Update: Shortly after the publication of this piece, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision to delist Yellowstone Grizzly Bears from Endangered Species Act protections.
It is rumored that, on the 26th of June, Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, will delist the Yellowstone Grizzly Bears from protection under the Endangered Species Act. This would be a reckless, heartless act that would be another blow to relations between the US government and indigenous tribal governments as well as almost certainly spell doom for the only remaining population of these bears in the contiguous United States.
This plot to doom one of the most majestic and intelligent animals on Turtle Island has been in the works since Sally Jewell was Secretary of the Interior under President Obama. The project has largely been the work of (who else) fossil fuel extraction companies, who have their eye on the 3 million acres of public land that would suddenly be open for extraction if the bears were delisted. Specifically, Amec Foster Wheeler, one of the largest fossil-fuel companies in the world, was in charge of reviewing the science used to justify the delisting and Anadarko Petroleum and Gas was a top contributor to the “point-man” on the delisting process under Jewell, Rob Hogan. Hogan himself is a well-known trophy hunter and former chief lobbyist for the Safari Club, a trophy hunting group. According to Native News Online: “Anadarko boasts to be, “one of the largest landowners and leaseholders” in Wyoming, where the bulk of Yellowstone and its grizzlies can be found. Anadarko is a major campaign finance contributor to Wyoming Governor, Matt Mead, and Wyoming’s Senators, Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, all champions of delisting. Presently, Anadarko operates over 7,000 wells in Wyoming.”
Respect the Treaties
Reminiscent of the coalition of tribes that protested the violation of the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, when Energy Transfer Partners and the US government forcibly installed the dangerous-and-now-leaking Dakota Access Pipeline through their lands and water supply, a group of some 126 tribes has protested the Grizzly delisting process, specifically on grounds that the rights of tribes are not being respected, and their input not solicited or heeded. Led by the Piikani tribe of the Blackfoot Nation, an indigenous tribe of what is now called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), these tribes have signed The Grizzly Treaty which Native News Online described saying:
Now the most-signed treaty in history, the document has become a symbol of inter-tribal unity in defense of sovereignty, spiritual and religious protections, treaty rights, sacred site preservation and holding the federal government accountable for its trust responsibility to tribes.
The Grizzly Bear is sacred to many of the indigenous tribes of Turtle Island, and respect for the tribes as sovereign nations demands that their voices be heard on this matter. Indeed, in his address to the National Congress of American Indians, Ryan Zinke proclaimed “Not only should the department meet our treaty obligations but exceed our treaty obligations.”
However, not only have tribal nations not been asked for their input on this matter, their input has been repeatedly ignored and worse. At a meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, James Walks Along, Northern Cheyenne Historic Preservation Officer attempted to impart the tribal view on the delisting process when he had his microphone unplugged and was forcibly removed from the stage. There has been no apology.
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) claims to be consulting with tribes, including sending out letters inviting each of the 26 tribes in the Associated Tribes of Yellowstone to consultations. Of these 26 supposed letters, only 4 appear to have actually been sent. The Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST), one of the 25 tribes who did not receive a letter (only 1 of the 4 was actually received), has said explicitly: “The Oglala Sioux Tribe strongly refutes claims made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that it has attempted to engage in government-to-government consultation on this issue”. The FWS further claims that, regardless, “there are tribes in the ecosystem that participate in the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee. We’re still continuing to have an open dialog. ” But all 3 tribes on the subcommittee are already on record as opposing delisting.
The indigenous group Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy (GOAL), now one of the largest indigenous groups in the world, further maintains that the process of delisting the Yellowstone Grizzlies violates the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978, which states:
Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, That henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
The attack on the Grizzly Bear is an attack on indigenous sovereignty and cultural rights. The dismissal of the views and agency of the indigenous people is simply the continuation of the racist disregard and violence on display against the Standing Rock Water Protectors and going all the way back to the original colonization of Turtle Island during which the indigenous people (human and non-human) were viciously slaughtered and their homes expropriated or destroyed.
Almost predictably, the science that the FWS and its co-conspirators in the extraction and trophy-hunting industries use to defend delisting is flawed and distorted to the point of absurdity. As noted earlier, stripping the bears of their protections will open up 3 million acres of currently protected habitat to exploitation by extractive industries. This land, called the Primary Conservation Area (PCA) was set aside in 1979 to protect a population of around 200 bears in the GYE. However, for an animal which reproduces as slowly as Grizzly Bears do, and for a population that is in frequent contact and conflict with hunters while having its major food sources destroyed by climate change, protecting only 200 bears would virtually guarantee a slow slip into extinction. This fact was even acknowledged by the FWS when, in 1992, they raised the sustainable population goal for the Yellowstone Grizzlies to 600 from the previous 229. Ludicrously, this move was not accompanied by an expansion of the PCA. The PCA currently only covers 50% of the home range of the Yellowstone Grizzlies, with as many as a third of them living primarily outside that range. The range also explicitly excludes habitat frequented by bears, that would have been “controversial” to protect in the original PCA plan, leading to the development of a second boundary, the Demographic Management Area (DMA) for counting the Bears — admitting that the PCA does not accurately reflect the actual habitat the Bears are living in, while refusing to extend protection to that habitat in which they are living.
