When Secretary of the Interior (SOI) Ryan Zinke celebrated the recovery of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) this past June by announcing that protections from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were no longer necessary for this population of bears, some lost their minds.
“These iconic bears need to be protected, not gunned down so their heads can go on some trophy hunter’s wall,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an anti-hunting group. Soon thereafter, as expected, a number of anti-hunting, animal rights extremist groups filed lawsuits to prevent the population of approximately 700 grizzlies from being delisted. This legal fight takes us right back to a place we’ve been before.
In 2007, the Department of the Interior (DOI) attempted to delist the Yellowstone grizzly population, citing that it already far exceeded the original ESA goals. However, a lawsuit derailed the effort to return management control to the states after a federal district court judge in Montana followed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stopped the delisting, stating that the decline of whitebark pine trees might adversely affect future grizzly populations due to climate change. It’s worth noting that grizzlies are omnivores so they eat pinecones as well as elk, grass and hundreds of other natural foods.
Not much has changed in the 10 years since. The grizzly delisting topic is still loaded with the demonization of hunters, speculation of the future climate, research often spun into hyperbole and the moral vanity of people who mostly live far away from grizzly country.
In the narrative being spun by the anti-hunting groups suing the DOI, hunters are cast as uncaring, trophy-hunting “bad guys,” and the opinions of the residents who live on the frontlines of grizzly management are being ignored. The lawsuit headed by Earthjustice even claims that delisting will cause a massive decline in the grizzly population. They disregard the fact that wildlife species have always increased when the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation—which includes regulated hunting—is used to manage a species. They don’t mention that American hunters were the first to push for protections for grizzlies—something that happened well before the modern environmental movement was even founded.
They likely would be shocked to learn that Outdoor Life magazine’s founder and first editor J.A. McGuire deserves the credit for starting grizzly conservation. In 1915, McGuire saw that grizzlies needed to be managed with regulated hunting and proposed legislation that was introduced in state assemblies across the West. It would have impeded the then federally subsidized slaughter of the bears by setting limits on the number that could be killed.
Instead of trying to understand this reality and see hunters as friends of grizzlies and conservation, this lawsuit and many animal rights activists blame hunters for the decline of grizzly populations in the early and mid-20th century, claiming that hunting would decimate the grizzly population in the GYE, despite the fact that biologists would be monitoring bear numbers closely.
Here’s a telling example.
In a Q&A with Louisa Willcox, an environmentalist who opposes the grizzly delisting, High Country News—a far-left environmental publication—asked what might happen if the bears were shifted from federal to state management.
Willcox said, “Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are increasingly aggressive about trying to get the keys to the car of managing grizzly bears… . Unlike other states that have broadened the funding base [for their wildlife departments], the three states around Yellowstone are largely driven by license fees and hunter numbers are declining. But instead of figuring out how to broaden their base financially to reflect changes in the demographics of the region, the states are really narrowing their focus and continuing to cater to hunters. You can take a look at what’s going on with the gray wolf situation where the hunts have been very, very aggressive. If that occurs with grizzly bears, they are going to be in really deep trouble.”
Deep trouble, really?
Hunters are being depicted as the boogieman in the narrative being told by these groups, which includes the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association and others. According to these groups, the only people worse than hunters are the local elected officials in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana and those in the state’s wildlife departments. The heroes in their tale are, of course, themselves.
To shape their storyline, they need to discount the people who are killed or injured by grizzlies. They also need to treat all the bears that are killed in self-defense or by wildlife officials—who can and do kill specific problem bears—as victims. In the lawsuit headed by Earthjustice, it is stated that grizzlies are being killed due to “human conflicts,” as if the bears were only marginally involved in the encounters.
