On Yellowstone Grizzlies: FWS unfairly dismisses conservation groups and judges
I was really bummed to see the recent and sadly misleading Outside magazine article: "Are Hungry Bears in Yellowstone Attacking Humans for Food?," online. They usually have great content, but this piece was trouble all the way from the title, which focuses on a thoroughly debunked (and stale---this stuff happened last summer!) story that just comes off as salacious scare tactics to anyone working on these issues. The article described the last two deaths that occurred last year in the heart of Yellowstone Park, historically heavily occupied grizzly bear habitat. They are sad stories. And, not to blame the victims, they are cautionary tales about how not to behave when encountering grizzlies.
Not surprisingly, I take umbrage with a statement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen that "[grizzly] recovery is not dependent on environmental groups. And it is not dependant on Federal Judges. It's dependent on what people who live and work in bear country think about grizzlies."
It's worth noting that many people who live and work in bear country also work for and support environmental groups…And more importantly, bears have survived because of the federal protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the constituencies that have supported bears from places all over the country and, indeed, the world.
Because persuasive measures to change the behaviors of people who live in and around bear habitat proved ineffective in preventing excessive levels of grizzly mortality, the government was wise to adopt a strong policy such as the ESA in 1975 that provided more coercive programs, and empowered people from other parts of the country and the world to engage in efforts to recover the grizzly bear. Experts agree that but for ESA protections, the Yellowstone grizzly bear would likely have gone extinct. The fact that grizzly bears are still here in Yellowstone is testimony to the strength of the law and the support of people from many places.
Bears are a hugely symbolic species of the "wild" and of our nation's first park. The grizzly bear is an animal that resonates with us because of our many common traits; it can stand on its hind legs just like we do; it eats many of the same foods (nuts, fish, meat, members of the carrot family) that we eat; it nurtures its cubs for years, teaching them all they need to know to live in the world—just like us. These common traits help explain why our ancient stories describe bears changing shape to humans, and back again. And they are clever, perhaps too much so. They have a tendency to get into trouble, just like we do.
Just as we sympathize with bears, we also feel threatened at times. And big changes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem are putting them in situations where they can get in trouble with us, largely by scaring people. And then they often get shot. Uncertainties about the Great Bears' future arise from the loss of a key food, whitebark pine seeds. Loss of whitebark pine is a key reason why human-bear interactions have increased---and why the bears remain on the federal endangered species list.
In the Outside story, Dr. Jesse Logan noted the whitebark situation would lead to increased numbers of bears being shot: and that is precisely what we are seeing. In 2008, 2010, and 2011 there were dramatic increases in bear mortalities—increases so large that the population growth rate stalled. (And so far, this year is shaping up to be another high mortality year.) In other words, it is no coincidence that the grizzly bear population has stopped growing during the last 4-5 years, about the same time frame that a major die-off of whitebark pine forests occurred. It is also within the bounds of scientific uncertainty that the population could also be declining.
In this world of uncertainty for the grizzly bear, erring on the side of caution is the wise course. That is why federal judges rejected an effort to remove ESA protections for the Yellowstone grizzly bear population last year. The decision sent a message to the government that there is need for additional caution, describing the delisting effort: "a damned-the-torpedoes approach."
Servheen also stated that grizzly bear recovery is not dependent on federal judges. Here his comment unilaterally dismisses our hard-earned system of governance: the judiciary is, by design, supposed to oversee the activities of the administrative branch. That is how our system of government was built: it's the balance of powers that makes it effective. If judges find, as they did here, that the decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzly population was irrational and not based on common sense or sound science, it is within the prevue of judges to reverse the government's decision.
Instead of ignoring the enormous national and global constituency for the grizzly bear, as well as the federal judiciary, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be wise to take a step back and reconsider its course. The agency should reflect upon why it is that grizzly bears have survived in the Yellowstone ecosystem during the last 40 years, and what they will need to do to help the bears survive the bumpy roads ahead. Continued ESA protections will help foster the changes that are needed to ensure a healthy future for the Yellowstone grizzly bear.
As I wrote in a recent blog, we at NRDC are doing our part by working with ranchers on ways to reduce grizzly/human conflicts, as well as unnecessary mortality. It is time for all of us to work together to expand upon such efforts to keep bears and people alive and safe. Dissing environmental groups and judges is counter-productive. But more egregious, stooping to the lowest common denominator, like Outside has done with their slobbering bear story, fans the flames of the forces that put the bears in danger to begin with, and does the public a serious disservice.