Grizzlies aren’t an animal to be killed for a trophy but are regarded rather as a “relative” and a “grandparent” in Native American lore and religion.
That contention was put before Congress on Wednesday by Lynnette Grey Bull, a spokeswoman for the Wind River Indian Reservation’s Northern Arapaho Elders Society. She appealed to federal lawmakers to respect the cultural importance of grizzlies to America’s first peoples.
“The terms we use for grizzly bears are the same as we use for people,” Grey Bull testified before a U.S. House of Representatives natural resources subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife.
“The grizzly bear is integral to the cultural and spiritual practices of the Northern Arapaho people,” she told lawmakers. “Our elders teach how the grizzly bear brought us to our medicines.”
Native American-inspired legislation that would fundamentally alter how grizzly bears could be moved around or killed is what brought Grey Bull, other tribal representatives and Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik to Washington, D.C. The bill at issue, the “Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act,” essentially amounts to a ban on sport hunting Ursus arctos horribilis in the Lower 48. The act would demand an array of authorizations and consultations ahead of euthanizing bears that are causing conflict — decisions that today are made swiftly, albeit still with federal consultation.
Nesvik, while fielding questions from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., testified that the provisions of the bill could result in more grizzlies and people dying. In his remarks, Game and Fish’s top employee pointed out that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears have been numerically recovered per the terms of their Endangered Species Act delisting goals for 16 years, and that the state has invested upwards of $50 million to help the species rebound to the 700-plus animals that exist in the ecosystem.
“Today, we are doing the on-the-ground work,” Nesvik said. “It is state managers that are responding to conflicts, flying dangerous high-mountain surveys, and providing education to people working and recreating in bear country.”
Bozeman, Montana, attorney Jonathan Wood, a fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, also spoke against the act. Its provisions, he said, would effectively retract state authority over wildlife and dictate federal management in perpetuity, giving states less flexibility over recovered grizzly bear populations than they would have under the Endangered Species Act.
“These provisions would effectively deter efforts to recover wildlife,” Wood said, “depriving the states and their citizens of any reward for that effort.”
Only five representatives were seated for the hearing. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney wasn’t present, nor was Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the bill’s primary sponsor and chairman of the broader U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., chaired the hearing instead, and he championed the bill while lamenting Wyoming’s and Idaho’s foiled plans to hunt grizzlies for the first time in four decades.
The seasons were called off when a U.S. District Court judge ruled in September that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to account for how delisting the Yellowstone region’s grizzlies would affect the species in the rest of its range. Native American tribes also sued and posed their own arguments, but the judge did not rule on them. Fish and Wildlife and the states signaled they will appeal.
“While these decisions have made their way through the courts,” Neguse said, “the fact is that we are dealing with an administration that places the interests of trophy hunters and the industries above those of Native Americans and their heritage.”
Grijalva’s grizzly bill is modeled after the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits the killing and possession of eagles and their parts because of the species’ significance to Native people. Ben Nuvamsa, a former chairman of Arizona’s Hopi Tribe, emphasized the cultural significance of the brown and tawny-colored bears that once roamed much of the American West, from the plains to the deserts to the Northern Rocky Mountain high country where the species persists today. Grizzlies to his people are “healers” and “medicine men” that play a central role in their traditions.
“The grizzly bear, ‘Hoonaw,’ as we call him, is held in high esteem, not only in our Hopi culture, but by other Native people in the United States and Canada,” Nuvamsa said. “I do not recall if there is a tribal nation that does not hold the bear in high regard.”
Among its other provisions, the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act would create a “Grizzly Bear Scientific Committee” that would complement the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Its membership would include six tribal representatives, one each for six Lower 48 regions where grizzlies exist today.
The act also calls for a study that would explore the reintroduction of grizzlies onto tribal lands. Another provision applies to stockmen who possess federal grazing allotments. Permits for the allotments would be automatically voided if a permittee was convicted of killing a grizzly or violating another part of the act.