The governors of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have been moving Heaven and Earth to hasten removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for grizzly bears and return management to the states, most recently through petitions submitted to the US Fish & Wildlife Service requesting the initiation of a status review for the species. Idaho’s petition was rejected, but the petitions submitted by Wyoming and Montana were not, triggering a twelve-month process potentially leading to administrative removal of ESA protections by the Service.
Meanwhile, Congressional delegations from the northern Rockies have mounted a tandem effort to legislativelyremove protections. Senators Lummis, Barrasso, Crapo, Risch, and Daines recently introduced legislation that would delist two grizzly bear populations constituting the bulwark of recovery efforts in the contiguous United States. Representatives Hageman and Zinke introduced similar legislation in the House. As was the case with Congressional delisting of wolves in the northern Rockies, this legislation would debar judicial review—a measure that has seemingly become the norm among legislators intent on circumventing the ESA.
Punitive Partisan Politics
Not coincidentally, all of these politicians are Republicans. The involved Senators and Representatives also account for some of the worst scores calculated by the League of Conservation Voters. The governors have similar anti-environment bona fides. Governor Gianforte of Montana unabashedly boasts of personally killing wolves and mountain lions, in two instances under circumstances that violated state law. Governor Gordon of Wyoming—the scion of a wealthy east coast family that bought a slice of the western cowboy life for itself—actively condones the widespread anti-carnivore hysteria routinely spouted by his state’s citizens.
These efforts by Republican politicians to remove ESA protections for grizzlies are unambiguously partisan and driven by ideology as well as the enduring contest between state’s rights and federal authority. They are not about science or empirical evidence, despite recent justifications invoking burgeoning bear numbers and human-bear conflicts. Wyoming’s politicians began agitating for removal of ESA protections as early as the 1980s, a mere 10 years after grizzlies were listed under the ESA, and at the undisputed nadir of grizzly bear numbers. State efforts have continued unabated since, recently reinforced by the radical Republican majority in Montana’s state legislature—all pretty much regardless of what science has had to say about threats or population status one way or the other.
A Recipe for Risk
Devolution of authority for managing grizzly bears would predictably result in efforts by state managers to reduce sizes of our two largest bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems, including through use of a trophy hunt. This back-tracking would be exacerbated by plans to punitively manage human-bear conflicts, most of which occur on the periphery of occupied habitat. Continued isolation of bear populations would be virtually guaranteed by all of these measures.
The kinds of management regimes being crafted by state officials would take us in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Seen through the lens of recent scientific consensus, we are still far from where we need be to insure long-term survival of grizzly bear populations in the contiguous U.S. Even the most optimistic estimates show we currently have little more than 2,000 grizzlies distributed among four isolated or semi-isolated populations. We are far from the 4,000-8,000 contiguous interbreeding bears needed to insure genetic and evolutionary viability.
And risks have multiplied with the on-going effects of climate change and human population growth. We have already seen losses of native foods either directly or indirectly caused by humans, including near-extirpation of cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Park, near-extirpation of whitebark pine throughout the northern Rockies, and substantial declines of elk populations in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Most berry-producing shrubs, including huckleberry, are predicted to disappear next, both because of adverse climate change as well as loss of pollinators. All of these species are or were important sources of grizzly bear food.
These losses of native foods have driven grizzlies to increasingly seek anthropogenic foods, often under circumstances that bring them into conflict with people. Exploitation of carrion from hunter-killed elk has led to increased bear deaths during encounters with frightened men carrying large-caliber guns. Increased depredation of livestock has led to predictably lethal responses from ranchers and federal agents operating at their behest. Inundation of valley bottoms by new-comers intent on raising chickens—and not particularly concerned about disposing of their garbage—has spawned conflicts that end up being deadly for the involved bears.
And more of the same is yet to come.
A Missing Perspective
Add to this the perspective of history. Although current grizzly bear numbers are roughly twice those we had in the 1970s and 1980s when grizzlies were critically imperiled, our current numbers are still only 4% of what we had West-wide during the mid-1800s. Although hard-fought implementation of the Endangered Species Act since the mid-1970s has rescued grizzly bears in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems from their perilous state, populations in the Selkirk Mountains and Cabinet-Yaak region barely survive due to loss of secure habitat and the toll taken by poachers. Only token numbers of grizzlies are present in expansive Recovery Areas centered on central Idaho and the North Cascades of Washington. Elsewhere, grizzlies are still missing from ecosystems they once enriched, including in California, Colorado, and the Southwest—all areas with ample potential habitat.
A Missing Place for Empathy and Inspiration
I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, not too far from where the last grizzlies in the region were killed. Coyotes and white-tailed deer were our largest surviving native mammals. Later during my career as a wildlife researcher, I was able to draw inspiration from witnessing the rescue of our surviving critically-imperiled grizzly bear populations.
My field studies also allowed me to experience the magic of grizzly bears through numerous close observations—a magic that millions of visitors to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks have experienced from afar. We are collectively rediscovering what indigenous people have known for a long time: that grizzlies are a source of powerful medicine.
The management regime being developed by state managers and politicians dismisses out of hand this inspiration offered by grizzlies to millions of people, as well as the values held by most Americans. Delisting would furthermore disenfranchise 99% of the people previously enfranchised by federal law. Instead, grizzlies would be subject to the whims of state wildlife management agencies slaved to conservative politicians and the interests of hunters and livestock producers in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, although, even here, these constituents are a distinct minority.
Now is not the time to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies. Their populations are too small and fragmented as well as prey to deteriorating environmental conditions. As important, politicians in the northern Rockies promise imprudent and vengeful management.
If anything, we should be redoubling our commitment to restoring and protecting grizzly bears. The bears as well as the multitudes of people who cherish them deserve no less.