Much has been said lately about the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's rush to remove Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Articles and letters have discussed the significant numbers of bears that have been killed due to “conflicts.” These bears are often labeled as “problem bears.” Grizzly bear detractors talk about bears getting into “trouble” and “showing up where they are not wanted.” What's often left out is a frank discussion of what these conflicts really are and where it is that bears are “not wanted.” In a significant number of cases, grizzly bears are being killed for interactions with domestic livestock that almost always take place on federal public lands.
The truth is that most of our federal public lands outside of national parks (and in some parks as well!) are leased for livestock grazing at bargain basement prices. Cows and sheep on public lands destroy riparian habitat, degrade streams, promote and spread invasive weeds, marginalize wildlife winter range and provide unnatural food sources for native predators such as grizzly bears. Then when bears act like bears and kill and eat domestic livestock on public lands, the bears are vilified by the ranchers and public land and wildlife managers who demand they be killed or captured and relocated.
Take, for example, the Upper Green River Allotment in northwestern Wyoming where the Forest Service leases over 200,000 acres of public land for livestock grazing. At least 15 bears have been killed in the past six years and numerous others have been captured and relocated for killing domestic livestock. Rather than removing livestock or requiring ranchers to actually protect their cattle through non-lethal means, the FWS response has been to continually authorize more grizzly killings and relocations.
The abundance of public lands and suitable habitat for grizzly bears in the GYE and beyond is not the limiting factor for an expanding bear population. Bears have not reached the carrying capacity of their habitat nor are there ecological impediments to migrations of grizzly bears to connect with other populations or establish new populations in other regions such as the Bitterroot and Selway mountains. In truth, the greatest limiting factor for grizzly migrations out of the GYE is the pervasive presence of domestic livestock on federal public lands and the preferential treatment they receive from wildlife and land managers. Unfortunately, this is a problem that FWS refuses to address or consider in terms of threats to the long-term survival of grizzly bears and recovery of the species throughout its range.
Instead of removing barriers to migration and creating safe zones for bears that are free of domestic livestock on public lands, the Service is moving full steam ahead to remove protections from an isolated and declining population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One doesn't have to look far to understand that this is a purely political decision that flies in face of sound science and common sense. As with the sage-grouse, wolverine, arctic grayling and Sonoran desert tortoise, we find once again that wildlife protection plays second fiddle to the welfare cowboy and his desire to dominate and control western public lands.
Josh Osher lives in Hamilton and is the Montana director and Public Policy coordinator for Western Watersheds Project. Osher has been working to protect native fish, wildlife and plants from the impacts of public lands livestock grazing in Montana and throughout the west for the past 14 years.