In Delisting the Grizzly Bear, the Feds Ignore Tribes and the Law Once Again
Putting aside theoretical science, the egregious manipulation of non-existent material, and the lack of transparency in the process, the federal government’s determination to remove the grizzly bear from Endangered Species Act protection contravenes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA. PUBLIC LAW 95-341--AUG. 11, 1978).
The delisting of the grizzly is pertinent (but not limited) to the AIRFA in the following manner:
“Whereas such laws were designed for such worthwhile purposes as conservation and preservation of natural species and resources but were never intended to relate to Indian religious practices and, therefore, were passed without consideration of their effect on traditional American Indian religions.”
The federal government’s position is that the future conservation and preservation of the grizzly bear should be transferred to state game agencies, all of which advocate and encourage trophy hunting and are historically hostile towards predators.
The government and the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho intend to limit the present genetically-isolated grizzly populations to core habitat, namely Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks.
The grizzly is to be kept on what amounts to reservations because the feds say it is not “socially acceptable” for the Great Bear to return to vast areas of biologically suitable habitat that once comprised its homeland. They said the same thing about tribal people: it wasn’t so long ago that it wasn’t “socially acceptable” for Indians to leave the reservation either.
There maybe fewer than 1,400 grizzly bears in the lower forty-eight states: the grizzly now existing on less than 2% of the range it inhabited prior to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This 2% is largely comprised of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Program estimates that, “there are now 550-600 grizzly bears” living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This figure, presented on the agency’s website, contradicts the inflated population estimate recently fed to the press to justify removing the Yellowstone grizzly from Endangered Species Act protection in 2015.
Be it 500 or the exaggerated 741, it is an island population, genetically isolated, and rapidly losing two staples of its diet: the whitebark pine and the cutthroat trout.
Although over a hundred and forty years late, the federal government now acknowledges that twenty-six federally recognized tribes have an ancestral connection to Yellowstone; and both the Blackfeet and Flathead Reservations are within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Throughout the process, there has been no discussion related to the impact delisting the grizzly, and the subsequent trophy hunting of the bear, will have on American Indian spirituality, namely the religious practices of traditional tribal people supposedly protected by PL-95-341.
The government is also in contravention of the Secretarial Order issued by the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531), which sets forth the framework to be followed when actions taken under authority of the ESA affect tribes.
The American Indian Tribal Rights, Federal-Tribal Trust Responsibilities, and the Endangered Species Act Order state, among other significant clauses:
“The Departments shall take into consideration the impacts of their actions and policies under the Act on Indian use of listed species for cultural and religious purposes (Sec. 5 #4).”
The Order directs the US Fish and Wildlife Service to “solicit traditional knowledge and comments from, and utilize the expertise of, affected Indian tribes” during the consultation process, and “cooperate with affected tribes to develop and implement Recovery Plans in a manner that minimizes” social and cultural impacts on tribal people.
None of these commitments has been honored, which is one more echo of the government’s historic abrogation of its treaty responsibilities.
It is undeniable that the grizzly bear holds a unique position in the traditional cultures and ceremonial life-ways of the spiritual tribal practitioners identified by the federal government as possessing centuries old, and in some instances, millennia-long connections to the lands where the grizzly now survives. These are landscapes where, if delisting occurs, the grizzly may be extirpated from swathes of the environment.
Like the grizzly now, there was no consideration given to the psychological impact and spiritual devastation caused to tribal people by the decimation of the buffalo. Quite the contrary, the federal government advocated the buffalo be managed at the barrels of hide hunters and “sportsmen’s” guns. If the federal and tri-state governments of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have their collective way, the grizzly is destined to share a similar fate a little more than a century later. One only needs to consider what has happened to the wolf population in the aforementioned states since it was delisted to see the recent past as a prelude.
“Really, it doesn't take long to kill 500 bears or even 2,000,” said Dave Mattson, a government biologist and former member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. “If the long-term trajectory is negative, based on declining habitat and lethal confrontations with humans, the population is going to go extinct. The most dramatic proof is that we eradicated almost 100,000 grizzly bears in the Western U.S. between 1850 and 1920.”
Ancient tribal narratives speak of Bear’s Lodge and Bear Butte aside from many other sacred sites, along with traditional ceremonies of healing, renewal and regeneration. Some are still identified as Bear Medicine ceremonies and all reflect the presence and influence of the Ancient One, the grizzly bear. The grizzly is the first two-legged creature--the very spirit of our Grandmother, the Earth, in physical form. Let her not be taken from the land just for a “great white hunter” to use as a skin rug, or to mount her head on a wall with a fake taxidermist’s snarl.
With its determination to delist the grizzly, the federal government once again seeks to pass legislation “without consideration of their effect on traditional American Indian religions (PL-95-341/AIRFA).”
© Guardians of Our Ancestor’s Legacy (GOAL): Tribal Coalition to Protect the Grizzly.