FEATURE: Open Season

By on August 23, 2017

An American icon finds itself caught in the crosshairs of an environmental, economic and spiritual battle upon its removal from the endangered species list.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On Friday afternoon, Doug Peacock stood wearily on a Montana riverbank in the stark August sun. At his feet lay the carcass of a young grizzly bear. A fisherman had discovered the animal’s body a day or so earlier. It wasn’t clear what had killed the bear; natural causes were possible, but so was poaching.

Peacock found himself remembering a moment earlier in the season. Hunkered on a windswept ridge with his daughter, he had a stunningly close encounter with a mother grizzly and her yearling cub. As the wind ripped past them, they crouched in the shelter of a boulder, watching the bear, hardly 30 feet away, rear up on her hind legs to catch a whiff of them. After a few long minutes, she determined they were no threat to her or her cub. Sauntering past the human visitors, she laid down on the scruffy hillside. Peacock was astounded by what he saw next.

It was something he’d never seen a grizzly in Yellowstone do in the presence of humans—the bruin began nursing her cub. The moment was full of trust and sharing it with his daughter etched it in his memory.

As Peacock stood along the river, he found himself hoping that the lifeless grizzly was not the same cub from that encounter.

“Just for a second it crossed my mind that this could have been the yearling cub that came up to us two months ago; could have been the same animal. Suddenly I realized what a vested interest, what stock I had in not seeing that grizzly bear poached. If they open a hunting season, that mother grizzly and her yearling were only eight miles from the northern border of the park. And they trusted us,” he said.

On the final day of July, the grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem lost the legal protection they’d held since 1975. With a population dwindling below 150, the bears were granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. Today, the bears’ management has been returned to the hands of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, a shift that spurs questions about their fate.

Indeed, the decision—championed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a badge of  successful population recovery—is receiving criticism from people in biological, cultural and economic spheres. A broad constituency made up of conservationists, Native American tribes, hunters, business owners and wildlife enthusiasts agree that the decision is not only premature and poorly planned, but also may have large scale ecological consequences.

While the debate is deeply local and intrinsically bound to the Yellowstone ecosystem, it is a part of rising national tensions about managing the spaces that belong to the public, and how those spaces should be shared with wild inhabitants.

The resistance

Peacock has been fighting against the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly for years. From working with the Obama administration to leading a presence at the recent March for Science on behalf of the bears, he’s been on the front lines of advocacy. But now, “the fight for the Yellowstone griz, at least temporarily, is in the courts,” he said.

A constellation of tribal and environmental groups has taken the torch, litigating the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision. While the outcome of these cases is years down the road, each notice of intent was filed immediately after the delisting was official.

Earthjustice, a national legal organization for whom Peacock is a star witness, is representing the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association. The attorneys level an array of claims against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Among them are concerns about food sources, mortality and the movement of bears across the landscape in search of nutrients.

Earthjustice, for example, asserts that the bears’ shift to a meat-centered diet places them and cubs at risk of human conflict and predation by other bears.

Advocates also argue USFWS is dismissing the threats bears face from climate change, genetic isolation, habitat degradation, and inadequate regulatory mechanisms.

“This irresponsible decision ignores both science and the majority of Americans who want our wild animals protected,” Andrea Santarsiere, a Victor, Idaho, senior attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity, said.

The Humane Society also filed a notice of intent to challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The organization cites trophy hunting as one of its major concerns: “The federal government is for all practical purposes handing over the bears to the whim of fish and game agencies hell-bent on allowing private citizens to slay these majestic animals for the thrill of the exercise.”

Even before the bears lost their federal protection, the Humane Society claims wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had already adopted frameworks to authorize trophy hunting as early as this fall.

“They’ve been polishing their rifles and loading up for years, regardless of the bears’ numbers and the range of other threats that imperil their long-term viability.”

“Indeed, the states have already divvied up the hunting allocations, with the lion’s share going to Wyoming (58 percent), followed by Montana (34 percent) and Idaho (8 percent). Grizzlies spending most of their lives in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will be at risk, since they frequently roam across park boundaries in search of food. The states have no plans to prohibit hunting along the peripheries of these parks. The HSUS filed two lawsuits in state court challenging the hasty and illegal process Montana and Wyoming used to adopt these shortsighted hunting frameworks,” the Humane Society said. “With trophy hunting now looming, the bears will face a full-on assault, including spring hunts in 2018 targeting female bears with infant cubs.”

WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project also filed 60-day notices of intent.

Native American groups and individuals are taking a slightly different approach with their complaint. The plaintiffs, including the Crow Indian Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Piikani Nation, Crazy Dog Society, Hopi Nation Bear Clan, Northern Arapaho Elders Society and more, claim that the delisting and subsequent hunting of grizzly bears is an affront to their religious and spiritual freedom.

Moreover, they argue that hunting will prevent grizzlies from returning to their historical habitat range, part of which is comprised of tribal lands. This prevention, the tribes assert, is a violation of treaties, as the lands are “culturally and spiritually significant homelands.”

The legal road to protecting the grizzlies of GYE will be long, but it’s clear that many, in the name of ecology, ethics and spirituality, are ready to fight.

A storied past, an uncertain future

When Lewis and Clark traversed the North American continent more than 200 years ago, grizzlies populated a wide swath of the landscape, from the Pacific Ocean into the Great Plains. At the time, there were likely 50,000 bears. But, like the bison and so many other wild inhabitants of the West, they were enthusiastically butchered by trappers, settlers and other tendrils of European civilization.

What was once a robust population spread across contiguous habitat shrank and became fractured. Today, less than 2 percent of the historic population remains, existing in a diminutive 1 percent of their once-expansive range.

By 1975, the grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem numbered somewhere around 135, and they were entirely isolated from other populations. To salvage the remaining animals, they were listed as threatened, a federal designation that protected them from hunting and encouraged special monitoring of the population.

By many measures, the efforts were successful. On January 9, 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to remove the bears’ endangered status, and were met with litigation by conservation groups. The case ultimately resulted in a win for bear advocates. This was because the courts failed to consider the decline of whitebark pine, a key food source. Grizzlies retained their federal protections, until now.

Since the late 1970s, the number of bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has rebounded, and though the area’s bears are still not connected to other regional populations, they are no longer teetering on the brink of complete decimation. However, the magnitude of this success and the grizzlies’ status is not clear cut. Still, some champion the decision.

Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defines the grizzly bear’s population recovery as “a great story of success under the Endangered Species Act.” He interprets the species’ status as evidence of an unequivocal win. “The population is fully recovered, and we need to recognize that and let the Endangered Species Act work on other species that need its protections,” he said during a recent interview with National Public Radio.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke agrees: “As a kid who grew up in Montana, I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” he said. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners.” The federal government is glad to transition management of Yellowstone area grizzlies  into the hands of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. And the states are taking the reins with zeal.

In stark contrast to these statements, many biologists, conservationists and communities around the GYE are gravely concerned about what this decision will ultimately mean for these animals and others in the ecosystem.

Peacock has witnessed the past decades’ changes in the grizzly population firsthand. But his connection to these animals goes beyond scientific data or population statistics; Peacock believes the grizzlies of Yellowstone saved his life.   

After his service in the Vietnam War, Peacock returned home troubled, and had serious difficulties connecting with other people. He sought solace in the natural world, and discovered an unlikely savior.

“I encountered my first grizzly family in Yellowstone almost 50 years ago. I was a Green Beret Medic in Vietnam, and I came back from that war and, like a lot of other vets, I couldn’t be around people. I was really out of sorts. So I went to the one place that I’m really comfortable, and that’s the wilderness.”

He spent a summer traversing the mountains of Wyoming, ending up in Yellowstone where he first encountered the bruins. It forever changed him. “I wasn’t looking for them, but they were there. And they just command your attention.”

But Yellowstone was far from Eden.

“I noticed that even a whacko ‘Nam vet out in the wilderness could tell the bears were having tremendous problems, back starting in the late 60s,” Peacock said. The genesis of these struggles? The bears’ food sources. And today, Peacock’s concerns ring true.

Food, mortality, connectivity

Opponents of Yellowstone grizzly delisting have myriad concerns about factors that were not sufficiently weighed, from the Fish and Wildlife’s failure to consider the impact climate change and invasive species are having on traditional food sources to increased bear mortality over the past few years. Additionally, there are concerns that hunting and isolation of the population will lead to such little genetic diversity that that population will again plummet. All in all, the delisting rule does little to consider the large-scale forces and influences in the overarching ecosystem and the consequences that hunting grizzly bears might have.

