by Doug Peacock
Yellowstone grizzly bears face the two greatest threats to their survival in our lifetime: global warming and the U.S. government. Between them they could wipe the bears out.
That peaceful standoff with the grizzly was the first of hundreds of such bear encounters whose force would shape my journey for decades to come, significantly changing the declination of my life’s compass. I was lost, fresh back from Vietnam, searching, maybe, for a peril the equivalent of war but aimed in the direction of life. That bear and his clan literally saved me. The notion of “payback” (as coined by grunts in Vietnam) means that when you receive a gift from the bear, you find a way to pay it back. It took me a while to figure that out.
One cold October day in 1968, I climbed out of a warm creek on the Yellowstone Plateau and came face to face with a huge grizzly. I froze, not knowing what to do. Since I was naked, my options were limited. I slowly turned my head and looked off to the side. The giant bear flicked his ears and, with unmistakable restraint, swung away and disappeared into the trees. Standing in the chill breeze of autumn, I knew something had passed between us.
Today, the Yellowstone grizzly bear faces the two greatest threats to its survival in our lifetime. The first deadly threat is global warming, which has already decimated the grizzly’s most important food source. The second potentially fatal threat comes from agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) who want to remove the federal protections of the Endangered Species Act from Yellowstone’s grizzlies (called delisting) and turn bear management over to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
“Management” for these three states means hunting licenses. So a combination of trophy grizzly bear permits and a lack of deterrents for just shooting any old bear on sight could lead to the killing of 100-200 additional grizzlies per year. There are as many as 600 or 700 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area. This bear population is an island ecosystem, isolated physically and genetically from other grizzlies living in northern Montana or Idaho. The grizzly has one of the lowest reproductive rates of any land mammal in North America; once you start killing off more bears than are born into this marooned population, you’re headed down the road to extinction for the Yellowstone grizzly.
The government claims the Yellowstone grizzly bear population is large, healthy, has steadily grown in number and is ready to be delisted. Independent scientists say these claims are bogus, that a clear pattern of political bias runs throughout the feds’ arguments, and that this bias exhibited by government servants is nothing less than a betrayal of public trust. Why the government is so vehemently eager to delist the grizzly remains a troublesome question.
FWS’s effort to strip these bears of federal protections will be challenged in court by pro-grizzly advocates. This fight looks like it will emerge as the major American wildlife campaign of the decade. Conservationists and Native tribes are already picking sides.
Yellowstone National Park serves as a microcosm, a model for modern people living with wild nature, a guide for humans coexisting with wild animals and with the wilderness that was once their home. Like most other national parks and monuments, Yellowstone is isolated—an island ecosystem afloat in a sea of human dominated landscapes. Unlike other parks in the lower states, Yellowstone is still home to all the larger mammals that were here when the first European explorers arrived—the wolf, bison, wolverine, lynx and, especially, the grizzly bear. This great bear is Yellowstone’s most iconic animal, both famous and exceedingly notorious, as legendary creatures have always been.
If the federal government succeeds in removing the Yellowstone grizzly from Endangered Species-listing, bear management will be transferred to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. “Management” in this situation means issuing permits for trophy grizzly hunts. As Gilbert says: “Delisting … will resurrect a so-called ‘trophy’ grizzly bear hunt, a historical tradition out of touch with current principles of wildlife management.”
How many permits will the three states put out there? If Wyoming indeed wants to issue 60 permits, Montana and Idaho won’t be far behind. Back in the ’60s, when hunting grizzlies was legal, biologists found that 47 percent of all bear mortality was caused by big game hunters.
One can quibble about how many legal hunting permits will be issued by Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho and how successful that grizzly hunt will be, but what is certain is that a climate will be created where it will be very easy for anyone to kill a Yellowstone grizzly, for any reason. If you doubt that, look at the history of these Northern Rocky Mountain states with the recently delisted wolf.
On Sept. 30, 2012, FWS delisted the gray wolf and transferred wildlife management to the states. In Wyoming, protected wolves became legal vermin overnight—subject to being shot on sight in approximately 90 percent of the state as of October 1. In the other 10 percent of Wyoming, wolf-hunting season opened that same day. The state of Idaho paid a bounty hunter to kill wolves in the Salmon River country. My own state of Montana’s wolf record is no better. These hostile attitudes towards top predators will create a virtual “open season” on grizzlies once the Yellowstone bear is delisted.
In 2008, the first year after the collapse of whitebark pine nuts as food, the government estimated that 79 grizzlies died in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Fifty-six grizzlies were known to die in 2012—rough numbers that probably represent about half of actual mortality. With delisting, relaxed regulations, and hunting quotas, you might add in another one or two hundred dead grizzlies. During bad drought years, which global warming models predict for Yellowstone, you could end up with 300 dead grizzlies in this island ecosystem during a single year. At that point, it wouldn’t matter how many hundreds of bears are in Yellowstone: In a species with a very low reproductive rate, this is a blueprint for turning the grizzly bear of Yellowstone into nothing more than a legend, fading with memory into the hot sagebrush.
Yellowstone’s grizzlies have many friends and an international constituency that reaches far beyond the region. As citizens, we could mobilize and petition President Obama to order the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw the proposed order to delist the bear.
But why do the feds continue to cling so fiercely to their need to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies? I put this bedrock question to Louisa Willcox, who has unfalteringly defended the grizzly for three decades, variously representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The answer, she says, is “about power and ego.” Willcox blames Chris Servheen, “the longest running recovery coordinator (of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee) in the history of the Endangered Species Act,” for whom “delisting Yellowstone grizzly bears would be the capstone in his career. In accomplishing delisting, Servheen is taking personal revenge against those who have worked assiduously for years to stop delisting and secure more protections for grizzly bears: for him, this agenda is personal.” For the feds, she says, “delisting is, at bottom, about appeasing the states; FWS believes, despite lack of evidence, that such moves will save the Endangered Species Act. The shrill demands of states like Wyoming only amplifies the imperative for the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist bears.”