COMMENTARY: Grizzlies in Yellowstone not safe from bullet

“The National Parks do not suffice as a means of perpetuating the larger carnivores; witness the precarious status of the grizzly bear.” These words were published in 1949 in Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County ALMANAC,” one of the significant literary contributions to the birth of the modern environmental movement. Seventy years later, the insight remains true.

Last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area from the protection they received in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act. When they were listed as threatened with extinction, there were only 136. By 2014, thanks to the safeguards, there were an estimated 757 grizzly bears in the park area; today numbers have dropped below 700.

Now, Wyoming has said the grizzlies, if they’re outside the park, can be killed in a hunt that will permit the destruction of up to 22 bears. And they can be baited. Visions of not so mild-mannered Minnesota dentist cum trophy hunter killer Walter Palmer, who lured a lion out of a protected park, come to mind.

Since about 2000, grizzly deaths have increased significantly, according to Grizzly Times, which describes mortality “far in excess of anything that can be explained by changes in population size,” and states, “Hunters have emerged as the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality.” In addition to being shot by hunters, reportedly in self-defense, last year at least 57 grizzlies died. The others lost their lives to automobiles and wildlife agencies, who delivered lethal punishment for bears killing livestock or looking for human food.

This is probably unsurprising. David J. Mattson and Troy Merrill in a study for Northern Arizona University opened their report with: “Grizzly bears in the contiguous United States die primarily because humans kill them. This is true now and has apparently been true since widespread contact with European settlers began in the mid-1800s.”

Certainly removing protections for the grizzly when numbers are just in three digits — and in decline — seems counterintuitive to rational persons.

While the National Park Service states, “Scientists think the Yellowstone area population is recovered and may have reached its capacity for resident grizzlies,” they acknowledge that various stakeholders have differing opinions. Those who disagree — many conservationists, Indian tribes, activists and your basic concerned citizens — exhibit significantly more passion than was in the NPS statement. To look at a small region that a species inhabits and claim success, as numbers are dropping, on its face seems neither scientific, nor holistic. An animal population does not flourish in a vacuum. It’s inane to say, “Oh, they’re doing okay here, so just as they make a move out of the park, let’s shoot them.” (Sadly, the same lack of morality also is at play for Yellowstone’s bison.)

If that’s not enough to call out Wyoming on its unconscionable decision, add in that grizzly bears are among the slowest reproducing land mammals. That’s because these bears don’t start reproducing until they are three to eight years old. When they do, their litters are small, and there is a long time between litters, according to Western Wildlife Outreach. Further, there aren’t populations of grizzly bears spread out across the United States. So to be so careless with such a small population is irresponsible.

Further still, the “apparent robustness” of the ecosystem of the Yellowstone grizzly, according to the Mattson-Merrill study, “is deceptive.” Yellowstone’s grizzlies are highly dependent on whitebark pine seeds, and the continued existence of whitebark pine is in question, under attack by beetles, disease, wildfires and climate change.

Government wildlife management too often is driven by politics and special interests as opposed to what wildlife may actually need. The public has to dig a little deeper — often a lot deeper — to learn when references to science are anything but. Certainly when looking for the best outcomes of a wild animal population, good science — real science — must be the standard. Real science understands the historical dispersion of a species, population sizes and what that means in today’s world, among other data.

Leopold wrote that when he first saw the West, in 1909, “there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass.” But by the time he penned “A Sand County Almanac,” only four decades later, 5,000 of the 6,000 grizzlies, per official reports, were in Alaska. “Only five states have any at all,” he wrote. “There seems to be a tacit assumption that if grizzlies survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me.”

Today a mere 1,500 grizzly bears remain in the lower 48, but not in California, my adopted state. The grizzly lives on here only on the state flag. Grizzlies are found in just three states — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Between the U.S. and Canada, grizzly bears now live in half of their historical range.

As reported by Smithsonian, the wildlife biologist who prepared the most current grizzly bear population report for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, Frank van Manen, thinks that “limited hunting will be safe for the bears.” How “dead” can be equated to “safety” defies logic.

Van Manen explained that there were too many grizzlies in Yellowstone and “no place for young bears to establish home ranges of their own. Those are the bears that get into less suitable habitat, get in trouble and usually end up dead.”

Those in positions to protect grizzlies, ensuring they survive and thrive — the folks such as van Manen, the Wyoming governor, the Wyoming Wildlife Commission — appear, based on the choices they’ve made, to have the least interest in doing so. The National Park Service will have bear blood on their hands as well —they can’t abdicate responsibility at park borders.

This is not to criticize the committed conservationists who number in the tens of thousands working as park employees and volunteers. However, NPS operates under the Department of the Interior, and Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown repeatedly that he places many interests above wildlife. In fact, the Department of the Interior website ranks stewardship next-to-the-last on the stated priorities list.

That governmental wildlife organizations should prioritize the best care of wildlife should be an obvious expectation of them. And rather than making an imbecilic claim of “too many bears,” they should be looking at how to extend the grizzly range and develop a system of connectivity that will ensure the long-term survival of Ursus arctos horribilis, not leave the grizzly limited to Yellowstone and assuredly an uncertain future. Ideas Leopold put forth nearly 70 years ago.

Maria Fotopoulos writes about the connection between overpopulation and biodiversity loss.

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