The science behind halting Yellowstone grizzly hunt

The science behind halting Yellowstone grizzly hunt
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This year is on pace to be the most lethal ever for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region. Known and probable mortalities to date total 58 grizzlies and there is still about a month for more bodies to pile up before bears retreat to their dens for winter hibernation. While the final death toll is not yet known, it is certain that this will be the fourth consecutive year in which grizzly bears in the region encompassing some of America’s most treasured wildlands and wildlife suffer unprecedented mortality levels. Such record mortalities have serious ramifications for the Yellowstone population.

After 61 total mortalities were recorded in 2015 — only three more than already recorded in 2018 — the government’s own Yellowstone grizzly population estimate slipped into decline. And Yellowstone’s grizzlies remain an isolated, island population that receives no reinforcements from other populations, much less any injections of new genetic material from other populations to prevent inbreeding.

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This is not the picture of a recovered population that should be removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That is why we filed a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s decision that removed Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act’s list of threatened and endangered species. We were grateful last month when a federal judge in Montana agreed with our arguments.

The judge’s decision restored federal safeguards for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, which immediately prevented the states of Wyoming and Idaho from moving forward with misguided trophy hunts that could have added as many as 23 more of these iconic bears to the record 2018 body count. The outpouring of public support for this pivotal legal victory has been overwhelming, with voices ranging from tribal leaders at the Northern Cheyenne Nation to renowned primatologist Jane Goodall praising the judge’s decision.

But not everyone is a fan. For example, a recent column in The Hill by Terry Anderson lamented the cancellation of the trophy hunts and advocated for state wildlife management. Criticisms like these ignore the science behind the judge’s decision.

Anderson contends that the grizzly population today vastly exceeds historical levels based on a study of grizzly observations made by the Lewis and Clark expedition as they traveled up the Missouri River. This method of estimating the historical grizzly population across the American West based on a snapshot of observations by a single expedition along a limited route in the summers of 1805 to 1806 is about as scientifically defensible as observing the number of people one might meet today during a summer hike along the Appalachian Trail and extrapolating a population estimate for the Eastern seaboard.

As for Anderson’s contention that Yellowstone and other mountainous regions were not part of the grizzly’s historic range, he simply ignores extensive documentation that approximately 50,000 grizzlies utilized a variety of habitats, including mountains, throughout the West from the Canadian to the Mexican borders before widespread persecution reduced them to the verge of extinction in the lower-48 states by the early 1900s.

Anderson nevertheless dismisses the significance of the Yellowstone population on the basis that an estimated 55,000 grizzly bears remain in Canada and Alaska. On this subject, the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold said it best: “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.” It would be a poor policy indeed that impoverished the wildlife of the lower-48 states, where most Americans live and are able to experience wild places such as Yellowstone, on the basis that reminders of our lost wildlife heritage may still be found in Canada and Alaska.

At bottom, Anderson takes issue with the fact that a judge overruled a federal government determination that devolved wildlife management authority to state officials. This view offers no answer to the problem of federal government officials making decisions that defy the science and the law. Fortunately, our nation has a federal court system that enables private citizens to hold the government accountable in such cases.

That is what happened here.

The judge ruled, among other things, that the government misapplied the relevant science in determining that the Yellowstone grizzly population’s continuing isolation poses no threat to the species. And while state wildlife agencies are important partners in national conservation efforts, in this case the record showed that state officials repeatedly pushed to weaken grizzly protections in a manner that would have undermined conservation of the species — and of course state officials in Wyoming and Idaho rushed to implement a trophy hunt that would have killed as many as 23 grizzlies this fall if the court had not intervened.

This does not mean state wildlife management is unimportant, but rather that judicial recourse remains an important corrective measure in those circumstances where states driven by local political imperatives prod federal officials into unjustified decisions regarding wildlife as well as many other matters.

Thankfully, science and reason prevailed in court, the trophy hunts were stopped, and grizzlies were granted a reprieve from being turned into rugs and wall hangings. Now there are members of Congress seeking to sidestep science and the rule of law by reversing the judge’s decision through legislative decree. Their position lacks justification and should be rejected.

We will do right by Yellowstone’s grizzlies and help them recover if we continue to uphold the Endangered Species Act and properly fund federal management of this and other endangered and threatened wildlife. We will do right by our children and our future if our government adopts policies that promote the preservation of wildlife and that clean up the air, water, and lands that sustain them — and us. If we instead allow false claims made for short-term political gain to win the day, we will doom not only the grizzlies, but ultimately ourselves.

Tim Preso is managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Montana.