Native Americans Fight to Keep the Grizzly Bear on the Endangered Species List

Tribal groups say a move to remove protections for the spiritual touchstone of native culture threatens their sovereignty.
(Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Oct 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Has the grizzly bear recovered enough in Yellowstone National Park to be removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act?

The federal government and some state agencies seem to think so. For more than a year now, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has been moving toward delisting grizzly bears. There are about 750 bears living in and around Yellowstone, well above the 136 that lived there when the government protected the Yellowstone population in 1975.

Native American groups, however, argue that the bears have not recovered and that any proposal to remove protections or trophy-hunt the animals ignores tribal sovereignty and culture. Some tribes even call it cultural genocide.

“The grizzly was and remains the physical manifestation of the spirit of the earth, to me, and many others,” said R. Bear Stands Last, cofounder of Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy, a coalition of nearly 50 tribes from six states that have come together to oppose the grizzly bear delisting.

(Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

The bears play an important role in the culture for many tribes in the West. “The grizzly was the first two-legged to walk upon this land,” Bear Stands Last said. “The grizzly is a teacher and was, in essence, the first medicine person who taught the curing and healing practices adopted by many peoples.”

RELATED: Grizzly Bears Are Waking Up Early This Year, and Climate Change Could Make That a Bad Habit

Even with that cultural history, the push to delist the bears moves forward. The FWS has sent out two rounds of letters to several tribes, but GOAL said that does not meet the standards for the tribal consultations that are required under the Endangered Species Act and other laws. Last December, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe passed a formal resolution opposing the delisting proposal.

“FWS has made no serious attempt to adhere to the established consultation protocols and mandates, all of which are clearly established and are integral to the trust responsibility held by the federal government toward tribal nations,” said Bear Stands Last.

Agency spokesperson Ryan Moehring said the FWS has offered to consult with 48 tribes and has held five government-to-government meetings. It also plans a tribal webinar and conference call on Nov. 13 to “listen to their concerns and answer questions.”

Grizzlies did briefly lose their endangered species status in 2007, but a court ruling in 2009 returned it after finding that the bears’ food sources, such as whitebark pine nuts, were at risk. Bear Stands Last said nothing has improved in Yellowstone.

“It is not only the decimation of whitebark pine and cutthroat trout; there are also various berry subsets declining due to climate change,” he said, noting that pushes grizzlies further outside the park in search of food, which puts them in further conflict with humans.

Those conflicts have been on the rise, with a grizzly killing a Yellowstone hiker in August. The grizzly was later euthanized. An estimated 46 bears have been killed in Yellowstone this year, according to reports. At least 14 were killed in response to bears attacking livestock while an unknown number were shot by hunters.

Bear Stands Last said the push to start hunting grizzlies in and around Yellowstone stands in stark opposition to Native American traditions. “Tribal people on this continent come from a hunting tradition, one of subsistence,” he said. “For most associated with GOAL, eating a grizzly bear would be tantamount to cannibalism. These trophy hunters do not come from a hunting tradition, they come from a killing tradition.”