The Obama Administration has done a lot of things right, but it’s not been good to grizzly bears. It’s worked to delist these big bruins from the Endangered Species Act, even though the time is not ripe to do so.
Special interest groups – including the ranching, hard-rock mining, oil and gas, timber, and ski industries, trophy hunters, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts – are clamoring to remove grizzlies from the list of federally protected species. That’s because, once stripped of those federal protections, legal safeguards against the exploitation of grizzly bears and their habitat will be stripped as well.
On Wednesday the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, a committee of bear scientists and state and federal officials, voted (with the notable exception of one member, Dan Wenk, the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park) to approve a strategy that would hand grizzly bear management to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. These states are not known for their abiding love of protecting native carnivores, as we witnessed with their woeful mismanagement of wolves who, after being delisted, were immediately trophy-hunted in the cruelest ways imaginable.
Ironically, this coveting of a grizzly bear’s hide or habitat could become the undoing of these states that are trying hurt them. For example, right now, Wyoming’s economy, so dependent on oil and gas extraction, is struggling. The state has drastically cut education funding and is laying off state workers. It is, however, home to two National Parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton—that are recession proof and that are also prime grizzly habitats. Perhaps, more than any state, Wyoming should appreciate that grizzly bears are worth far more alive than they are dead. Protected grizzly bears and their habitat greatly diversifies the state’s economic portfolio, and never more so than now. The National Park Service noted that in 2015, park visitors spent hundreds of millions of dollars while visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Most visitors go to glimpse bears and wolves. And this ecotourism nets thousands of sustainable local jobs and creates huge economic opportunities for communities that surround the parks.
By opening up a trophy-hunting season, Wyoming would open itself up to severe criticism, and that, more than anything, might keep people away. Polls show that the vast majority of American citizens want to keep grizzly bears safe and alive and not open them up for a kill by trophy hunters.
Economics aside, the urgency of the need to keep grizzly bears protected cannot be overstated. This year, 54 grizzly bears are known to have died in the Yellowstone area, and scientists estimate their actual total mortality may be closer to 76. This means that more than 10 percent of the entire Yellowstone-area population (estimated at about 700 grizzly bears), died this year. That is twice the sustainable level of mortality, according to world renowned grizzly bear expert Dr. David Mattson. And this year’s high death toll follows on the heels of last year’s record loss. It appears that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own criterion for allowable mortality will be exceeded two years running, giving the lie to assertions that the population has recovered.
The mortality is likely driven by threats to the bears’ food security as a result of the loss of white bark pine to blister rust, and pine beetles and cutthroat trout to an invasive species. The Great Bear is a “conservation-reliant species” and must be cared for into perpetuity or face extinction.
Superintendent Wenk of Yellowstone National Park is not the only one to oppose delisting. More than 70 Tribal Nations in both the United States and Canada—to whom the Great Bear, the grizzly bear, is a sacred entity—signed a historic treaty in opposition to the delisting. The HSUS has added its own voice as well, working at the grassroots level, filing two substantive comments highlighting scientific and legal flaws with the delisting proposal, and suing the states of Wyoming and Montana over the inadequacy of their plans for post-delisting grizzly management.
State and federal officials charged with their stewardship have entirely underestimated how well Americans love these iconic grizzly bears. Mother bears devote up to four years teaching their few dependent young how to survive. Far from being recovered, the Great Bears’ tiny remaining populations in the lower 48 states face a multitude of threats that warrant added protections, not the reduction of safeguards as proposed by the Obama Administration. The Yellowstone-area grizzly bear population is in dire trouble. We urge the Obama Administration to redouble grizzly bear protections, not lessen them.