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The Fight Over the Future of Grizzly Bears

In Montana, a debate is brewing over how to handle a growing grizzly bear population.

By Susan Elizabeth Shepard


(Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

A uniformed police officer leaned against the wall of the Gallatin Room in a Holiday Inn in Bozeman, Montana, watching the crowd for one of two public hearings this week on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule to remove the grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the Federal Endangered Species list. The officer had been sent to the hotel as protection, in the event that things got heated, though thankfully that hadn’t happened. “Everybody seems to be acting like adults,” he said.

Residents of other parts of Montana occasionally refer to Bozeman as “BozeVegas,” an insultingly affectionate reference to its status as charming mountain destination of choice for the Kardashians and their ilk. It serves as the point of entry for many Yellowstone visitors and has direct flights from Denver, where the FWS regional headquarters are located. About 100 people were in attendance Tuesday night. Fifty-three spoke, 45 of them in opposition to the proposed rule. There were speakers representing the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, hunting associations, Yellowstone guides, and everyday citizens.

This is the second time the FWS has moved to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies. After a 2007 effort to delist the Yellowstone grizzlies was successfully litigated against, ending with an appeals court decision in 2011, the service worked to address the court’s concerns around the loss of whitebark pine as a food and other potential effects of climate change. Now they make the case again that management of the grizzlies should be returned to the states involved — Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. This would likely open hunting on the bears for the first time in 40 years, and it is this possibility that is the basis of the strongest concerns among local residents and wildlife advocates.

Dave Pauli, the senior director of Wildlife Innovations & Response for the Humane Society, spoke first. Pauli put forth the arguments that most of the opponents of delisting would re-visit: delisting was premature; the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears needed to have geographic connectivity with other grizzly populations; there were too many human-caused grizzly fatalities already; the effects of climate change weren’t going to work in their favor; changes in their food supply weren’t adequately addressed.

“We are most certain if they delist bears that the states are enthusiastically going to open hunting seasons, as they did with the wolf,” Pauli said. “Trophy hunting that population is going to affect both the actual population and the genetic viability.” Other speakers expressed similar disdain for trophy hunting. One man in his 70s recalled his father instructing him to never shoot animals he didn’t plan on eating.

“If they delist bears, the states are going to open hunting seasons, as they did with the wolf.”

Several attendees made a point of mentioning their opposition to hunting grizzlies even though they themselves were hunters of long standing. This was in accord with some poll numbers supplied by Roger Hayden of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates: Among the hunters polled, only 35 percent supported grizzly hunting. (Overall, support for hunting grizzlies was at a mere 20 percent.) But with Wyoming talking about charging $6,000 for an out-of-state grizzly tag, states would be hard-pressed not to allow it.

Representatives of some hunting organizations spoke in favor of delisting, citing the interests of hunters in ensuring that the big game they want to hunt maintains robust specimen.

The hearing provided a rare occasion for Montana State Representative Kerry White, an outspoken critic of the Bureau of Land Management and a supporter of the Hammond and Bundy families, to support a federal agency. In this case, the FWS is transferring control back to the state agencies, so it’s understandable. “I would hope you defend your decision vigorously in court,” White, who chairs the Montana House Natural Resources committee, told the panel, promising the assistance of the Montana legislature.

Montana balances between myth and practicality, and the arguments for protecting the grizzlies include an appeal to the value of a live bear as a renewable resource that can be viewed again and again by the millions of tourists who come to Yellowstone seeking to do just that. Why they come to see the bears can’t be quantified as easily as the dollars they spend to do so.

But a few speakers made sure to point to the bear intangibles that contribute to their mythical status in the West. It took two and a half hours for someone to say “spirit animal,” but someone — a Bozeman life coach — finally came through (while more than 35 Native American tribes have registered opposition to delisting, there weren’t any tribal representatives at the hearing). The bears were referred to as “clever, resourceful, a great mother,” as “individual as you or me.” In short, not reducible to an indistinguishable group of bears, but as a population of individuals.

Estimates of the current Yellowstone grizzly population range from 620, by scientists who oppose delisting, to over 800 by a 2014 FWS count. The proposed delisting seeks to maintain the population at 674, the average bear count between 2002–14. Below 612, a review will occur. When they were first listed in 1975, there were as few as 136 remaining grizzlies in the area. The leveling of the population 10 years ago was seen by some as evidence that the region had reached its natural carrying capacity; to others, the slowing of population growth was a sign that they were being limited by habitat and food supply changes, the result of human-driven change in the form of development and climate change.

Dr. Chris Servheen, the slim, generously mustachioed grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the FWS, remained in the back of the room for the duration of the hearing. He is in his 60s, and will soon be retiring from the Service. In his 35 years working on grizzly recovery, the population in the GYE has increased six-fold. In talking about how bears respond to changes in habitat, he enthuses about the remarkable ability of the brown bear — of which the grizzly is a subspecies — to live anywhere from Alaska to the Gobi Desert. Sitting on a conference table, feet off the floor as a well-wisher came by to tell him how much he’d be missed, Servheen offers a blunt assessment of the delistment debate: “I don’t know that you could say that there’s an advantage.”

There is, he argues, a demonstrable population growth and a lack of negative effects from changes in diet or habitat. “It’s the objective of the law, to get this species to the point at which protection under the act is no longer required. That’s what the law says,” Servheen says. So what impact does this public input have? Does it make a difference? “It’s important to do this. People get a chance to, often emotionally, release the concerns they have.”

The FWS is obligated to address public concerns, whether it is notified of them here in the Holiday Inn verbally or on one of the supplied comment forms, sent in an envelope or submitted online, as anyone is allowed to do until May 10 (but not via email or fax, as the audience was reminded at the beginning of the evening). The FWS can respond to questions about state responsibilities, habitat, and diet; moral qualms about trophy hunting, they can’t. “We can’t question or address value judgments. Some people don’t like trophy hunting and that’s the way they feel and that’s their legitimate feeling. They need to address those issues to the states.”

A number of the speakers who asked that the FWS keep the grizzlies under federal protection mentioned their families’ long presence in the area, several mentioning they were fifth-generation Montana residents. That means almost certainly their ancestors were part of the changes that put the grizzly in the position it currently faces.

One man who spoke in favor of delisting made a point to remind the panel why people killed so many of the bears: “I’ve never seen a starving grizzly or a sick grizzly,” he said, mentioning that some 40 people had been killed by grizzlies since 1970. As the man left the podium for his seat, he apparently remembered one final part of his impassioned plea. Turning back to the microphone, he spoke forcefully: “They’re dangerous.”