America’s Grizzly Bears are in Trouble and So is the Nation’s Moral Compass

I grew up in South Dakota during the 1950s and ’60s, the grandson of pioneers on both sides of my family. My grandfather was part of the posse that killed the last wolf in the state, and my mother loathed mostly anything with large canines.

Despite this, I went on to spend most of my life studying large carnivores.

My liberating evolution from intolerant beginnings has been a source of personal optimism regarding the redemptive possibilities of humanity. But this optimism has been severely taxed, certainly during the last year, and more recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s final ruling to remove Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s 600 to 700 grizzly bears.

The last three years have seen record-breaking bear mortality, far exceeding any we might expect from numbers of bears in the population. Yet, Fish and Wildlife has shown remarkable disregard for this and other concerns. Over 120 tribes with legitimate spiritual, historical and legal claims have demanded that grizzly bears be protected from sport hunting, and that they be consulted on matters touching their claims. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s response has been dismissive. Likewise, the fact that more than 600,000 people submitted comments opposing removal of protections has been met with bureaucratic indifference.

Fish and Wildlife’s use of science in support of its de-listing agenda has been particularly problematic. The scope has been unduly limited, the methods suspect and representation of results tainted by partisan distortions. More fundamentally, all the investigations have been undertaken by a monopolistic cabal of government scientists who have debarred necessary correctives, including open, unfettered and independent inquiry. In fact, an earlier effort in 2007 to deprive Yellowstone’s grizzlies of ESA protections legally foundered in federal court because of the service’s previous disregard for science.

Then there are the tender mercies of state wildlife managers who await Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. These managers unabashedly claim that their primary purpose is to provide hunters with hunting opportunities, and that killing animals is their primary means of management, all under the comforting rubric of serving the public trust. Trophy hunting of grizzly bears — up to the very boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — will simply be the culmination of a central cultural aspiration for state wildlife managers.

And the governance of state wildlife management doesn’t mitigate its dubious cultural premises. By design, institutional arrangements disenfranchise not only everyone living outside state boundaries, but also the many people residing within those boundaries who do not hunt or fish. The privileged few hunters in Yellowstone’s three-state region are almost wholly white men, comprising less than 1 percent of the American public currently enfranchised by federal management of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Most families flocking to our nation’s oldest park in hopes of glimpsing a wild grizzly bear will be unaware that, with removal of ESA protections, they have little or no say in the bear’s future.

Not surprisingly, the governors and congressional delegations of Wyoming and Idaho have enthusiastically endorsed removal of those protections. But, then, these politicians have made clear they speak primarily for the interests of ranchers and executives of the oil and gas industry, and, through this lens, see grizzly bears as a nuisance, symbolic threat, pawn in the war over states’ rights, and of value primarily as a trophy on the wall.

We all want success. But success should not be contrived from perverting due process, subverting the integrity of science, disregarding substance, disrespecting legitimate claims and disenfranchising most of the American public. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has fully earned the deluge of litigation triggered by its removal of protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

This column originally appeared in the Denver Post.

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

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