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Louisa Willcox’s Blog

Relisting Yellowstone grizzlies: breaking old ways, creating new possibilities

Louisa Willcox

Posted September 29, 2009 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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The victory celebration piece I started last week on the relisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear — a centerpiece of my work over the last 20 years — looks nothing like what you read now.  After 2 ½ years of holding our breath, as two challenges of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's delisting decision ground their way through the legal process — and grizzlies died in droves — on Monday, September 21st, Judge Donald Molloy returned the Yellowstone grizzly bear to the endangered species list. 

This means that, right now, we have again: (1) federal government "look before you leap" oversight of potentially harmful activity to grizzly bears; (2) the requirement to use the best available science (including dealing honestly with the serious problem of whitebark pine loss); and (3) the "take" prohibition, which can result in severe penalties for poaching and harassing bears.  These and other components of the Endangered Species Act were vital to bringing the bear back from the brink of extinction, by reducing human-caused mortality and expanding their numbers and range.  And they are more important than ever, as grizzly mortalities mount, and key foods such as whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout collapse.

One of the lead attorneys on the case, my husband, Doug Honnold, and I have both gotten grizzled in the course of this multi-decade campaign, and you would think we might have celebrated that night.  (Calls from friends and colleagues sounded as if some corks had been popped elsewhere.)  But I had to pack for travel to a retreat the next day in Colorado. 

My recent days of contemplation and meditation gave me a different, more detached perspective about the nature of the battle over the Yellowstone grizzly bear, which has come to symbolize one of the fiercest, nastiest, most politicized, and personally vicious of any endangered species recovery effort anywhere.

The toxic climate around grizzlies got started in 1969 when pioneer grizzly researchers Frank and John Craighead were thrown out of Yellowstone National Park as thanks for their recommendations about how best to wean garbage-conditioned bears off human foods.  Since then, many other careers of good-hearted, well-meaning scientists have been sunk — the list is too long and tragic to name.  (One wound up in a Zen Monastery, sending me first her extensive bear research files showing the falsification of the data collected for her Masters thesis by her advisor.)  Science was manipulated and politicized extensively.  (For example, one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion was rewritten to conclude that a proposed highway project would not harm bears, when its original author concluded it would.)  Scientists were punished for speaking truth to power.  A climate of fear, secrecy, and retribution prevailed in the bear management and research arenas. 

This pathological system is well documented in Todd Wilkinson's book Science under Siege.  And the underpinnings of this system are described in detail in Susan Clark's Ensuring Greater Yellowstone's Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens.

Environmentalists, including myself, were thrown out of meetings that had previously been declared public.  And it wasn't just us conservationists who were kept in the dark, excluded from discussions about key decisions.  A number of ranchers were similarly upset, confused and felt powerless: the compensation they received for the value of livestock killed by bears was, in many cases, all the help they got — little assistance was given beforehand to prevent problems.  The broader public was frustrated because they weren't being heard, and they knew that the very process of democracy had been subverted; for example, although 99% of the comments submitted on the draft delisting decision opposed delisting, the Bush administration went ahead and delisted bears anyway. 

No one felt respected.  The people involved in the debate suffered, but so did the bears — shot mistakenly by black bear hunters over glazed donut baits.  Shot by frightened big game hunters when, sniffing the scent of dead elk, they ventured too close to camp.  Shot by agency personnel when they had become hooked on garbage and thus became a "safety hazard" to communities.  Shot when they came into conflict with people at higher rates because their main late-season food staple, whitebark pine seeds, collapsed due to mountain pine beetles, driven by warming temperatures.

At the same time, human population and development continued to increase in bear habitat, so bears had a harder and harder time staying away from people.  Grizzly mortalities climbed, breaching allowable levels in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008.  (They were also only one female bear shy of breaching mortality levels in 2007.)

All this suffering, by so many — human and animal — for so many years!  And who really won?  No one.  (In my earlier blog draft, I said "us" — conservationists and bears prevailed.  That is true, at some level, but not, I think now, from a larger perspective.) 

Civil discourse, the basis of a civil, democratic society, was lost in the course of twenty years of bureaucratic craving for power and control of the bear debate.  Ranchers and others lost faith that anyone was going to help resolve their conflicts with bears in practical ways.  Sportsmen lost trust in the government that had promised them a grizzly bear hunt.  Many conservationists lost too — some quarreled with each other, others burnt out, some gave up because of the poisonous contentiousness of the debate. 

With Judge Molloy's ruling, the agencies lost control of a situation they had sought so desperately to hold.  And in the end, I think we all lost, at some level, a recognition of how our lives are connected to each other and to the fate of grizzlies, which symbolize the health of the land itself.

But if we take an honest look at the history of bear management and where it has landed us, we can begin to see how the losses, grievous as they are, can also create new opportunities.

Sometimes situations have to be shattered completely for new opportunities to be born.  To create a new society capable of saving the grizzly and ourselves, the old ways need to be recognized as fundamentally unworkable.  

As of last week, Yellowstone grizzlies are back on the endangered species list and the results of the old ways of doing business have been repudiated in federal court. The system of regulatory mechanisms for managing grizzlies after delisting, the product of years of (nondemocratic) interagency negotiations, was thrown out as inadequate.  It is plain to see that the old system could not be more broken.

So, now just may be a perfect opportunity to create a dramatically different approach that has, at its core, learned the lessons of past mistakes.  It is hard to imagine a better time to transform the work of grizzly conservation into a new system characterized by human dignity, honesty, fairness, a commitment to the truth, and recognition of our interdependence.

The connection between the idea of transformation and bears has been with us for thousands of years. The grizzly itself has symbolized transformation from seeming death to new life.  Bear cubs are born in the dead and dark of winter.  (Born blind and 16 ounces, they are, proportionally to their future size as an adult, the tiniest of any animal at birth).  Maybe, starting with small seeds of change in how we treat each other, we can create a different kind of community adequate to face the many challenges facing bear recovery — climate change, energy development, transmission lines, and human population growth.

There is an old Native American story about how, in their winter dens, the Great Bear dreams the whole world into being, creating entire ecosystems, with aspen, hummingbirds, buffalo — creatures large and small, each with their unique and important roles to play.  It is said that in the spring, when the mother bear emerges from the den, trailed by her young ones, that all the other animals and plants celebrate, each in their own way.

It is now our turn to dream into being a different kind of society, one that honors grizzlies as well as our own wild spirits, which are also in danger of disappearing.  The process must start with recognizing that we are stuck and the current system, dominated by agency bureaucracies and power-oriented cultures, is not working from a variety of perspectives.  (I want to be clear here: I am not criticizing individuals in the agencies who have dedicated years of their lives to protecting bears — it's the system, not the individuals, which create and compound the problem.)  For those who did not already see this, Judge Molloy has made that point abundantly clear.

The next step is to create a new arena in which people with different views can have a real conversation about real issues and concerns, a conversation that is not orchestrated by agencies with agendas for specific political outcomes. With honesty and respect, we, the stakeholders in this debate, need to take a hard look at what has worked and what hasn't in bear conservation from different viewpoints, and explore how much common ground might exist between us. We might be surprised, not just at the level of agreement in principle, but in practice, such as sanitation and habitat protections.

Who knows?  We may find that many of us already share, at a core level, a similar vision of what is possible and necessary for bears and society to thrive.  We may also find that social transformation, like a bear cub, starts out small, but can grow into something strong, resilient, adaptive and intelligent.

For the sake of the threatened bear and us, such an experiment is worth a try — now, before another twenty contentious years pass, more frustration and polarization mounts, and more bears get caught in the crossfire.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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