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.