Tribes Stand Their Ground for Grizzly Bears — and Us

Wyoming is the first Northern Rockies state to initiate a hunting season for grizzly bears in over 40 years. Yet hunting grizzlies is an anathema to 850,000 people who opposed removal of endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzlies (“delisting”) in comments and petitions submitted last year to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). This represents about 99.99% of all comments received by the FWS.

Notable scientists such as Jane Goodall, George Schaller, and E.O. Wilson, and scientific societies such as the American Society of Mammalogists and Society for Conservation Biology, also filed comments highly critical of the government’s plans to drop protections and open the door for state-sponsored trophy hunting. In fact, these experts were so passionate that I could not resist filming interviews with some of them (link).

But what’s even more astonishing to me has been the tsunami of protest from Tribes, tribal traditional societies, and medicine men to the FWS’s removal of ESA protections. But this outpouring from the Tribes is consistent with unprecedented tribal opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the Keystone pipeline, and, more recently, the decision to eviscerate national monument protections for Utah’s Bears Ears.  In all these cases, Indians and non-Indians have united under the banner of protecting water, wildlife, and our sacred relationship with the earth.

Although I have worked as an advocate for grizzly bears for more than thirty years, I have never seen anything like this tribal uprising. Because of their legitimacy and bipartisan nature, Tribes hold the promise of changing the dynamics surrounding a host of conservation issues in the West. (More on this later.)

But whether that happens or not, I can say that my work with the Tribes has transformed me, changing my views on Indian people, their aspirations, and the vision of a different relationship with the earth. And this work reminds me of the importance of basic courage, the conviction to simply stand your ground. As the late Tom Petty sang:

I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
And I won’t back down.

Importantly, Tribal efforts have not been limited to comments, protests and lawsuits. They also aim to redefine what grizzly bear recovery looks like.

The Grizzly Treaty

During the past year, Tribal leaders have crisscrossed the country circulating a positive vision for grizzlies in a treaty called “The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration” (link). In 2016 about 300 people, including tribal representatives and their families from Montana, Alberta, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and South Dakota gathered at a treaty signing event at Lake Lodge in Grand Teton Park. Only once before, in a case related to buffalo, had Tribes developed a treaty expressly with the purpose of protecting an animal.

Afterwards, Tribal members reflected that they saw this as an historical event. One family, the Walks Alongs of Lamedeer, Montana, had 3 generations in attendance: James Walks Along who represented the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, his daughter Kinsley and his granddaughter SadieBlu.

“To us, [hunting grizzlies] would be like trophy hunting our grandparents,” says Chief Stan Grier of the Piikani Nation, who initiated the Grizzly Treaty.  “This treaty between our nations is not just about the preservation of this sacred being, the grizzly bear, or the protection of one river, this is a struggle for the very spirit of the land – a struggle for the soul of all we have ever been – or will ever become,” he said. “Within this struggle to protect the grizzly, and thus the land — as the grizzly, in turn, protects with the water — we find many of our struggles: the struggle to defend our sovereignty; the struggle to defend our treaty rights; the struggle to preserve and enforce consultation mandates; the struggle to defend and strengthen our spiritual and religious freedoms. In summary, we have an ongoing struggle to make the government uphold its trust responsibility to Tribal Nations.”

The Grizzly Treaty since traveled from Jackson to Canada and across the country several times. To date, the treaty has been signed by some 200 tribes, from the Mohawks on the Eastern Seaboard to the Karuk on the Pacific Coast. This is now the most signed of any tribal treaty in history.

Not since the Indian campaigns waged by Tecumseh roughly 200-years ago have so many tribes united around common causes in the spirit of Tecumseh’s famous admonitions: “…we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire! Brothers, we are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens.”

Piikani Chief Stan Grier Signs Grizzly Bear Treaty

Grijalva’s Grizzly Bill

Last October, Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act (H.R. 3894), which would codify the treaty in national legislation. The purpose of the bill is to ensure that grizzly bears are permanently protected for their ecological and cultural value and to guarantee that Tribes have a role in conserving and managing the species. Grizzly bears are considered sacred by many Tribes, but today only a small fraction of the historical grizzly populations exist in the lower-48 states.

The bill is strongly supported by a coalition of Tribes and conservation groups. Among other provisions, it would:

  • Ban trophy hunting and non-discriminatory predator control measures that may result in taking of grizzly bears on public lands.

  • Permit take and possession of grizzly bears only for certain purposes.

  • Require consultation with Tribes before any major federal action that could impact grizzly bears or their habitat.

