The Western Watersheds Project is leading the plaintiff group seeking to block the killing of up to 72 grizzly bears over the next 10 years on national forest lands in the headwaters of the Green River.
With the Yellowstone grizzly listed as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act, one might assume killing bears in reprisal for livestock depredations — real or imagined — would be prohibited. But the reality is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often elects to invoke an obscure provision of the law to issue an incidental take statement authorizing the killing of listed species when faced with political pressure. By authorizing such a large number of grizzlies to be killed, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have turned the headwaters of the Green into a population sink, an area of prime habitat that will continually attract dispersing young bears that face a high likelihood of being killed once they establish a territory of their own.
Killing bears implicated in livestock losses prevents them from becoming longstanding territory holders that become familiar with the seasonal distribution of natural food sources. Bears that can’t find natural food are more likely to prey on domestic livestock, which have had all the intelligence and survival instincts bred out of them. The Forest Service even requires ranchers to drag cattle carcasses away from roads, dumping them where grizzly bears are more likely to find them and acquire a taste for beef. It’s a vicious cycle that guarantees endless killings for grizzlies, higher livestock losses for the ranchers and elevated extinction risk for the Yellowstone bear population.
I cut my teeth as a wildlife biologist in Alaska, where wolves and grizzly bears are abundant. Alaskans have developed the know-how and woodcraft to coexist. In Wyoming, by contrast, far too many of us approach our large native wildlife from a standpoint of baseless paranoia, ignorance and malice. Unlike Alaska, Wyoming has livestock scattered all over the public lands, and that lies at the root of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. The livestock industry’s default approach to nature is to subjugate it: poison the prairie dogs, kill off the large carnivores, chase off the elk and bison, fence off the open spaces. The livestock industry’s “custom and culture” of death, destruction and domination is the biggest threat to Wyoming’s spectacular abundance of native fish and wildlife, considered one of the state’s biggest assets by most residents.
Perhaps the flimsiest justification to justify grizzly killings was advanced by state lawyers in their oral arguments opposing grizzly delisting, when they asserted that killing grizzlies was necessary to achieve the “social acceptance” of bears. In the past eight years, 35 grizzlies were killed in the Upper Green livestock leases. If killing grizzlies promotes social acceptance, then why has that number doubled — to 72 bears authorized for killing — in the latest grazing plan?
Ranchers aren’t exactly keeping an eye on their vulnerable livestock out in the wilds. Cattlemen rarely hire range riders to accompany their animals and scare off the natural predators. Turn the livestock loose in the spring, collect the survivors in the fall. It’s institutionalized negligence. Yet the wildlife suffer when the ranchers lose animals, because federal agencies are too timid to require ranchers to take responsibility for the welfare and safety of their livestock. If ranchers drop off domestic livestock in the wilds, then losing a few to natural hazards is the cost of doing business. Our federal agencies should recognize that and refuse to be party to senseless killing of native wildlife.
Let’s be clear: Commercial livestock operations, not grizzlies, are the cause of the problem. If livestock were kept on private property, there would be no grizzly depredations on public lands. And public lands would be healthier, with more wildlife into the bargain.
Decades ago, ranchers had a similar destructive approach to bald and golden eagles, shooting and poisoning the birds to the brink of extinction. Then Congress stepped in, passing the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, making killing an eagle a federal crime. Eagles are making a comeback. It’s time to impose similar federal protections for wolves and grizzly bears. Congress has introduced the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act to do just that, and a companion bill for wolves is the next logical step.
In the meantime, grizzly bears need good lawyers. Attorneys from the Western Watersheds Project and the Akland Law Firm of Missoula, Montana, are providing that legal defense on behalf of the Western Watersheds Project, the Alliance for the Rockies and the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection. If we are successful, grizzly bears will be shielded from livestock-related killings, at least in this small corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for the duration of the lawsuit. That is the least we can do until the grizzly bear can get stronger legal protections rangewide or Wyomingites can learn to live compatibly with the native wildlife. Whichever comes first.
It is time for Wyoming to make a quantum leap into the 21st century, and learn to coexist with our native wildlife instead of killing it as the default response. If federal agencies won’t do their jobs to ensure rare and imperiled wildlife get the protection they deserve, conservation groups must stand ready to use the laws and regulations to hold the agency accountable. Our wildlife deserve nothing less.