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Open Spaces

What The Fight Over The Grizzly Bear Delisting Is Really About

Kamila Kudelska
Protestors stand in front of the federal court house as people wait in line to enter the building for the court hearing.

A federal district court judge recently heard both sides in a hearing debating whether to put the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear back under federal protection. No decision has been made yet but the judge stalled Wyoming and Idaho's grizzly hunt for a couple of weeks while he decides the case.

This is a complicated issue that digs deep into the nitty gritty of the law, policy and regulations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But there are two issues at the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem  (GYE) grizzly bear case, also known as the GYE grizzly. The first issue, the definition of recovery.

"I wouldn't say the GYE grizzly bear population is recovered," said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "I don't think that's the way we should be looking at things. I don't think we should be looking at this piecemeal—maybe recovered here."

Conservation and tribal groups argue the ESA doesn't call for just one segment of the historical grizzly bear range to be recovered but rather the much larger area that encompasses several states.

Brian Nesvik, the Chief Game Warden of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the conservative estimate of 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is well over the ESA requirement to be recovered.

"The ESA contemplates that when a species is recovered it should revert to state management," Nesvik said. "It doesn't contemplate protections long into the future even following recovery."

For the state of Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other defendants, there is no question that the GYE grizzlies are recovered. And because of the way the ESA works this means it's time for the state to take over management. This is the second issue at the heart of the case: who should manage the grizzlies—the state or federal government? Cody Wisniewski, a Mountain States Legal Foundation attorney representing Wyoming farmers and ranchers, said for his clients grizzlies are posing a real threat to their way of life.

"The grizzly bears, if they get into a sheep pen will take out an entire flock of sheep. They don't leave anything standing. So not only is it catastrophic loss but it's also just a fear of safety concern," said Wisniewski.

Since the bear was delisted a year ago those conflicts are being handled at the local level, which is what they prefer.

"Dealing with the federal government is never an enjoyable experience," said Wisniewski. "But they would much rather have the opportunity to go to their local warden or work with their elected officials, as they should be able to, to address the population that lives in the state's borders…in their backyards."

Wisniewski said effective local management is best. Santarsiere of the Center for Biological Diversity disagrees.

"We now see what that management will look like…catering and bowing down to the trophy hunters in this country," she said.

Santarsiere said under federal management, the states are not ignored. The state's input is considered. For the Wyoming Game and Fish Department consideration isn't always enough.

Dr. Chuck Preston, the curator of the Draper Natural History Museum at the Center of the West in Cody, said somehow a balance needs to be found between local and national interests.

"It comes down to a matter of trust. Do we trust these local states who have vested political interests beyond the grizzly bear itself? Can we trust them to manage this," he said.

Preston said, unfortunately, wildlife management is not just about the animal.

"[It's] a relatively small portion of wildlife science, and a big part of people and understanding people culture and cultural values."

Ultimately, Wyoming feels it has the right to manage grizzlies because of how much it's invested in the bears and a big percentage of the bears live within its borders. And the state also thinks it will do a good job, which it thinks it's proven the two times the bear has been delisted. But opponents believe if control is given to Wyoming, the state will kill bears without worrying about keeping their numbers at sustainable levels. The judge is expected to issue a ruling on the grizzly status in the next few days.

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