In an effort to restore Endangered Species Act protections to the Yellowstone grizzly bears, several environmental groups, animal protection groups, and Native American tribes are suing the United States (U.S.) government.
The lawsuits were filed as a result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) June decision to delist grizzlies in the Yellowstone region. Eliminating the grizzlies from the list eliminates the protections offered them, making them vulnerable to trophy hunting in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming and putting the entire grizzly population at risk of extinction.
Most of the cases claim that the FWS and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke have prematurely declared the grizzly population recovered, a requirement of delisting, despite a rising Yellowstone mortality rate over the past few years.
“The Service failed to carry out its paramount – and mandatory – duty to ensure grizzly bears in the contiguous United States are recovered to the point at which the protections of the Endangered Species Act are no longer necessary…The Service’s decision is riddled with flaws, not based in science nor the law, and places this icon of all that is wild squarely in the crosshairs of extinction once again,” said Kelly Nokes of WildEarth Guardians.
The bears have yet to recover 98 percent of their lost historical range in the U.S. By making the Yellowstone region bears vulnerable, the cases argue, the FWS and Zinke have ignored their due diligence to ensure that the entire grizzly species is recovered. For that to happen, the Yellowstone grizzly population would have been connected to the grizzly population outside of the Yellowstone border, propagating genetic diversity outside and inside the region, including isolated populations. But this hasn’t happened, and erecting a border prohibiting the genetic diversity the grizzly needs is a threat to its survival.
The bears will be protected within Yellowstone Park, but outside the boundaries it will be open hunting season. Lifting protections outside the park borders will give the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming management rights of the grizzlies and their populations. And that’s not good news. Ranchers, hunters, oil, gas, mining, and logging industries who hold political clout have long argued against grizzly protections.
The cases also argue the FWS and Zinke are ignoring scientific evidence pointing to the decline of the bear’s population, especially as it searches for food. The whitebark pines, disappearing because of climate change, are a key food source for the bears. Food scarcity has led to an increase in human-bear conflicts, as the bears expand their search for food. And grizzlies don’t know where the park begins and ends. So they could be protected in one moment, and then shot an instant later, as a trophy animal, for taking a wrong step in search of a shrinking food supply.
Grizzlies were first added to the list of protected species in 1975 when the population had dwindled to about 136 because of hunting, entrapment, and poisoning in the lower 48 states. The estimated number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states is now 1,800. Yellowstone grizzlies comprise a large portion of this; roughly 700. But the numbers over the past two years have been steadily declining. The Yellowstone grizzly population has dropped from 757 in 2014 to an estimated 690-95 in 2016.
Because of a 60-day waiting period, groups couldn’t file suit until now. But since the waiting period ended, the number of plaintiffs has been growing on a daily basis. They include: WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Western Watersheds Project, Native Ecosystems Council, the Humane Society of the US, The Fund for Animals, and Earthjustice representing a coalition of Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, and Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
These groups are joining the Native American tribes from seven U.S. states and Canada who have already filed suit against the government in a case stating that, because the bears are sacred to their culture, the decision to de-list them violates their religious freedom, tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and the U.S. government’s obligation to have a discussion with tribal nations. A First Nations/Native American treaty “The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Reviatlization and Restoration,” was signed in the fall of 2016 outlining restoration of and alternatives to the states management and proposed hunting of grizzlies.
Tribal nations look at the grizzly as a deity, a member of their clan, as part of nature to be respected.
Zinke’s statement from August 2017 epitomizes his (and this government’s) backwards views in direct contrast to those of tribal nations. He had this to say about his proposed expansion of fishing and hunting on wildlife refuges:
“As the steward of our public lands, one of my top priorities is to open up access wherever possible for hunting and fishing so that more families have the opportunity to pass down the heritage. The last thing I want to see is hunting and fishing become elite sports. These ten refuges will provide incredible opportunities for sportsmen and anglers across the country to access the land and connect with the wildlife.”
Aside from the sheer absurdity of the statement offering hunting as connection with wildlife, the “priorities” of delisting are obfuscated. It’s not lost on Zinke or this corporate-driven, climate change-denying administration that the delisting of grizzlies could lead to development on over 3 million acres of what was protected land. In fact, the Piikani Nation Chief addressed the connection of the Dakota Access Pipeline and delisting of the grizzly in a 2016 letter to the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. In a disturbing section he addresses the FWS choice of Amec Foster Wheeler, a large oil and gas multinational, whose CEO had been an executive of Halliburton, to oversee the scientific peer review of the delisting rule.
At the moment, the grizzlies face a grim future. And we do as well, if we continue to hunt and develop until all of nature is destroyed. Let’s hope these lawsuits bring some change before it’s too late.