  • Add tribal members to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that oversees grizzly bear management nationally.

  • Create a process for reintroduction of grizzly bears to suitable land of willing Tribes.

The legislation would not apply to grizzly bears in Alaska. And, it would permit the killing of grizzlies in the lower-48 states to save the life of a person in immediate danger. Importantly, the bill would require officials to consult with affected Tribes and scientific experts of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team before taking any action that negatively affects the bear’s habitat or result in a higher mortality rate. And, rather than killing bears, the government must consider relocation of so-called “nuisance” bears to tribal lands, furthering their protections for future generations.

“It’s no surprise that the Trump administration ignored the voices of the scientists and tribal leaders who pleaded for continued protection for the Yellowstone grizzly bear,” Grijalva said at an event in Washington, DC with tribal leaders and conservationists when the bill was introduced. “My bill ensures those voices will no longer be silenced and puts an end to allowing political decisions to threaten the future of grizzly bears or their habitat. It is our duty to protect the grizzly bear for its ecological and cultural significance – regardless if it’s protected by the Endangered Species Act or not – and this bill makes sure that tribal voices and Tribal sovereignty agreements are respected in the process.”

“The Fish & Wildlife Service promised us that it would conduct full and meaningful consultation with us, but it turns out, those were only empty promises,” said Ben Nuvamsa, the former chairman of the Hopi tribe, who participated in the event with Congressmen Grijalva. Not unlike other Tribes, Hopi view the grizzly as a “medicine man or a medicine bear” with the power to heal.

Grijalva’s bill is the first legislation to explicitly protect tribal sovereignty and rights related to wildlife.

Congressmen Raul Grijalva (fourth from the left) and Tribal leaders in front of Capitol. 

Litigation to Stop Delisting, Trophy Hunting of Grizzlies

Seventeen Tribes, traditional societies, and medicine men have recently filed lawsuits challenging the 2017 decision by the FWS to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Their concerns are centered around the failure of the federal government to consult with Tribes. Even though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vowed at a 2016 House Natural Resource Committee hearing to consult with the Tribes on grizzly bears prior to delisting, his agency has not done so. In fact, Zinke announced his decision to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears shortly after saying at the hearing: “I think [consultation with Tribes] is not only a right, it’s the law.” (link)

Conrad Fisher, Acting President of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the lead plaintiff in a case that also involves environmental nongovernmental organizations, said: “The Northern Cheyenne people view the grizzly bear as a relative and have great respect for the bear’s strength and right to live free from harm. The Tribe has a sacred responsibility for speaking for the grizzly bear, which cannot speak for itself.”

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) is an individual plaintiff in a separate case, and offered this: “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.”

Former Oglala Sioux Tribal Vice President Tom Poor Bear put Indians’ relationship with grizzlies in a different light: “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.”

And trophy hunting is not the only threat to grizzlies, to Tribes, and to tribal sovereignty.

Ties that Bind: The Grizzly – Oil and Gas Connection

The Oglala Sioux and other Tribes have unearthed insidious connections between the oil and gas industry and removal of ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Last year, the Tribe called for a Congressional inquiry into a list of irregularities and apparent conflicts of interest in the delisting process, including the role of Amec Foster Wheeler, one of the world’s largest oil and gas multinationals, in the scientific peer review process for the delisting rule.

The Tribe also questioned the role of Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Regional Director Matt Hogan, the agency’s point person on the grizzly bear issue, who served as the former chief lobbyist of the Safari Club International and has connections to Anadarko Petroleum and Gas. Anadarko boasts to be “one of the largest landowners and leaseholders” in Wyoming, where the bulk of Yellowstone grizzlies can be found. Anadarko is a major campaign contributor to Wyoming’s Governor, Matt Mead, and Wyoming’s Senators, Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, all champions of delisting. Presently, Anadarko operates over 7,000 wells in Wyoming.

To Brandon Sazue, Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux, the influence of the oil and gas industry in the U.S. and globally runs deep: “We need to realize that Indian Country isn’t a bubble, and that when we hear about Trump and Russia, and investigations into Kushner, Flynn and the rest of them, that we are not somehow immune from the consequences. This delisting issue is being driven by a corporate army, multinational energy companies, and their troops are these congressmen, senators and agency secretaries who are doing their dirty work. We’ve called for investigations into the influence of extractive multinationals on delisting, but we’re still waiting.”

Anadarko made one of the largest settlements in history with the Department of Justice in 2014, including $1 billion for uranium spills that polluted water on the Navajo Nation, but without even beginning to compensate tribal people or the rest of us for the harm the company has caused.

