Conservation groups, Native Americans not keen on delisting plan
By Bob Berwyn
A federal claim that grizzly bears no longer need endangered species protection has been met with great skepticism from wildlife advocates and from Native Americans who consider the species sacred.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the restoration of grizzles in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho is a success story, but the bears only live in about 4 percent of their historic range — which means a proposal to delist the species can’t possibly meet the intent of the Endangered Species Act.
More likely, the agency is once again caving in to pressure from states, and at the least, asking for a new onslaught of lawsuits from conservation groups that are unlikely to give up on their efforts to maintain protection for the iconic western species. It’s hard to fathom how a population of about 700 individuals can be considered a sustainable population for the long term.
In fact, the agency had been negotiating the delisting with states in the northern Rockies behind closed doors long before the formal proposal. Those meetings and documents weren’t made public but a copy of the letter from the USFWS to the states was leaked to WyoFile in September 2015.
A Native American coalition, Guardians of our Ancestors Legacy, reacted to the proposal in no uncertain terms. In a statement posted on the group’s website, Oglala Nation Vice President Tom Poor Bear had this to say:
“The Federal government’s announcement today to issue the delisting rule to remove Endangered Species Act protections from the grizzly bear exhibits the typical demeaning attitude of the colonizer towards our people and rights. It’s a 500-year tradition among them. Tribes have endured two centuries of deception and deceit when dealing with the US government, and this announcement of a rule that will provide rich wasicus with the legal authority to trophy hunt our sacred relative, the grizzly bear, is a continuation of that pattern.”
USFWS director Dan Ashe said in a press release that the “final post-delisting management plans by these partners will ensure healthy grizzly populations persist across the Yellowstone ecosystem long into the future.”
The agency released several documents for public review and comment: A draft supplement to the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan for the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and a draft conservation strategy. These detail how both grizzly bears and their habitat will be managed in a post-delisting environment.
The agency is basing its proposal on population and habitat monitoring efforts by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee study team showing that grizzly bears have more than doubled their range since the mid-1970s. They now occupy more than 22,500 square miles of the Yellowstone ecosystem. Stable population numbers for grizzlies for more than a decade also indicate that the Yellowstone ecosystem is at or near its carrying capacity for the bears.
But the Center for Biological Diversity says it’s way too early for delisting. The bears are still threatened by isolation from other grizzly populations, loss of key food sources and human-caused mortalities.
“It’s simply too soon to remove protections for grizzly bears,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re prepared to make sure the Service follows the science and the law to ensure these wonderful animals can truly recover,” Santarsiere said, all but promising the group will challenge the USFWS in court.
Historically grizzly bears ranged from Alaska to Mexico, with an estimated 50,000 bears occupying the western half of the contiguous United States. With European settlement of the American West, they were shot, poisoned and trapped to near extinction. Today just 1,500 to 1,800 grizzlies are found in five isolated populations in the northern Rocky Mountains and North Cascades, including about 715 in the Yellowstone area.
According to scientists there are multiple areas in the grizzly bears’ former range where the animals could once again thrive, including the Selway-Bitterroot, Sierra Nevada in California, southern Rockies of Colorado and Grand Canyon area in Arizona. The Center submitted a petition in July 2014 asking the Service to revise its recovery plan for the grizzly bear and consider additional areas, but to date the agency has refused.
“We’re disappointed that the Obama administration is taking such a narrow view of grizzly bear recovery,” said Santarsiere.
The proposal to remove protections comes at a time when key grizzly bear food sources in the heart of the Yellowstone ecosystem have been collapsing and grizzly mortality rates have been increasing. The dramatic decline of whitebark pine and Yellowstone cutthroat trout has prompted bears to eat more meat, such as big-game gut piles and livestock, resulting in increased conflicts with humans and grizzly bear mortality. Drought and climate change are likely to exacerbate these problems.
The proposed rule, and the supporting documents, will publish in a couple days in the Federal Register. The Service will be seeking review and comment by the public, other federal and state agencies, and independent scientists. Comments will be accepted for 60-days after publication. You can submit electronically at http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter Docket Number FWS–R6–ES–2016–0042, and then click on the “Comment Now!” button.
Comments will also be accepted via U.S. mail or hand-delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS–R6–ES–2016–0042, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803. Please note that submissions merely supporting or opposing a potential delisting, without supporting documentation, will not be considered in making a determination.
The Service will post all information received on http://www.regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information that is provided. To view the complete Federal Register notice that publishes, visit http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/es/grizzlybear.php.