“Recently, the grizzly population has been faced with the loss of two of its most important food sources in the Yellowstone region—whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout—due to changing environmental conditions driven in part by climate change,” reads a statement from Earthjustice.

While the delisting decision notes that monitoring grizzly food sources in the area will continue, conservation groups feel this is inadequate.

Whitebark pine seeds have been a critical source of food for grizzlies, but in recent years, the trees have been victim to increasing disease and fire. Climate change is a driving factor for both these challenges to the whitebark, and the long-term trends are not yet fully understood. The science isn’t scarce. The report, Whitebark pine vulnerability to climate-driven mountain pine beetle disturbance in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, explores the uptick in beetle infestations in trees that were once in locations too high and cold to be susceptible to the bugs. Climate change, however, has made these once-safe stands prime pickings for beetles, leaving less for bears. Likewise, studies have demonstrated that hotter, lower-moisture conditions make whitebark pines more vulnerable to blister rust, a pathogen that infects and kills the tree.

Ultimately, with the year-to-year dynamics of vegetation, moisture and fire patterns in flux, data to draw certain conclusions is not yet available.

Cutthroat trout have long been an important element of the Yellowstone grizzly’s diet. Once, the cutthroat was the dominant species in the area. In recent decades, their numbers have diminished.

Another primary food, the army cutworm moth, is clearly at risk, explained the local conservation group Wyoming Wildlife Advocates in its written comments critiquing the delisting rule. “This finding in the proposed rule is truly astonishing. It notes that the moths congregate at high elevation, yet does not acknowledge that warming trends will affect them, only stating that ‘GYE plant communities have a wide elevational range.’ In the face of ongoing warming trends, one must wonder how much higher elevation habitat exists above the alpine zone where these moths are found!”

In other words, it’s clear that climate change is impacting the plant species that live at high elevations—the plants that army cutworm moths depend on. It’s not difficult to imagine what this portends for the future of this critical grizzly food source.

In a recent article, Peacock agreed: “The threat of global warming should be enough in itself to preclude delisting. But the federal government is not impressed by climate change. As evidenced by a recent lawsuit over wolverines, Fish and Wildlife administrators dismiss the predictions of climate models as unreliable. The government wants accurate climate predictions out to 2085 before they act. That’s crazy: Nobody has a clue if the bears, or their human constituencies, will even be around in 2085.”

As these traditional food sources diminish, primarily due to the ravages of a rapidly changing climate, bears must travel further for sustenance. Is it any surprise, then, that their hunger-driven wanderings lead them beyond the invisible boundaries of park and wilderness and into areas that are grazed by livestock? Or across busy roads? Supporters of delisting argue that the appearance of grizzlies in areas that were previously not occupied by the bears is evidence of a population explosion. It’s the result, though, of the animals being forced to spread out over more land simply to find sufficient food.

In conflicts with humans or livestock, the grizzlies inevitably lose. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) confirmed that 58 grizzlies died last year in GYE. Thirty-nine of those deaths were human-caused. Nearly 70 percent of the bear mortalities were due to interactions with livestock, people or vehicles. The IGBST report lists 12 additional fatalities as “under investigation,” which means the number of human-caused deaths could be even higher. 

So far, this year, six grizzlies have been killed because they’ve harmed livestock in GYE. All six were in Wyoming. Meanwhile, 17 grizzly mortalities have been confirmed in the area so far this year, 76 percent of which have been in Wyoming.

Conservationists argue these mortality rates are unsustainable, and the dynamic influences on the population are too significant to consider exposing the species to new pressures in the form of hunting.

In addition to concerns about the population’s vulnerability from a food availability and mortality standpoint, conservationists say reducing the grizzly’s numbers will impact their genetic diversity. Since the Yellowstone grizzly is isolated from other grizzly populations, increasing overall bear mortality could have serious impacts on the long-term genetic health and resilience of the animals.

