Delisting only starts next fight for grizzly bears

By Todd Wilkinson

To delist or not to delist, that is NOT the question.
Whether the greater Yellowstone subpopulation of grizzly bears is removed from federal protection or not, the challenge of keeping these famous bruins alive will not go away. Not in this lifetime, not during our kids’ lives. Not ever.
That’s the point that is getting lost in the current verbal donnybrook that has caused a schism to emerge in the environmental movement and among several prominent independent wildlife experts.
Whatever one wants to call the action that is proposed for grizzlies—delisting or downgrading of their federal protected status—Wyoming, Montana and Idaho must prove they are up to the task of shepherding this population into the future. The ability of those states to get the job done is less than certain.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column suggesting that all parties involved with Yellowstone grizzly recovery over the last quarter century should assemble in a room, toast their accomplishment of rescuing the bears, and offer credit where it is due.
Some environmentalists accused me of being a traitor to the bear, of siding with the delisters, of going soft on states like Wyoming where there still exists (among a small vocal group) resentment toward the fact that grizzlies were even saved.
I believe the conservation groups who have set up the grizzly as a litmus test of loyalty are missing the point: By failing to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts that have gone into arresting the free fall of bear numbers in greater Yellowstone, they lose credibility and ultimately undermine their ability to vigilantly watchdog the states.
Watchdogging is where the next battle in grizzly bear conservation is going to be won or lost.
The public has good reason to ask whether Wyoming has the will to accept responsibility. It was under state management of bears in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho that grizzlies nearly went regionally extinct.
The states, until it was almost too late, proved ineffective in curbing the lethal behavior of humans that resulted in dead bears, be it from ranchers, poachers, or state wildlife officials who settled most conflicts between bears and people with bullets.
Privately, even bear optimists are disturbed by the atmosphere of vigilantism in states like Wyoming occurring behind the scenes. A handful of county commissions who represent wildland counties have passed resolutions saying grizzlies are forbidden from living in their political jurisdictions.
The state has done a less than impressive job of anticipating, addressing and mitigating the impacts of oil and gas drilling in key wildlife habit. It already is tiering a hunting season—a source of revenue—around “problem” bears. It has serial poisoners on the loose (as evidenced by the three dozen dogs that died or became sickened around Jackson Hole in 2004).
It has elected officials who have already said they see the cost of managing grizzlies post-delisting to be a burden. Meanwhile, ecosystemwide, there are more people moving to the wild edge of grizzly habitat than ever before.
In a scientific paper published by The Ecological Society of America, J. Michael Scott, David Wilcove, Michael Bean, Timothy Male and Dale Goble wrote: “The recovery (delisting) of a threatened… species is often accompanied by the expectation that the conservation management of the species will no longer be necessary.
“However,” they add, “the magnitude and pace of human impacts on the environment make it unlikely that substantial progress will be made in delisting many species unless the definition of recovery includes some form of active management. “
Delisting proponents are correct in pointing to the growing bear population but they fail to mention the growth has occurred primarily inside the national parks and adjacent Forest Service wilderness areas.
How vigilant will the states be in punishing bear poachers, continuing to regulate livestock grazing, endorsing local planning and zoning efforts that protect wildlands, and standing up for the grizzly?
This is where environmental groups, if they want to be effective, need to be investing their time to ensure that Wyoming, Montana and Idaho fulfill the promises they are making.
The fight to safeguard Yellowstone grizzlies doesn't abate after delisting. The stakes just get higher.