Since Time Immemorial, We Have Shared the Land with Wolves and Bears: They Deserve Our Protection

Photograph Source: Gary Kramer – Public Domain

For the Nimiipuu people, protecting wolves and grizzly bears is akin to protecting a family member. According to our law, every animal has a vital place in this world. When we disrupt that, we upset the entire balance within an ecosystem. We believe strongly in the sacredness of all life. Since time immemorial, we have shared this land with wolves and bears – sharing our resources, sharing food and learning from one another. It is critical that we maintain protections for our relatives, the wolves and grizzly bears, to ensure these species can continue to carry out their roles on this land.

In recent years, wolves and grizzly bears have faced increasing persecution in the Northern Rockies. The threat of hostile state management in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana only compounds the threats these species are already facing. To ensure the continued recovery of grizzly bears and gray wolves, continued protections under the Endangered Species Act are necessary – especially in light of the aggression we’ve seen toward these species in our states.

Most recently, Montana and Wyoming petitioned the federal government to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment hopes these petitions will be rejected and ensure continued protections for grizzly bears in our region. We have already seen what has happened to wolves in the Northern Rockies since they were delisted – we cannot allow grizzly bears to face the same hostile state management and extreme killing.

Our group is also part of a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s wolf trapping and snaring laws that facilitate the killing of up to 90% of Idaho’s gray wolf population. The lawsuit contends that continued and expanded wolf trapping and snaring will injure and kill non-target grizzly bears, which are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Idaho has ignored the potential impacts to grizzlies and charged forward with its extreme killing practices to eradicate as many wolves as possible. We joined this lawsuit to end the trapping and snaring of wolves in grizzly bear habitat during non-denning periods.

In just a single year after Idaho’s aggressive new wolf trapping and snaring laws took effect in 2021, Idaho’s wolf population declined by 13 percent. We should be doing everything we can to protect and live alongside both wolves and grizzly bears, not actively facilitating their eradication. These species are incredibly important to the Nimiipuu people, and we are working to end the assault on these species – for the benefit of our environment and for future generations.

Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment recently spoke with tribal elders to document their stories about both wolves and grizzly bears. One elder spoke of seeing a gray wolf and how beautiful an experience it was – that an almost ghost-like figure moved past at a fast pace, and how fortunate they felt after. Another spoke of how connected we are to wolves and grizzlies by our shared food and resources. Another marveled at the harmonies from wolves – singing to one another across the canyons. Another’s daughter was named after the wolf, as she worked hard to take care of her family and boys. And another spoke of the need to work to better understand grizzly bears and their needs and restore our ecosystems back to their natural configurations.

The stories shine a light on just how important grizzly bears, wolves and the rest of the natural world have been to the Nimiipuu people for generations. These stories are passed down to all of us – stories of our ancestors and how important the species have been toward ensuring the continued survival of our landscapes and each of us. Every single one of us is connected. As we face the continued loss of nature, we should be fighting harder to protect these species, not harm them.

In the coming months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to maintain protections for the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. We are hopeful that the agency will decide to continue protecting the species, as climate change, habitat destruction and increased killing of bears has only made the situation more dire. We must do all we can to better foster connections between isolated grizzly populations and recommit to their recovery in the lower 48, including priority ecosystems like the Bitterroot and Cascades.

And as we move toward a decision in our Idaho litigation, we are hopeful for a ruling that protects both wolves and the ESA-protected grizzly bears that are indiscriminately killed through trapping and snaring. The Endangered Species Act has afforded grizzly bears protections and Idaho’s extreme killing program for wolves has put both species at risk.

In recent years, officials in this region have proven to be incredibly hostile toward the species that Indigenous communities, and most Americans, know and love. People travel from all over the world to see our grizzly bears and wolves, and they spend significant money in our region while they are here. We should be protecting these species and the role they play in our ecosystems, our culture and our economy, not targeting them. The extreme hostility toward these keystone species will only hurt all of us if it continues.

This first appeared in the Idaho Capitol Sun.

Julian Matthews is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and the coordinator for Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment.