Don’t Kill 72 Grizzly Bears So Cattle Can Graze on Public Lands

Greater Yellowstone grizzly. Photo: National Park Service.

We have tens of millions of cattle in America but we only have about 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.   Yet an October 2019 decision by the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Pinedale District authorizes continued cattle grazing on 267 square miles of public lands that will result in the deaths of an estimated 72 grizzly bears in the Upper Green River and Gros Ventre River drainages on the southern border of Yellowstone National Park.  In response, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yellowstone-to-Uintas Connection, and Western Watershed Project recently sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue to the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unless the agency protects the bears as required by the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 72 grizzly bears will be ‘incidentally taken’ – which means “killed” — as a result of the Upper Green River grazing allotments between the 2019 and 2028 grazing seasons.  It’s an astounding decision by the Forest Service since federal district courts have already ruled twice that grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem must be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The courts ruled to protect the bears for very good reasons.  Due to isolation from other grizzly populations the Yellowstone bears may suffer inbreeding, which could lead to the extinction of the Yellowstone Ecosystem’s distinct grizzly population.  Illegal lake trout introduction in Yellowstone National Park has significantly reduced populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a traditional high-value grizzly food source. Add to that the drastic die-off of whitebark pines due to global warming, which has significantly reduced production of their seeds which are another high nutrition traditional food source for the bears.  The result?  Grizzly bears are being forced into less secure habitat where they are often shot and killed.

In essence, the Forest Service has been and would continue to manage this huge grazing allotment area to the detriment of wildlife, water, fish, soil and native species because of overgrazing by livestock.  Natural diversity, including its myriad ecological relationships, is negatively impacted by livestock grazing, which includes accelerating succession of aspen as well as increasing the fire hazard in conifer forests.

Over a decade ago, the Forest Service published a map outlining the higher elevation connections between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Uinta Mountains and the Northern and Southern Rockies. Historically, grizzly bears, lynx, and wolverine have all utilized these important travel routes, which were designated as a Regional and Nationally Significant Wildlife Corridor.  Now, however, it’s heavily fragmented with roads, timber sales, oil and gas development and livestock grazing while off-road vehicles push ever further into what used to be secure grizzly habitat.  Yet, astoundingly, these issues were not seriously considered in the Environmental Impact Statement.

There are simple steps that ranchers can take to protect their cattle from grizzly bears that don’t involve shooting grizzlies.  The solution here is to better manage cattle grazing operations instead of trying to “manage” grizzly bears by killing them.

In conclusion, we’re willing to challenge this project in court because there’s simply no way to justify the projected deaths of 72 Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears due to conflicts with domestic cattle.  Although the National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to conduct a comprehensive environmental analysis that takes into account impacts to wildlife and ecosystems, this project ignored significant factors that affect the grizzlies and offers no resolution of these conflicts.

The 60-day Notice gives the Forest Service an opportunity to correct these deficiencies and protect grizzly bears.  We truly hope the agency brings its decision in line with the law before we have to go to court – but the clock is ticking.

Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.  Jason Christensen is the Director of Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.