This week a federal judge overturned the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear, restoring the protections of the Endangered Species Act.
That’s great news for the grizzly bears, which certainly weren’t going to benefit from being hunted, and for all the grizzly bear enthusiasts in the local area and across the nation. The renewed protections should boost tourism by alleviating concerns of tourists, who have been staying away due to distaste for state anti-grizzly policies.
In addition to the immediate impacts, the relisting of the grizzly bear presents the opportunity to address unresolved issues around grizzly conservation that got swept to the margins during the rush to remove Endangered Species Act protections.
Foremost is the isolated and imperiled status of the bear itself. The original recovery plan required that a grizzly population become established in the mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot to provide a connecting corridor to Yellowstone.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sheep Experiment Station along the Idaho-Montana border is a problematic impediment to this wildlife linkage, and congressional efforts to shut down this antiquated and obsolete facility were thwarted by last-ditch efforts by Idaho politicians. It’s time to let the sheep station go.
Grizzly bear food supplies have grown increasing tenuous with the loss of cutthroat trout spawning runs and whitebark pine nut crops, and as grizzlies wander farther afield in search of food, bear-human conflicts — and numbers of grizzlies killed in their wake — are increasing. Some communities can and should do more to bearproof food and garbage storage.
And finally, the Wyoming state management plan needs an overhaul. Entire mountain ranges completely suited for grizzly habitat — the Salt River and Wyoming Ranges — were excluded from the plan, as was a big chunk of the Bridger Wilderness. These were excluded not for any biological reason but because livestock permittees didn’t want to share our public lands with grizzlies.
The good news is that conservation groups (full disclosure: including Western Watersheds Project’s settlement fund) bought out grazing allotments in the northern Wyoming Range and Wind River Range, with the specific goal of permanently ending such conflicts between the livestock industry and native wildlife, including grizzly bears. These “social” problems are now resolved, and the geography of grizzly bear recovery needs to be expanded accordingly.
There are a great number of groups and individuals that deserve our thanks for this victory. Western Watersheds Project was proud to be among such a powerful assemblage of grizzly advocates. From the conservation, tribal and animal-rights groups to their attorneys to individual plaintiffs, this victory really was a team effort. A diverse community came together to fight this illegal delisting and worked together for this outcome.
Much gratitude is due to the indigenous groups who played a key role in the litigation, and those that signed an international treaty together with Canadian First Nations affirming the religious significance of grizzly bears to their cultural traditions.
“The grizzly is part of us and we are part of the grizzly culturally, spiritually and ceremonially,” says the treaty. “Our ancient relationship is so close and so embodied in us that the grizzly is the spirit of our holistic eco-cultural life-ways.”
This visionary agreement recognizes the dwindling grizzly food sources in the Yellowstone ecosystem, calls for linkage zones between existing fragmented grizzly bear populations and commits the tribes to cooperating with research scientists to expand our knowledge of the majestic creatures. And numerous tribal entities backed up this treaty with legal action, including the Crow Indian Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Crazy Dog Society, Hopi Nation Bear Clan, Northern Arapaho Elders Society, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and 10 individual tribal members. The lawsuit — and the victory — honors the human-grizzly relationship by insisting that the bears stay protected.
The states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho tried to sell the court the idea that state management — including a certain level of state-sanctioned bear killing — is necessary to gain “social acceptance” for recovering grizzly populations. The judge didn’t buy it, and neither do we. Grizzly bears have enjoyed strong social acceptance in the Yellowstone ecosystem precisely because it was illegal for average citizens to kill them.
We hope to see the grizzly bear enjoy such full protection, and social acceptance, at the very least until the population is truly recovered.