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50 Native Tribes Join Fight to Prevent Delisting of Yellowstone Grizzly Bears

Tribal leaders from the U.S. and Canada signed a joint treaty today opposing the proposed delisting of Yellowstone grizzly bears by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). More than 50 federally recognized tribes, backed by the 900,000-member Assembly of First Nations, support the treaty.


The USFWS has been working to remove the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the threatened species list under the Endangered Species Act since 2005. Trophy hunters have been waiting for the opportunity to put a grizzly head on their walls ever since.

In 2007, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population was delisted, but a court challenge was upheld and it was returned to the threatened species list in 2009. The bears survived another court challenge when the USFWS appealed the decision to overturn the delisting, but an appellate court ruled in favor of the bears in 2011. Now, the USFWS is back for another try.

Chief Stanley Grier of the Piikani Nation.Native News Online.net

"The grizzly bear has been significant to the Blackfoot people since the time of our Creation," said Chief Stanley Grier of the Piikani Nation, where one of several treaty ceremonies will take place today.

"It is cultural genocide. I wouldn't put it any other way," said Blackfeet councilwoman Cheryl Little Dog. "To delist and allow trophy hunting of the grizzly bear is the government again saying to our people, 'Forget how sacred the grizzly bear is. Forget your sacred ways.'"

Grizzly bears once roamed the American West from California—where it is on the state flag—to the Great Plains and south to Mexico. By 1975, when the grizzly was added to the threatened species list, it was down to just two percent of its traditional range, and just 136 bears were left in the the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—which includes Yellowstone, Grand Teton and John D. Rockefeller national parks, along with national forests, the National Elk Refuge and some state and private lands in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.National Park Service / Yellowstone Spatial Analysis Center

Today, there are about 150 grizzly bears with home ranges in Yellowstone National Park, and between 674 and 839 in the 34,375-square-mile Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The USFWS contends that this equates to recovery of the bears to a sustainable population. Conservationist Jane Goodall and 57 other scientists and experts disagree.

In May, they called on the USFWS to keep the bears protected. In July, a post on the Defenders of Wildlife blog noted:

"These grizzlies are also still isolated. Years of protection and conservation work have created a relatively safe landscape for the bears in this region, but not necessarily beyond it. With dangerous roads and human development criss-crossing a patchwork of habitats, it will be a difficult journey for Yellowstone grizzlies to safely travel to other grizzly bear populations or for bears from other populations to get to the Yellowstone ecosystem – something Yellowstone bears need to help the species remain healthy and resilient to change."

Should the grizzly bear lose its protected states, Montana residents will soon be able to fork over just $150 for a permit to shoot and kill a grizzly during two proposed hunting seasons, in late fall and early spring. Last year, a bear popular with wildlife watchers and photographers who earned the nickname Scarface was shot illegally near Gardiner, Montana, outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

In August, the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity and Bozeman resident Clint Nagel filed suit against the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission over adoption of its trophy hunting plan.

"By specifically targeting the biggest and strongest males, trophy hunting reduces the genetic viability of a species and has cascading impacts on the social dynamics of apex predators, including increasing infanticide," wrote The Wildlife News.

Todd Wilkinson, author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, writing for National Geographic, stated, "Grizzlies' rarity has made them valuable assets, economically worth far more alive than as a person's rug or trophy."

Today, there are about 150 grizzly bears with home ranges in Yellowstone National Park, and between 674 and 839 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.National Park Service

But the debates over hunting and the scientific merits of delisting leave out the interests of Native peoples, and as we've learned from Standing Rock, they are not about to give up the fight for their lands and a healthy environment. In the statement March 3, statement from USFWS announcing the proposed delisting, service director Dan Ashe said, "We are look forward to hearing from the public about the proposal and consulting with Native American tribes."

Tribal leaders have denounced the consultation process.

"Our formal request for consultation has been ignored," wrote Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Native leaders also question USFWS' choice of consultancy Amec Foster Wheeler to conduct the peer review process for the delisting of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears. The company says that it serves "the oil & gas, clean energy, environment & infrastructure and mining markets" and lists projects including oil and gas pipeline development.

In a letter from the Navajo Nation to Secretary Jewell, president Russell Begaye and vice president Jonathan Nez wrote, "It is very troubling to see the influence of corporate energy companies on this delisting decision."

"Tribes have endured two centuries of deception and deceit when dealing with the U.S. government, and this rule that will provide rich wasicu [non-Indians] with the legal authority to trophy hunt our sacred relative, the grizzly bear, is a continuation of that pattern," said Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, earlier this year.

The treaty signed today makes a statement about the core interests of Native American and Native Canadian peoples in the survival of the grizzly bear.

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