Moving Bears to Save “the Bear”
To many experts, animals are inventory, with quotas and targets to measure a population as too small, too big, or just right. Can environmental professionals perceive and respect animals as individuals?
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a Montana district-court ruling that blocked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from removing Yellowstone grizzly bears from the federal list of threatened species. Notably, the case was strongly based on climate-change effects. The outcome of the lawsuit was the return of grizzlies to the Endangered Species List.
It was a win for bears, but it is far from the end of the story of bears and their human managers in Yellowstone National Park.
Grizzly bears first came on the list as threatened in 1975. Then, about a thousand grizzlies roamed just two percent of their traditional range in the lower 48 states. About one in every five of those bears lived in the Greater Yellowstone area.
The Yellowstone bears were on the rebound, with about 580 reported, by 2007—the year the federal government issued its rule stripping Yellowstone-area bears of protection. “Based on the best scientific and commercial information available,” the Fish & Wildlife Service decided, the Yellowstone grizzly bear population had recovered.
In 2009, in Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Inc. v. Servheen, U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy found that the federal government failed to adequately consider either (a) the potential impacts of global warming on the food (particularly pine cones) of grizzly bears, or (b) how the bears would be protected after removal from the Endangered Species List.
The federal government argued that the bears would adapt by finding other food sources. Judge Molloy rejected that argument, finding it unscientific. And the parties who sued the federal government pointed out that those other food sources might turn out to be whatever bears could take from human visitors, thus putting the bears at an extra risk.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Judge Malloy that the bears’ potential difficulties finding pine cones needed to be carefully considered, and noted the court’s responsibility to ensure that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decisions aren’t arbitrary.
Bear advocates also explained to the court the uncertainty of future genetic viability for Yellowstone’s population of grizzly bears. Although the advocates didn’t prevail on the genetics argument, the evidence they presented is critical. It shows that the grizzlies’ long-term survival would require not just several hundred bears (which is all the Yellowstone ecosystem can support), but several thousand.
It’s difficult to imagine a way to ensure the bears’ future without relinquishing some land to them, creating safe corridors for these wilderness animals, corridors largely off-limits to the buzz created by Yellowstone’s millions of human visitors a year.
The Montana court, though, had accepted the claim by the Fish & Wildlife Service that genetic health could be ensured through “translocation”—airlifting a few bears in if needed to meet the population targets. The idea of interchangeable bears thus allowed the federal government to claim that the Yellowstone bear population’s numbers suffice—because people can always augment them.
But in the best reading of conservation law and policy, shouldn’t consideration be given to the stake of individual bears in the geography these animals know? In other words: Doesn’t the idea of home territory matter to a bear?
To survive and thrive, grizzly bears need vast, relatively undisturbed expanses of land. The Endangered Species Act considers the habitat needed by groups of animals, so that it can be preserved. Insofar as habitat means a life experience, isn’t relocation itself a form of disturbing a habitat?
This is not to say we should endorse a blanket opposition to relocating bears; but perhaps it’s time to question the paradigm of intrusive management, and the conception of bears as bulk, experimental populations.
Individuals Living on Earth
The grizzly population is seen as a model for the health of the Northern Rockies ecosystems; yet it is also a model from which control of untamed animals developed. Frank Craighead and John Craighead studied grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park for more than three decades. In 1961, they invented the radio collar. From that time on, biologists have collared, darted, trapped and tattooed bears, pulled teeth to ascertain bears’ ages, and moved the animals from place to place to suit human decisions. The stress and disorientation connected with trapping and relocation can kill, and sometimes does.
Although the public could, from time to time, be called to account for our romantic perspective (for example, describing bears as “shy and magical”), decision-makers who apply environmental law tend to err on the opposite side, seeing animals in numerical terms, with relocation as one way to achieve targets. But bear s are individuals who live on Earth apart from our opinion and descriptions. While species preservation is critical, so is enabling animals to live as communities—to interact with each other; to participate in group dynamics of their own making; to flourish on their terms.
Granted, the Endangered Species Act, as it now stands, seeks “recovery of listed species to levels where protection under the Act is no longer necessary”—so our readers are invited to consider this commentary as an idea of how policy could evolve. Though idealistic, this view arguably represents sound science—because a species, like any community, consists of individuals whose bonds with each other and the environment have biological significance.
- Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Inc. v. Servheen , (9th Cir. 2011). A species is “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act if “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A species is endangered if “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
- This is the opinion of Dr. Craig M. Pease, a professor of science and law at Vermont Law School who has carried out key research regarding the bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
- The district court stated: “ To combat this issue, the Service proposed that, if no connectivity with other populations occurs by 2020, one to two effective migrant grizzlies per generation will be transferred into the Yellowstone grizzly population.” 672 F.Supp.2d 1105, 1110 D.Mont. (2009).
- The Endangered Species Act’s Section 10 enables the reintroduction of “experimental populations” to portions of their former range.
- John Craighead, et al., The Grizzly Bears of Yellowstone at 59 (1995), cited in John G. Hintz, “Pragmatism and the Politics of Rewilding Nature: The Case of Grizzly Bear Reintroduction in Idaho” (2005). Doctoral Dissertation, available at: http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_diss/357 (visited Sep. 15, 2012).
- See U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Bitterroot Ecosystem: Draft Environmental Impact Statement (1997) at xvi, cited in Hintz, ibid.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Program: About Us (updated Aug. 28, 2012 ). Available: www.fws.gov/endangered/about/index.html (visited Sep. 15, 2012).