Living bears are also, by any measure, worth more than dead bears. Millions of people flock to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in hopes of seeing a grizzly bear. They spend millions upon millions of dollars to do so. A 2012 study The Economics of Roadside Bear Viewing provides some fascinating data and insights into the dollars that bears generate for local economies. More than 80 percent of visitors say bears are their top priority when listing wildlife they hope to see. If bears were no longer viewable from roadsides, the paper estimates that 155 jobs, and millions of dollars of revenue would not flow into the area—money spent in restaurants, hotels, on guides, souvenirs and more.

The bigger picture

It’s clear trophy hunting grizzly bears strikes many as unethical and morally indefensible. Beyond this repugnance, however, lie potential consequences for the long-term health of the bear population, the larger ecosystem and even the regional economy. And while this story is deeply local and intrinsically connected to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is not unique to the area.

As multiple plaintiffs mentioned in their notices, further narrowing of the bears’ genetic diversity could be catastrophic for the overall population. If Yellowstone’s grizzlies are hunted and confined to the safety of the national parks, there is little hope they would reach other populations to the north and successfully breed.

If—due to hunting, loss of genetic diversity, decimation of food supply or any combination thereof—grizzlies’ numbers again diminish, it’s not clear what the trickle-down impact on the rest of the ecosystem might be. Considered a keystone species in the GYE, they play an important role in the overall health of the region.

Especially as Chronic Wasting Disease knocks at Yellowstone’s doorstep, the prospect of losing one of the region’s most important predators is deeply concerning. Predation by wolves, bears and coyotes is one of the best defenses that elk herds have against the ravages of disease; predators target and remove sick animals before they can spread pathogens among herds.

“The issue that really scares me is the effect that CWD will have on elk and deer populations in the region, and the follow-on effect it will have on grizzlies,” Kent Nelson, founder of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said. “Nobody has looked at this issue. The Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is entirely silent on CWD, even though the spread of CWD among GYE deer and elk populations is more than just predictable … it has already started.”

While the legal efforts to keep grizzlies, and thereby the larger ecosystem, protected will be an uphill battle, a recent ruling in the Great Lakes region is promising.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the area’s population of grey wolves from the Endangered Species List, precisely what it just did with the grizzlies of GYE. The states that acquired management authority over the wolves intended to expose them to hunting. Essentially, USFWS deemed a small pocket of wolves recovered “enough” to be hunted, even though the species overall was still protected. The court, however, disagreed saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to consider what removing protections for one population of wolves might mean for other protected populations of wolves.

However, victories like this have not been overlooked by lawmakers on the national level. Sen. John Barrasso–R, Wyoming, has introduced legislation entitled the HELP Act—Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation for Wildlife Act. It’s not as helpful as its title would imply.

The act would not only return the management of Wyoming wolves to the state permanently, it would also make any legal challenges to the move illegal. In other words, conservation groups would be barred from suing to protect the animals from hunting.

Indeed, Republican lawmakers see the protection of species as an unnecessary hurdle to expanding America’s extraction economy. Too many rules protecting the habitats of bears, wolves, sage grouse and other creatures slow down oil, gas and mineral development. Under the guise of “modernizing” the Endangered Species Act, Washington is working hard to roll back vulnerable species’ protections.

It is a battle at odds with the American conceptualization of wilderness. For many, predators like wolves and bears represent the mystery and awe-inspiring power of the wild. Wild lands, and their occupants, are a source of shared identity and renewal for many Americans.

Still, others see an unruly beast to be conquered, defeated to demonstrate one’s own power and authority. In the haze of a modern hangover of Manifest Destiny, many see wild lands as spaces to be tamed, stripped down to their most fundamental parts and divvied up for human consumption.

The grizzlies of Yellowstone are emblematic of these divergent concepts of wilderness. Although the bears are deeply bound to a specific ecosystem, the tension between the desire to protect and the demand to hunt them represents a larger dynamic in the nation.

“Of the many things grizzlies are,” Peacock said, “the greatest thing they are is a reminder to the most arrogant, destructive species on this planet that we are not apart from nature. It’s the one animal that keeps us in our place, and I would not want to live in a world that doesn’t have a few grizzlies in it.”

He is saddened by the possibility that this is how the cub he saw just weeks before, joyfully romping the hillsides with his mother, met his demise. “I will fight like a sonofabitch just because of that.”  PJH

About Melissa Thomasma

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