“The likes of Trump’s sons will come first for the pelt of our grandparent, the grizzly, and then Trump’s corporate army will invade these lands to stake their claims for extractive industry to drill for dollars and rubles,” Sazue predicts.

But the Tribes are not passively waiting.

Reclamation of Independence: “The Sacred Will Survive”

Last summer witnessed another unprecedented, powerful tribal event: in Rapid City, SD, 80 Tribes gathered in a Fourth of July “Reclamation of Independence” to defend the sacred. In the shadow of Bear Butte, which has been a sacred site to native people for 10,000 years, current Oglala Sioux Tribe President, Troy Weston, gave a powerful speech reiterating how the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly stands a violation of treaty and religious rights, an infraction of tribal sovereignty, and a power-play for extractive industry. Then President Weston paused, looked around at the tribal leaders whom had gathered from the four directions, and said: “As long as we stand the way we are today, we will survive. The sacred will survive.”

Oglala Tribal President Troy Weston

What Tribes Want for Grizzly Bears, Their Culture

In continuance of aspirations that are centuries old, Tribes are actively seeking respect for their spiritual views, their rights, and the laws that protect their interests, including legally required processes such as consultation by federal agencies with tribal governments. On numerous occasions in the last few years, Tribal leaders have carried their concerns about grizzly bear management to decision-makers in Washington, DC.  They also participated in the massive Native Peoples’ march on Washington last spring, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Because of the location and enormous size of tribally owned lands, which include key habitats suitable for grizzlies on the Wind River, Blackfoot, and Flathead Reservations, as well as other treaty 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, for many, now only lives in story and song. 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 a central aim of many tribal leaders.

Piikani Councilman Brian Jackson told me after the Jackson Hole treaty 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 are saying the Endangered Species Act is broken, that we need another model to save imperiled species. But the Tribes are providing a promising model for implementing the ESA in its existing form, predicated on co-management of species that not only occur on tribal lands but also in areas where tribes have legal claims under treaties with 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 potential contributions of tribal lands to recovering and connecting our remaining grizzly bear populations. And the possibilities are substantial, both biologically for the bear and culturally for Indian people.

There are many examples of successful Tribal co-management of endangered species, with promise for implementation elsewhere on tribal lands. In helping to recover grizzly bears and other imperiled species, Tribes are perhaps uniquely positioned to help break the current ideological logjam between local, state, and federal governments over who should have authority over public lands and endangered species in the West. As descendants of the continent’s oldest inhabitants, Indians are rooted in the land, and offer important spiritual, economic and cultural perspectives. Because of their unique role, 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 previously been attempting to make the perilous crossing, often unseen by the stream of passing motorists. The new wildlife underpasses and overpasses now make the motorway permeable to animal movement, while reducing both traffic accidents and the likelihood of wildlife becoming roadkill.

Grizzly bear in underpass along the “Peoples Way.”

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 with 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 as 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.

Many other positive examples of co-management can be found from Mexican spotted owls in the Southwest to black-footed ferrets on the Great Plains and butterflies in Oklahoma. Collectively, these examples show that enforcement of legal requirements to protect Tribal interests can also protect the broader public trust.

Protecting the Broader Public Trust

Under terms of the Endangered Species Act, endangered species belong to all Americans. The Act gives everyone, no matter where they live, a voice in decisions regarding management of grizzly bears as long as they are protected. With their status as sovereign nations, the Tribes are presenting the federal government with concerns shared by all of us who object to the trophy hunting of grizzly bears that comes with divestiture of authority to the states.

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 would also protect the interests of the majority of us who are repulsed by unfettered corporate greed and who want a continued voice in decisions affecting our shared natural legacy.

A Grizzly Transformation

Because they seemingly die in winter to be reborn in spring, grizzly bears have long symbolized transformation and renewal. My involvement with tribal people during the last 5 years has led to a transformation in my ideas about how conservation can work. I am convinced that our collective conservation efforts would be greatly improved if the current crop of mostly white practitioners learned to work in coalition with Tribal people and other minorities. But that entails deep listening and respect from all sides, a certain kind of openness, as well as humility.

Working with Tribes, I have also been reminded that protecting grizzly bears necessitates a certain ferocity. With the lowest reproductive rate of any terrestrial mammal, and with only 2% of their former numbers in the lower 48 states, grizzlies cannot afford to lose more ground. It is time for all of us to stand our collective ground – and not back down.  As Petty sang, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

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