They also must ignore the fact that this and other grizzly populations have far exceeded goals set by wildlife officials as requirements to keep them listed under the ESA. Along this line of thinking, when a grizzly shows up in a schoolyard or someone’s backyard, they’ll shrug and say the bears used to live in these places before people did. Sure, people have learned to live with bears to a large extent by keeping garbage in bear-proof bins and more, but telling people bears come first no matter what is not a satisfactory answer. Anyone truly living alongside nature can tell you there must be a balance maintained. One effective way to do that is to allow wildlife managers to use hunters to control game populations and to keep the bears wild.
Finally, the groups suing know they need to spin the facts to make a compelling argument—at least to those who are either ignorant of the facts or who side ideologically with them—that human-caused environmental factors are about to have massive negative impacts on grizzly populations. To make this argument, Earthjustice and the other groups that signed onto their lawsuit claim that everything from a decline in pinecones, moths and cutthroat trout to a shift to eating more meat by the bears are harbingers of doom for the grizzly—all happening because of climate change, of course.
The lawsuit states that in years when the whitebark pines yield poor crops, as oak’s acorn crops vary locally each year, the bears tend to consume more meat. It then says that “[grizzly] mothers and cubs attempting to feed on animal carcasses are also more likely to encounter aggressive male bears and other predators that dominate such food sources, yielding increasing levels of cub and subadult grizzly mortality.”
Even if that is so, as mature male grizzlies will kill and even eat cubs of their own species, this lawsuit also concludes that “trophy hunters” will kill almost all the adult male grizzlies that live outside of Yellowstone National Park. Which is it? Will the big male grizzlies eat all the cubs or will hunters kill all the big male grizzlies? Maybe they are saying that all the big male grizzlies will eat all the cubs and then the hunters will kill all of the big male grizzlies. Of course, both are absurd extremes, but then so is the ideology of those behind these lawsuits.
The lawsuit also states that “[b]ecause of this dietary shift to meat, bear deaths due to human conflicts have spiked in the last few years. Forty-five bear deaths due to human conflicts occurred in 2015 alone, up from 16 such deaths in 2014; 35 deaths due to conflicts occurred in 2016. Cub recruitment—the rate at which bear cubs survive to adulthood—has also decreased in recent years, likely because of predation by other bears, as grizzlies compete for meat food sources.”
There is also the fact that the final Conservation Strategy for the grizzlies includes federal oversight. If the grizzly population were to fall below set minimums, federal protections would again be triggered. The lawsuit attacks this idea by claiming the population models used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are flawed. Still, the lawsuit concedes that “while these [grizzly population] thresholds may impose a ceiling on trophy hunting under state management, they do not limit the number of bears that may be killed due to conflicts with human activities.”
So they are complaining that wildlife managers can kill bears that they determine have become especially dangerous? The groups suing want to have a limit placed on wildlife managers who have the unfortunate job of killing grizzlies that have become aggressive toward humans in say suburban areas of West Yellowstone? And they call hunters extremists.
The narrative spun in this Earthjustice lawsuit then tries to sew this together by saying, “The Final Rule, therefore, failed to grapple with both emerging threats to Greater Yellowstone grizzlies and the loopholes in the ultimate safety net … . Compounding these failures, the Final Rule failed to adequately grapple with the best available science, which suggests that the Greater Yellowstone population is likely to substantially decline after delisting … .”
To establish this substantial decline, they cite future grizzly population models developed by David Mattson, co-founder of Grizzly Times and a former research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
So, depending on the outcome of this fight, after 42 years on the Endangered Species List, the GYE population of grizzlies—a bear population that has grown from 150 to about 700—might lose its protected status. Secretary Zinke said, “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners.”
The Anti-Hunters' True Agenda But success isn’t what the groups suing want. They want to disenfranchise local residents, blame people for bear attacks and to stop hunting at all costs. They don’t believe that a balance must be found and maintained between people and wildlife. They believe that the rights of bears are simply paramount.
For more information on the fact Greater Yellowstone-area grizzly bears have recovered—thanks to four decades of conservation efforts—and why ESA protections are no longer required, check out these other NRAHLF.org articles from March 2016 to the present: