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There’s Got to be a Better Way: Of Friends, Science, Politics and Bears

My Canadian friend Barrie Gilbert was visiting Yellowstone Country recently, just like he does every spring and every fall. I look forward to Barrie’s visits – we have a lot of fun getting together with other close friends, usually at the Chico Saloon, but best of all, Barrie and I get out for some serious hiking in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Barrie is totally amazing. At eighty-one (81!) years of age, he is strong and fit enough to travel off-trail into the wild heart of Yellowstone, and this we do. In this, Barrie is more than a trusted friend and companion – he is an inspiration.

As for many friends from afar, the major attraction of Yellowstone for Barrie is not its world-renowned thermal features. It’s the wildness. There are other landscapes just as spectacular in their own way, and there are hot springs, hot pools and geysers elsewhere, but not all of these combined with wildlife that is the wildness of Yellowstone. Furthermore, an important part of this wildness is the presence of fierce beasts.

Barrie adds an additional dimension to any hike in Yellowstone because he is an accomplished wildlife ecologist and he freely shares his knowledge. He is, in fact, an internationally recognized authority on grizzly bears.  Barrie’s interaction with Yellowstone’s grizzlies is both deep and unique. Many years ago as a young research scientist he surprised and was horrifically mauled by a female grizzly high on Crowfoot Ridge, Yellowstone National Park. The full account of this experience is documented elsewhere, including Scott McMillion’s Mark of the Grizzly. The only reason Barrie survived, I’m convinced, is that he is one tough old bird. Tough physically, but even more so mentally and spiritually.  So far as I can tell, Barrie holds no ill-will towards the bear that mauled him, or any other bear for that matter. Following an experience that would send most of us indoors cowering under our beds for the remainder of our lives, Barrie continued research on grizzlies, including up-close, personal observation.

Most grizzly research these days involves radio tracking or other forms of remote sensing, but Barrie’s observational work has provided valuable insights into the culture of grizzlies, how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next, and the key role grizzlies play in nutrient cycling and other ecosystem functions. To say Barrie is an expert on grizzlies is to state the obvious.

While it’s always a rare privilege to spend a day hiking Yellowstone’s backcountry with someone like Barrie, I was particularly anxious to visit with him this time because of the recent US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzlies, and the subsequent reversal of that decision in US District Court. Like most grizzly experts, Barrie thinks delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies is a bad idea. Judge Christensen’s reversal of the USFWS delisting rule reflected the preponderance of scientific opinion. His decision was based not on some technicality, but on the GROSS insufficiency of scientific evidence used to support their delisting decision. I say, “GROSS deficiency” because in cases of legitimate scientific disagreement, a Federal Judge will invariably rule in favor of Agency Scientists. The deck is stacked in favor of the Agency and the bar is extremely high for demonstrating an “arbitrary and capricious” decision. Yet this high standard has been met three times (Montana Federal District Court, 2009; Ninth District Court of Appeals, 2011; and now Montana Federal District Court, 2018) in legal challenges to delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

The story of how Yellowstone’s grizzlies came to be included on the list of Threatened and Endangered species, and the history of the USFWS attempts to remove them from that list, is convoluted at best. However, a bit of history. The Endangered Species Act contains language requiring decisions be based on the best available science. In the Agency’s own words, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Species Status Assessment (SSA) framework as part of the ongoing effort to improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and enhance conservation success. An SSA is a focused, repeatable, and rigorous assessment of a species’ ability to maintain self-sustaining populations over time. This assessment is based on the best available scientific and commercial information regarding life history, biology, and consideration of current and future (emphasis added) vulnerabilities. The result is a single document that delivers foundational science for informing all ESA decisions, including listing determinations, consultations, grant allocations, permitting, and recovery planning.”

The first attempt to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies came in 2007, shortly followed by a consortium of environmental organizations challenging that decision in Montana Federal District Court. The Court then vacated the delisting rule because the USFWS failed to adequately–scientifically–evaluate the consequences of catastrophic losses of whitebark pine, a critical food resource for Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

In their delisting rule, the USFWS claimed that only 16% of Yellowstone’s whitebark forests had suffered serious mountain pine beetle outbreaks. The court found evidence supporting this claim to be grossly deficient. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision in 2009, and subsequent research, also conducted during 2009, supported the court’s decision by documenting that, in fact, the beetles had infested more like 90% of Yellowstone’s whitebark pine stands.

Nine years later, after questionable agenda-driven research that attempted to discredit the District Court and Ninth Appellate Court rulings, the USFWS once again delisted the great bear. The major thrust of this research was to search the literature for all items eaten by grizzlies and then use this list to argue that bears had many food choices other than whitebark pine. The fallacy of this argument is that most of these alternative foods are nutritionally inferior to whitebark pine seeds. There was also no evaluation of the risks associated with obtaining those few that were comparable in nutritional value. Or, as  Barrie countered “if all these items were sufficient, why were grizzlies not staying in the park and using them instead of moving beyond the Park’s boundaries in their search for high quality meat.” Unfortunately livestock and the remains of hunter’s kills, known as “gut piles,” have become the dominate substitutes for whitebark pine seeds–resulting in a consequent escalation of negative interactions with humans.

This time the decision was even more ominous than in 2007. The states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana preceded the ruling to delist with publication of hunting regulations, and Wyoming and Idaho followed delisting by announcing plans to hunt within the year. The idea of trophy hunting such an animal galvanized public opinion opposing delisting, but public opinion holds little sway in a Federal courtroom.  Rather, once again, the court based its decision on USFWS’s egregious lack of attention to scientific evidence in reaching their delisting decision.

The Montana District Court found the USFWS failed to consider the impact of delisting Yellowstone grizzlies on other US grizzly populations; used a population estimator based on political accommodation rather than best science; and did not adequately evaluate the long-term implications of genetic isolation. Read the full text of Judge Christensen’s order vacating the USFWS’s delisting rule here.  And, as before, the USFWS has announced its intention of appealing Judge Christensen’s ruling.

So, here we go, a seemingly endless cycle of delisting, litigation, reversal, appeal, lower court decision upheld, delisting, litigation, reversal etc., etc., etc.

Both Barrie and I agree this process squanders everyone’s valuable time and money. But even more importantly it continuously fails to address the real question: What does it take to bring the great bear back to its rightful role as the apex omnivore in the complex web of wilderness ecosystems? Resources expended on endless litigation could better be spent on meaningful recovery of this threatened population, restoring its role in providing ecosystem services, and deeper still, ensuring the continued spiritual presence of something much larger than ourselves.

There has got to be a better way – and there is. However, it is not through ill-considered legislation that would delist the great bear by congressional edict, but instead, a process truly based on “best science.” As is often the case on hikes with Barrie, our conversation turns to grizzlies, but this time, we speculate on how we might change this counterproductive cycle–a Groundhog Day that resolves nothing and serves no one, particularly not the great bear. We both agreed that a viable alternative would necessarily include an impartial panel involving scientists representing all interested parties (Federal agencies, the tribes, academic institutions, and scientific societies, to name a few) to develop a set of criteria that would be required for full recovery, and hence removal of Yellowstone’s grizzlies from Threatened and Endangered Species status. And then work to achieve those goals.

These are the major elements of an alternative approach that I remember from our conversation:

Impartial review panel. The environment surrounding recovery of the threatened Yellowstone grizzlies has become so toxic it is hard to imagine a truly objective analysis by the Federal and State Agencies that have so far been responsible. Truly impartial oversight, perhaps led by the National Academy of Sciences, would help to defuse this issue.

Demonstrated genetic connectivity. Lack of genetic connectivity with other North American grizzly populations was one the reasons Judge Christensen ruled to overturn the USFWS’s delisting decision. Any credible scientist understands that a genetically isolated population is doomed to decline and, longer-term, extirpation. Demonstrable natural gene exchange is therefore a prerequisite for a truly recovered population.  Barrie expressed concern that hunting would essentially eliminate the opportunity for natural gene exchange between Yellowstone’s grizzly and other current or potential grizzly populations. He thinks that connectivity between grizzly populations is essential, and that the the USFWS’s proposal to artificially import grizzlies from other populations is ill considered and probably doomed to failure because it disrupts the bear’s natural social structure.

Scientifically defensible method to estimate population numbers, and more importantly, estimate the effective breeding population. Another key point Judge Christensen made in his decision revolved around inconsistencies in the way the USFWS estimated the size of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. A joint letter issued by The American Society of Mammologists and the Society for Conservation Biology further criticized the way in which effective population size, the population required to maintain long-term genetic viability, was estimated.

