This past week Gov. Mark Gordon told a meeting of the Park County Farm Bureau, a livestock industry booster, that if they want to strip the Yellowstone grizzly of its current Endangered Species Act protections they will need to reelect Donald Trump as president. In doing so the governor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with putting states in charge of endangered wildlife, and why federal agencies need to lead on this issue.

Once a species is listed as threatened or endangered under federal law, all decisions must be based on science. When the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, it was obvious to Congress (and everyone else) that commercial interests are responsible for imperiling native plants and wildlife, whether it was the chemical industry producing DDT, the livestock industry’s systematic campaign to drive big predators extinct, utility corporations drowning snail darter habitat under reservoirs or the oil industry’s fragmentation of sage-grouse habitats.

Politics-as-usual tends to protect private profits, while wildlife and public lands are left to dangle in the wind. That’s why Congress specifically excluded political and economic factors from endangered species decision-making.

By design the ESA is a safety net that springs into place when state wildlife management (or a lack of it) lands native wildlife and plants on the brink of extinction. And it has worked brilliantly for many decades, saving from extinction more than 99% of species that have been listed, and 90% of listed species are recovering at (or faster than) the rate specified in their recovery plans. This strong record of success explains the ESA’s overwhelming public support: Over 90% of Americans support the Endangered Species Act in a 2015 poll.

Unfortunately, the decision to prematurely delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear was tainted by politics. While the original grizzly recovery plan required that connectivity be reestablished between Yellowstone bears and those in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved the goalposts closer to appease state governments pushing for delisting, and identified arbitrary population targets at which grizzlies would be magically deemed secure.

This decision ignored dwindling natural food supplies and increasing bear-human interactions and grizzlies expanding into human-dominated landscapes in search of food. The tribes, conservation groups (including Western Watersheds Project) and animal-rights activists sued; trophy hunting groups, state governments and the National Rifle Association intervened to defend the delisting.

After hearing all the evidence brought forward by the states, federal agencies, conservationists and others, the judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had ignored key science and returned the Yellowstone grizzly to Endangered Species Act protection.

This is exactly the way that Congress intended the Endangered Species Act to work.

Even with the protections of the ESA, the Yellowstone grizzly population isn’t getting the protection it needs. There have been 37 grizzly killings over the past nine years due to livestock-grizzly conflicts, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just signed off on killing 72 grizzlies over the next decade on six livestock grazing leases in the headwaters of the Green River.

The U.S. Forest Service, for its part, ignored conservationists’ call for managing livestock on public lands to prevent further grizzly killings. It’s land and wildlife management by death squad. If ranchers want to run their private livestock on public lands, they should be required to do so in a way that causes zero problems for the native wildlife, grizzlies included.

The Wyoming state grizzly bear plan is full of weaknesses. It excludes considerable areas of occupied grizzly habitat from conservation designations, including hundreds of thousands of acres of livestock grazing allotments that have been bought out by conservationists to end livestock-wildlife conflicts. It does nothing to protect grizzlies from depredations by a vengeful livestock industry.

Gov. Gordon could do a lot of good by improving grizzly bear conservation in Wyoming through the state plan, and that might also speed the ultimate recovery of the bear.

State meddling in federal endangered species efforts simply introduces political crosswinds into what is by law a science-driven process, and only amplifies the likelihood of litigation.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group working to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife throughout the West.

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(3) comments

Noah Osnos

Dave, you may be confusing coincidence with causation. With the numbers as low as they are, why risk extinction? After all, other than its human variant, the dodo has not made a comeback.

Ed Loosli

I really hope that the Western Watersheds Project, the Center For Biological Diversity and other like minded wildlife conservation organizations go to court to stop the planned annihilation of up to 72 grizzly bears in the Upper Green River basin because of conflicts with private livestock on our public lands. This approved slaughter of grizzly bears in such high numbers will make the grizzly bear population totally unsustainable and that is a serious violation of the Endangered Species Act, which is supposed to be protecting the grizzly from this sort of persecution. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has no legal authority to sign off on killing 72 grizzlies over the next decade on six livestock grazing leases in the headwaters of the Green River. The courts need to step in and stop this disaster in the making. No wonder the grizzly bear is still an ENDANGERED SPECIES.

David Hill

It might be better to leave science out of this argument, because the facts can get in the way of the desired political outcome. It is interesting that Mr. Molvar cites the DDT ban, which was the first major environmental decision based on feelings despite all the scientific facts, studies and conclusions. Through the clever repetition of non-facts, everyone now knows, with 100% certainty, that DDT caused the decline of raptors. But the scientific truth is very inconvenient.

In Texas, peregrine falcons declined from 5,000 in 1918 to 200 in 1941, three years before DDT. Around the Gulf of Mexico, they declined from 1918 to 1934 by 82 percent, but the 1935 survey was done 15 years before any DDT appeared.

Likewise, in the East, peregrine falcons declined long before there was any DDT present there, because of egg-collectors and falconers. Falconers “raided every nest they could find” and shot falcons on sight.

So let's just all agree that grizzlies are about to disappear forever, and that no hunting should be allowed anywhere. After all, once it became a federal crime to shoot raptors, their numbers increased dramatically.

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