Probably the largest threat to the Yellowstone Grizzlies, besides the state and federal governments, is the decline in Whitebark Pine and, by extension, Whitebark Pine nuts, which are absolutely crucial food sources for Grizzlies. Grizzlies will feast on the Whitebark Pine nuts right before winter sets in, ensuring they have enough calories to survive the winter. The glut of food high up on the mountains also draws bears away from more populated areas during harvest season, reducing the number of bears killed in conflict with human settlements.
Unfortunately, climate change has led to a dramatic increase in Mountain Bark Beetles, which burrow into the bark of mature Whitebark Pines and devour them from the inside out. Warmer temperatures have allowed Mountain Bark beetles to increase their range higher up the mountains, such that in 2009 it was estimated that over 80% of the Whitebark Pine population in the GYE had experienced “significant mortality” or worse. Creating devastating strands of dry, lifeless trees appropriately referred to as “ghost forests”.
FWS officials released a politically motivated and scientifically laughable report in 2013 downplaying the importance of Whitebark Pine to Grizzlies. Chief among their claims is that Grizzly Bears are able to compensate for the loss in Whitebark Pine by switching to other food sources. But this is part of the problem. The alternate food source that the bears turn to is typically meat, this means heading further down the mountain than they normally would, and often outside the PCA. Female bears with cubs, pursuing meat in lieu of pine nuts, often have to contend with humans (when they go after livestock) or aggressive male bears and hunters (when they go after elk and other prey) resulting in a higher mortality rate from hunters, even as the total number of hunters decreased. All that being said, the switch to meat doesn’t appear to be sufficient as bear deaths are twice as high in years with poor pine nut crops.
The GYE population of bears currently stands at about 700, but recent science suggests, especially in light of the threats that Grizzlies face, a population of several thousand bears in various protected habitats linked by corridors is the only way to maintain the viability of the Grizzly Bears of Turtle Island, and keep them from being totally wiped out. We have already eliminated Grizzlies from 98% of their historic range, as evidenced by the absurdity of the state of California having a Grizzly on their flag when there hasn’t been a Grizzly in that area of the country since the early 1900s. Even the “protected” population living in the GYE is hurting, as 2015 and 2016 set records for numbers of bears killed.
Save the Bears
Grizzly Bears are our largest native predator, they are majestic creatures with a long sacred relationship with the indigenous people of Turtle Island, and they are no less popular among the US population. In 2006 and 2016, when the FWS opened public comments regarding the delisting of the bears, over 99% of the hundreds of thousands of comments they received were in favor of continued protection. The only people who want to see the bear delisted are those who want to hunt it for sport, cutting short millions of years of evolutionary history so they can stuff a giant teddy bear (or whatever it is they want) and those who want to extract dangerous fossil fuels on our public lands.
We must stand up in defense of our brothers and sisters and insist on continued protection for the bears under the Endangered Species Act, which has allowed the bear population to more than double since it’s low point in the 1970s. Without action now, the next generation will grow up in a world devoid, not only of the majestic Polar Bear but of its close cousin the Grizzly as well. We simply can’t sit by and let a small cabal of short-term interests dictate the future of North American mammalian evolution.
Contact your representatives, especially if you live in Wyoming, Montana or Idaho, and demand that they do not stand for this atrocity. Tell them to demand that Zinke includes the tribes in the process and to back Congressmen Raul Grijalva and Markwayne Mullin’s statements in the letters they have sent to Secretary Zinke on this topic, as well as the letter sent by a group of senators led by Bernie Sanders. Finally, check out the many ways you can support GOAL, the major indigenous organization leading the fight against delisting.
I want to leave you with the powerful words of Tom Poor Bear, president of the OST:
These so-called state game and fish agencies exist to serve a clientele that is 95% white, 95% male, and many of who kill for trophies. They are the vocal minority, and under the systems that exist through colonialism and patriarchy they have been able to dominate, lie and cheat their way into control. I say no more. We are the conscience of the land. We will not allow the very soul of the earth to be robbed to satisfy the political special interests of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Like the grizzly bear, we were here millennia before there were states. This is simply the continuation of Manifest Destiny.
When I look at what the US government and the states intend to do to the grizzly bear, I look at what they did to our ancestors. They tried to annihilate us like they did the grizzly, the buffalo and the wolf.
They forced us from our homelands and made us live on reservations. Today they want to keep the grizzly on two reservations called Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. They put bounties on our ancestors’ heads. They paid for their scalps, and they are doing the same thing now — this time with our relative, the grizzly bear — when they start trophy hunting her for her head and skin. This is a violation of natural law, and our spiritual and religious rights.
This piece was originally published on Medium.