Honest evaluation of climate change impacts. For once, just once, I’d like to hear an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team scientist or USFWS biologist treat seriously the daunting threat of a rapidly changing climate instead of dismissively stating that, “ … (we) do not expect that habitat changes predicted under climate change scenarios to directly threaten grizzly bears.” How can it be that in the face of major impacts to all other Yellowstone Park wildlife, grizzly bears are somehow miraculously immune? It doesn’t make sense, and in fact a direct quote from the National Park Service on global climate change is, “Ongoing and future climate change will likely affect all aspects of park management.” (See this article for a speculative explanation of agency intransigence). Given the universal acceptance of major threats to all Greater Yellowstone wildlife, the only defensible course of action that meets the criterion of “best available science” is an honest evaluation of how climate change will impact grizzlies, followed by development of strategies to mitigate those determined to be detrimental.

Addressing impacts of reduced carrying capacity due to decimation of critical food resources.  Of four historically dominant high-quality grizzly food resources, two–whitebark pine and cutthroat trout–have catastrophically declined in abundance, only to be replaced by meat associated with humans. Replacing these, particularly whitebark pine seeds, with meat has resulted in decreased carrying capacity, increased dispersal, and dramatic increases in grizzly mortality. These issues have not been realistically addressedin delisting attempts, and this lack of integrity has been a major reason the courts have reversed efforts by the USFWS to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population.

Rather than attempting to discredit the impact of reduced carrying capacity, Barrie thinks that the USFWS should consider proactive responses like restoration of traditional berry patches decimated by decades of overgrazing by artificially high elk populations. It sounded radical but no more so than introducing wolves to return ecological balance to the system. After all, Barrie argued, if negative impacts of predator removal could be countered by remedial action, then why not facilitating recolonization by other historical high quality food resources.

No trophy hunting of grizzlies. Period. Some animals, like the bald eagle and grizzlies, simply should not be shot. Many hunters, myself included, agree with this proposition. The only reason I can see why someone would shoot a grizzly is to bolster their own faltering self-esteem.  Additionally, it should be self-evident that in the Yellowstone ecosystem a live grizzly is worth vastly more than a trophy squirreled away on some corporate office wall or as a rug on which to wipe one’s feet.  As Barrie said, “grizzlies should be defended as a living treasure,” and this from a guy who narrowly escaped death from a grizzly mauling. As the second slowest reproducing land mammal in North America, grizzlies need, and deserve, something equivalent to the Bald Eagle Protection Act. Aside from ethical considerations, recent mortality levels even with Federal protection are unsustainable.

A recent statement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Hilary Cooley, indicated that they too were concerned about the wastefulness of continued litigation, although the USFWS has, in fact, recently appealed Judge Christensen’s decision. It is also apparent from the article containing this quote that the Service is more interested in yielding to political pressure to delist grizzlies than in addressing the very real issues Barrie and I raised during our conversations.

Volumes could be written about any of the alternatives I outlined above, and in some cases have. Clearly, a full discussion of implications would require far more space than I have here, and besides, that is not my intent. In part, I wish to celebrate what a truly wild place Yellowstone is, and how that wildness is capable of stirring the soul through the humility of experiencing something much larger and more powerful than oneself. In part, I also want to debunk the false narrative being promoted by the USFWS that the best available science, and most grizzly scientists, support delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies. This, simply, is a fabrication. Instead, the opinion of most grizzly experts, including Barrie, is that delisting is premature, unwarranted and unsupportable.

Finally, I hope to have described a viable alternative to the current wasteful and futile litigation treadmill. We should, instead, be expending resources to achieve a truly recovered, sustainable population – imagine that! How likely is that to happen given perverse economic imperatives and the current political proclivity to invent expedient alternative realities? Admittedly, it seems unlikely. On the other hand, there are committed people such as Barrie who will remind us that there is an objective reality to how grizzlies make a living, and that there are habitat requisites to sustaining that living. Hopefully, embracing that reality will inspire us as a society to attain the worthy goal of meaningful long-lasting recovery of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

Jesse Logan is literally a man of the mountains. Much of his former career as a civil servant was spent studying why forests of the American West live and die. He amassed an impressive body of work publishing papers as a researcher. He is also revered, even among millennial-aged telemark skiers, for his ability to hold his own off-piste with wayfarers a third his age.

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