Why We Protected Grizzly Bears and Should Continue to Do So

I read with great disappointment a New York Times op-ed (Rinella: The Problem with Protecting Grizzly Bears), which presented a cherry-picked account for why Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections should be removed for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

Mr. Rinella offered some facts while ignoring many others, all the while floating the long-held, yet antiquated notion that hunters make the best conservationists. This outdated mode of thinking implies that it wouldn’t be feasible or even conceivable to manage a species for the sake of its own population and without the long-term goal of hunting it.

Possibly the biggest problem with Rinnella’s column and state management of grizzly bears is the lack of will on the part state game agencies to oversee the bears for their own benefit and in the interests of their genuine advocates. He cites delisting critics as saying the “states lack the money and expertise to protect the bears,” and he goes on to list a number of species that these state agencies have managed successfully.

Unfortunately, the wolf is conspicuously absent from this list. The Northern Gray Wolf was delisted in 2011, but a court ruling reversed that decision for Wyoming’s wolf population because the state’s management plan classified the iconic western predator as a varmint in 85% of the state, which allowed anyone to shoot them on-sight at any time of year. Wyoming has the option to update its wolf management plan in a way that would facilitate a healthy, sustainable population of these emblematic, ecologically essential animals, but it has elected not to do so. What reason do grizzly bear advocates have to believe that Wyoming, which is home to the bulk of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its bears, would manage grizzlies in good faith?

In this way, it’s not that the states lack the ability to manage bears or wolves properly – on the contrary, these agencies have many dedicated, passionate biologists. However, these departments are subjected to anti-predator politics that aren’t science driven, undermine the work of their staff, and lead to unsound management.

Rinella and many like him want to couch their arguments for delisting grizzly bears and wolves and choosing not to protect other species like wolverines as a way of safeguarding the integrity of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – one of our country’s landmark environmental laws. At the same time, he refers to the law’s “onerous regulations” while ignoring a recent study conducted by Defenders of Wildlife, which showed that from January 2008 to April 2015, in 88,290 ESA Section 7 consultations, no project was stopped or extensively alerted as a result of a species potentially being harmed.

At the end of the day, however, this debate is less about the federal government and whether Yellowstone grizzly bears should maintain their threatened status. It is about what the future of the West. Some, like Rinella, are comfortable continuing the war on wildness that extractive industries and their supporters having been waging for nearly two centuries.

Many others want to see grizzly bears continue to expand their range, have the opportunity to repopulate areas like the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and even reconnect with their brethren in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem including the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park. For people with this mindset, the grizzly bear epitomizes wildness and the desire of states to resume authority over these predators – before even producing their management plans, which will serve as the blueprint for how they will do so – is extremely unsettling.

Forty years ago, we made the decision to protect grizzly bears because of their mythic status in the American mind and their place in the ecosystem as an apex predator. We continue to do so for these same reasons – not because they are “Instagram-worthy,” but there are clearly some who cannot yet accept the presence of an animal whose strength and power threatens their own hegemony. Only when we are capable of coexisting with these great beasts in a manner that acknowledges their magnificence and doesn’t require a hunting season will these animals truly be recovered.

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