal interests may be impacted by actions of the federal government. However, tribes have indicated that the federal government, in particular the Fish and Wildlife Service, has abandoned that responsibility in its delisting process.” The Senators add: “Grizzly bears are profoundly important to North American tribes, so any federal action to delist grizzly bears must take into consideration tribal input on any impacts to tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and spiritual and religious freedoms.”

These Senators are not the only Congressmen to support Tribes’ concerns and demands for consultation on the decision to delist grizzlies.

Other Congressmen Throw Weight Behind Tribes’ Concerns

Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ranking Member on the House Committee on Natural Resources, has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Tribes’ concerns about grizzlies and tribal rights. “In the historic The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, and through multiple resolutions and letters, Tribal Nations have raised concerns over the science being presented by the Service,” Grijalva wrote Zinke in May (link).

Grijalva implored Zinke to “initiate a formal consultation process on this delisting before a decision is made” and that “impacted Tribal Nations should be included in the formulation of all grizzly bear management plans.” He also warned of “irreparable harm” to tribes if “this premature, piecemeal and politically driven approach” continues, which, he states, “would violate the ESA and grievously undermine tribal rights.”

Congressmen Tom Cole (R-OK) and Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) also wrote Secretary Zinke asking him “to honor the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes.”  Representative Mullin acted as President Trump’s Native American Adviser during the transition. Mullin and Cole are the only Indian members of the House.

Yet the Department of Interior – including the new Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, who hails from Montana where seven affected Tribes live — seems to be turning a deaf ear to the Tribes’ demands that grizzly bears and themselves be treated with respect and reverence.

To Tribes, trophy hunting of grizzlies, which is virtually guaranteed by state plans, is particularly problematic.

The Anathema of Trophy Hunting    

It should be no surprise that Tribal members have called trophy hunting of grizzly bears “dumb”, “a violation of natural law”, and “sacrilegious”. Grizzly bears are seen as nothing less than kin.

Traditional Blackfeet Chief and Spiritual Leader James ‘Jimmy’ St. Goddard, who now serves as Vice Chairman of the GOAL Coalition, eloquently expressed the tribal perspective: “Our true brother, ‘Book-sah-gooh-yeeh,’ the grizzly bear, is closely related to us. All the indigenous of this Turtle Island are related to the grizzly. At this time on Mother Earth, the sacred beings called ‘animals’ are giving the people that love them their sacred medicine.”

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Great Sioux Nation (a sort of Dalai Lama figure in Indian Country) had this to say about delisting: “What they are trying to do to the grizzly population is hurting us spiritually because our ceremonies are connected to them. As you walk upon the earth you are going to recognize that everything has a spirit. Like the grizzly bear knows because it is a spirit. Our way is to understand how everything in this life is about how sacred spirit is, but they want to trophy hunt this sacred spirit. The grizzly is our relative.”

Oglala Sioux Tribal Vice President Tom Poor Bear put it this way: “When I look at what the US government and the states intend to do to the grizzly bear, I look at what they did to our ancestors. They tried to annihilate us like they did the grizzly, the buffalo and the wolf. They forced us from our homelands and made us live on reservations. Today they want to keep the grizzly on two reservations called Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. They put bounties on our ancestors’ heads. They paid for their scalps, and they are doing the same thing now – this time with our relative, the grizzly bear – when they start trophy hunting her for her head and skin. This is a violation of natural law, and our spiritual and religious rights.”

The Stakes 

At stake in the Yellowstone case is one of our most iconic populations of grizzly bears. Can this population of perhaps 700 grizzly bears in and around our nation’s oldest park survive the combined impacts and insults of trophy hunting, a decade-long spike in bear deaths, an unraveling ecosystem, and management by anti-carnivore states? The chances aren’t good. Because of its vulnerability, the grizzly bear is not only a measure of the integrity of the wild landscapes where it lives, but also an animal that brings both our culture and our democracy to account.

Yellowstone is one of the last bastions for the Great Bear, which was extirpated by European settlers from 98% of its former haunts in less than 100 years. Despite 40 years of protections under the Endangered Species Act, the population has only grown modestly; and current trends in mortality promise to reverse this progress towards recovery. At a time when the bear’s habitat is unraveling due to climate change, delisting would allow industrial-scale development on roughly 3 million acres of public land.  

It is no accident that delisting is supported by ranchers and corporate executives, who stand to benefit from unchecked access to public lands heretofore curbed by the modest measures taken to conserve grizzly bears.

Most people seem to be unaware that devolution of authority to the states is tantamount to turning management over to the hunters and ranchers to whom state managers are slaved by culture and financial dependencies. By essentially turning management decisions over to such people residing in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, delisting would disenfranchise all who are interested in the fate of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears but do not live in the region, or simply value bears for reasons other than the opportunity or excuse to kill them.

States as Perpetrators of Cultural Genocide

The current plight of grizzly bear management implicates both federal and state governments. Although ostensibly in charge of grizzly bear recovery under authority of the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has long capitulated to pressure from politicians in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, who are obsessed with gaining control over bears (link).

As egregious, current state wildlife management is founded on a system of laws codified over a century ago that treats wildlife and Indians as expendable dependents. Within this legal framework, both are viewed as wards of the government and disposable if they get in the way of “progress.” Accordingly, government agents continue to treat Indians as less than fully human savages, unable to manage their own affairs.

The states’ insatiable thirst to manage, manipulate, dominate, and kill wildlife, especially large carnivores, is a hangover from colonial times. The narrative sustaining such anachronistic attitudes is that we can’t just let wildlife self-regulate or Indians self-govern. We, the dominant white culture, know best and our management is needed to keep order and protect the status quo.

In challenging current status quo arrangements, Tribes are standing for the interests not just of Indians, but for all of us who seek compassion from government decision-makers and a fair democratic process.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Tribes have emerged as protectors of the broader public trust.

Protecting the Public Trust

The federal government currently protects grizzly bears under terms of the Endangered Species Act as part of its public trust. All citizens are trustees. The Act gives everyone, no matter where they live, a voice in decisions regarding management of grizzly bears. With their status as sovereign nations, the Tribes are presenting the federal government with concerns shared by all of us who object to the sport hunting of grizzly bears that would come with divestiture of authority to the states.

This includes visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks who are horrified at the notion that popular roadside bears, such as the celebrity grizzlies of Jackson Hole, would likely be killed by hunters as they roam between protected park lands and unprotected national forest and private lands. Even under protected status, one celebrity bear, Scarface, was murdered by a big game hunter right outside the Park border in 2015. (More on this in an upcoming blog). Without continued protections, tolerant and well-behaved bears like Scarface will likely be killed.    

Because of the number of tribes involved, their legitimacy, and the legal arrows in their quiver, they may in the end succeed in ensuring continued protections for our bears. In so doing, they may contribute to protecting the broader public interest embodied by the majority of us who are repulsed by unfettered corporate greed, offended by racism, and want a continued voice in decisions affecting our shared natural legacy.

Senators Sanders, Booker, Udall, and Congressmen Grijalva, Mullin and Cole deserve our thanks for standing up for grizzlies, Tribes — and all of us.

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