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Here’s How the House Grizzly Bear Hearing Went Down

Gabriella Hoffman
by Gabriella Hoffman Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Yesterday afternoon, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife heard arguments in favor of and against H.R. 2532, or the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act.

As I wrote earlier this week, the bill boasts serious implications for wildlife conservation and stakeholder relations as it relates to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) grizzly bear population.

Except for one subcommittee member out of Idaho, Democrat or Republican, most of these lawmakers don’t reside in states with grizzly bears.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) opened the legislative hearing with the following remarks: “We’re dealing with an Administration that places trophy hunters above Native Americans.” He emphasized that the federal government and state wildlife agencies don’t consult tribal societies on Endangered Species Act (ESA) delisting efforts—a point that was later refuted by his colleague, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), and two key witnesses.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) followed Neguse by noting the grizzly bear population in GYE has successfully recovered and that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) isn’t effective when recovery statuses aren’t updated. He also noted that highly regulated hunting of grizzly bears—often deemed “trophy hunting”—is more preferable for bears than having them succumb to illnesses or other mortality issues in the wild.

The subcommittee brought in six total witnesses, with four testifying in support of the bill and two testifying against it.

The first key witness was Benjamin H. Nuvamsa of the Hopi Bear Clan. His tribe opposes managed grizzly bear hunts in the GYE on the grounds of maintaining ecological balance.

“In a biological sense, the Grizzly Bear, as a wildlife species, plays an important role in the ecological chain and thus, contributes immensely to the ecological balance,” Nuvamsa said. “To remove the Grizzly from the ecology would have devastating effect on other wildlife species in the region. These species depend on each other for survival. That is why H.R. 2432 is so important in that it will not only provide protections for the Grizzly Bear, but it will provide protections for other wildlife species in the region.”

The second witness, Tom Rodgers of the Blackfeet Nation, spoke in support of the bill citing the need for tribal interests to have an input.

“It is time that tribal nations had input and parity in decisions that will determine the future survival of our sacred ancestor, the grizzly bear,” said Rodgers.

In further testimony, he argued the bill would provide “connectedness” among the spread out grizzly bear population across regions and denounced regulated culling efforts of grizzlies, which have fully recovered in GYE.

“The likelihood of any migration between populations might be severely limited,” upon opening grizzly hunting seasons. In reality, the only way the grizzly can and ever will be a recovered species is for connectivity to exist between isolated populations, which it does not. This requires
linkage zones and corridors, neither of which presently exist. Within our plan, we involve our communities in conflict reduction measures and education, which can become community initiatives for young and old alike. If the tribal reintroduction plan is not explored, the grizzly on
the flag will remain the only grizzly in California where once there were approximately 10,000 of the estimated 100,000 that ranged between the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean. Our sister tribal nations in Northern California signed the treaty, knowing that grizzly habitat still exists in
their traditional territory. We are not going to set our people or the grizzly up to fail.

The third witness was Lynnette Grey Bull—Senior Vice President of the Global Indigenous Council. She said she opposed managed grizzly hunts on religious grounds by suggesting the grizzly is a “relative” and a “grandparent.”

“The grizzly bear isn’t a ‘trophy game animal,’ the grizzly is our relative, a grandparent,” she said.

Her full testimony reads more like this:

The frontier-mentality practice of “trophy hunting” our relative is abhorrent to us, and in no way reflects the “best available science” precept of the ESA. The terms we use for grizzly bears are those we use for people; we call female grizzly bears ‘woxúúsei,’ bear women, and their cubs ‘hi-níisóóno,’ meaning her child or children.

In the long struggle to protect the grizzly and in turn our sacred, ancestral lands that the grizzly protects for us, we defended our sovereignty from state and federal intrusion; we defended our
treaty rights; we fought flagrant abuses of consultation mandates; and we defended our spiritual and religious freedoms. The Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act reflects those essentials, inspired as it was by the historic treaty, The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation,
Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, to which our Northern Arapaho elders and spiritual leaders were signatories.

The fourth witness was Dr. Barrie Gilbert, a conservation ecologist and Emeritus Faculty at Utah State University, who claimed this bill had merits as a “conservation” bill. In his written testimony, he suggests his expertise in bear biology is the prevailing attitude among wildlife biologists:

As part of my scientific research, I have spent a substantial amount of time observing and studying grizzly bears often at close range, beginning in Yellowstone National Park. Indeed, I have been involved in two
park-funded research projects in Yellowstone including a 1976 study of grizzly bears. Since that time, I have attended and presented papers at various international conferences, workshops, and seminars on bears and their conservation, routinely engage in discussions with grizzly bear experts about the status of, threats to, and conservation needs of the grizzly bear, and am knowledgeable about the grizzly bear

Given that the total population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is about 700 bears, a number that is not sufficient for assurance of genetic continuity, the impact of human-caused mortality in 2018 at the periphery of the population will have a deleterious impact on the population. Such high mortality from conflicts and interactions with people on these animals, will harm the population recovery, and
may seal the fate for connectivity to other distant populations.

