Grin and bear it
Declaring that the Yellowstone grizzly bear has recovered from the threat of extinction, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is removing it from endangered species list. That will end 42 years of federal management of a unique American mammal, one of the primary reasons the Endangered Species Act was passed in the first place.
It is a little ironic to call it “federal management,” because in no sense does the government really manage wildlife. Regulators manage people and human activities. Nothing was really done about the once-dwindling population of Yellowstone grizzly bears, except a prohibition on killing them. Funny, when people stop killing an animal that sits atop the food chain, it recovers fairly well. All the multi-agency cooperative agreements, habitat plans, monitoring programs, and tens of millions of dollars spent over the decades, had little to do with the recovery.
Still, the de-listing should be hailed as one of the great successes in conservation history. In 1975 there were only 136 grizzlies left in the Yellowstone region; today there are 700, their population steadily increasing. That is nearly as gratifying to America as recovery of the bald eagle itself. Bears are iconic in American culture: the teddy bear, Smokey Bear, Yogi Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Chicago Bears, Bad News Bears, smarter than the average bear, mama bear, papa bear, hungry as a bear, loaded for bear, give me a bear hug, and a thousand others. And the grizzly is the granddaddy of all bears, uniquely American.
Mind you, the grizzly bear was never in danger of extinction, supposedly required for an endangered listing. But it does not occupy half of North America as it once did, and the Yellowstone population became isolated from the larger populations to the north. There are still more than 15,000 grizzlies in British Columbia and 30,000 in Alaska. Nevertheless, whether Yellowstone grizzlies should have been listed separately or not, their recovery is a triumph for wildlife. You might think everyone would celebrate the announcement. Instead, environment groups and some of their Native American tribe allies are angrily threatening to sue.
Some tribes are claiming they were “once again” left out of the decision-making process, despite Zinke’s promise to improve tribal consultation. One Hopi leader was quoted saying, “It’s not acceptable for our tribes to be ignored of our needs and our requests. We wanted full consultation — meaningful consultation — with the Fish and Wildlife Service. But even though they promised us, that’s not happening.”
The accusation is patently absurd, and self-servingly dishonest. Since 2016, 120 U.S. and Canadian tribes signed a grizzly protection treaty, and this de-listing decision was subject to a rigorous years-long public process, as always. In fact, the ruling includes a long-term grizzly conservation strategy that forms the basis of future state management. It received 650,000 public comments over the last six months, including from the tribes and environmental groups now preparing their lawsuits. We have seen this movie before: a 2007 attempt to delist the grizzly was thwarted by such lawsuits.
Why wouldn’t these groups declare victory when a species is finally recovered? Why not celebrate a great success — and claim credit for it? The answer was explained clearly by a Northern Arapaho spokesman, saying they fear the decision could open up the region to extractive industries. “What’s stopping them from opening up drilling or oil exploration?” he asked. “Encroaching upon habitat that is not necessarily federally protected — that’s been one of our biggest concerns.” In other words, bears were never their concern, energy production was.
Whether Western public lands ought to be available for energy production is an open debate. Some think environmental values supersede our need for energy, while others think domestic production is preferable to imports. It is a perfectly legitimate debate, upon which reasonable people may disagree. But it is absolutely, unequivocally, inarguably, not about grizzly bears.
That is the primary problem with evolution of the Endangered Species Act over the past 45 years. It started as an almost universally-supported effort to save grizzly bears, bald eagles, and other important species, but today is the most powerful tool to stop virtually any human activity the environmental industry opposes.
Public support for endangered species protection remains strong, but such abuse strains our patience. People need to see success periodically, to know their programs are working, and the environment is actually improving. That’s why Zinke’s team is working to de-list species that are recovered, a wise strategy that actually embraces the spirit of the Endangered Species Act, instead of fighting it.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.