In his short testimony, he claimed he supports hunting, just not “trophy” hunting — even for culled management efforts. Despite evidence that grizzly bears in GYE have exceeded their carrying capacity across 25,000 square miles, Dr. Gilbert called this conclusion a “lie” and said this population of grizzly bears is increasingly threatened by climate change and not having replenished food sources because they consume “illegal” human-introduced trout in the region.

However, Dr. Gilbert’s view is not unanimously held by wildlife biologists and experts.

The fifth witness, Brian Nesvik—who serves as the Director of Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department— countered many of Dr. Gilbert’s points about the recovery of the GYE grizzly bear and said over $50M from excise taxes collected on sporting goods have gone back to bear recovery efforts since the 1970’s.

“The successful recovery of the GYE grizzly bear population is one of the most significant conservation success stories in the history of wildlife conservation,” Nesvik said. “This particular population is
one of the most studied in the world. Wyoming is proud to have paid for and taken a leadership role in grizzly bear recovery and management for the past 40 years. Wyoming people (primarily sportsmen or those who have purchased hunting or fishing licenses) have invested tens of millions
of dollars to recover this population from their low point in the early 1970s when there were as few as 136 bears in the GYE. Wyoming people have changed the way they work, live and recreate in grizzly bear country to help with their recovery. Now, the most conservative estimates show
there are over 700 grizzly bears in the GYE. “

He also noted state wildlife agencies like his are best suited to manage grizzly bear populations with help from private citizens, tribes, landowners, and other critical stakeholders. He also said the grizzly bear has exceeded recovery expectations since at least 2003.

The final witness was Jonathan Wood of the Pacific Legal Foundation, who argued the bill dismisses federalism and the importance of valuable stakeholders — tribes included — to weigh in on matters related to grizzly bears.

“The Yellowstone grizzly’s recovery, which the president of the National Wildlife Federation described as ‘a true American conservation success story,’ is a story of successful collaboration between federal biologists, state wildlife officials, conservation groups, and landowners,”  said Wood. “Such collaborations, which depend on having the right incentives, are the key to recovering more grizzly populations and other species.”

“These provisions, which broadly prohibit take and limit the circumstances where a permit may be granted, would effectively retract state authority over wildlife and dictate federal management in perpetuity,” explained Wood. “That said, there is much Congress can do to support the states’ efforts and incentivize similar recoveries for other populations.”

During Q&A, Rep. Neguse and Rep. McClintick, the ranking member on the Subcommittee, asked questions of Nesvik, Wood, and Dr. Gilbert.

Neguse asked Wood is estimates on GYE grizzly populations were valid and accurate, to which he said “yes.”

It was also noted that grizzly bears exist in less than three percent of their original numbers, but are thriving in the GYE and in Alaska.

Rep. Neguse asked Brian Nesvik about the 2018 Wyoming grizzly bear lottery and what his thoughts were on non-consumptive users (non-hunters) hijacking it. The season was put on hold in September after a federal judge put an injunction on it.

Nesvik said these organized efforts were used to undermine their recovery efforts in the state—noting the number established for issuing grizzly licenses didn’t exceed mortality threshold of the species. He said even if all 24 tags would have been fulfilled, although it’s a near impossibility, the culling efforts wouldn’t have an an impact on the total GYE population.

McClintock then asked him whether the GYE population would progress if this bill were to take effect, to which the latter responded it wouldn’t and those numbers are annually re-evaluated. He added that if a hunt weren’t to take place, there would be a “continued higher level of agency take under federal protection and they’ll move outside of core of recovery zone and into human dominated landscapes.” He said the more this happens by an agency, it reduces “opportunity allocation by North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”

Nesvik said on the point of “connectedness”—which the bill encourages— inbreeding between bears occurs with further protections placed on recovered populations like those in the GYE. He argued the species is viable without being genetically connected to other populations. He finished by saying the bill will result in more human and bear fatalities if the GYE population is not kept in check under the management plan his state wants to carry out.

Rep. Greg Gianforte also chimed in about increasing human-bear conflicts in his state of Montana, which also comprises the GYE. He noted the rise of predatory bears in his state and the lengths his constituents go to ward off bears—including non-lethal but bizarre means like firing canons to scare bears away. He emphasized that residents are fearful of encountering bears as their population goes unchecked. He said bills like the Grizzly Bear State Management Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), should instead be deliberated and return management efforts to the states.

The likelihood of H.R. 2532 being heard on the House floor is high, but it should be defeated in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. So good news for sportsmen, landowners, and other stakeholders.

Back in February, Wyoming’s legislature voted overwhelming to proceed with a managed grizzly hunt—despite a federal judge’s September ruling stopping it.

This grizzly issue isn’t going away anytime soon. It’ll likely play out in higher courts and inspire more debate. Follow the The Resurgent as updates pour in.


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