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The New West: Democracy falters in delisting of Greater Yellowstone bears?

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By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Nowhere in the legal framework of the federal Endangered Species Act does it mandate that animals removed from federal protection be subjected to trophy sport hunting.

America spent millions of dollars reversing the downward spiral of bald eagles. Indeed, someone today could argue that the majestic white-crowned raptors would be fun to shoot and look stunningly beautiful as dead stuffed prizes of avian taxidermy.

Yet when the great birds were finally declared biologically recovered in 2007, society didn’t celebrate by turning around and initiating sport seasons on eagles, selling licenses to generate revenue for the coffers of state wildlife agencies. Why not?

Earlier in our country’s history, bald eagles were regarded as pests, killed by bounty hunters and eliminated from landscapes because they ate domestic chickens and young lambs in sheep flocks.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t allow states to harvest bald and golden eagles, nor peregrine falcons, nor, likely ever again, whooping cranes, California condors and black-footed ferrets should the latter reach stable populations again. Why not also turn them into cash crops?

Why must Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears, a large mammal notoriously slower to reproduce than eagles, be sport hunted if the bruins are removed from federal oversight and their care handed over to states?

Societal values have changed markedly since bears were brought under ESA protection in 1975. Grizzlies, the premiere animal icon of America’s first national park and surrounding wildlands, haven’t been hunted here in 41 years.

Besides growing and overwhelming public opposition to sport hunting grizzlies, there is another aspect about proposed bear delisting that society isn’t addressing – a topic that makes government wildlife officials uncomfortable because it causes citizens to question their abilities as both stewards of “public” wildlife, and as responsible, transparent civil servants. The topic involves the indisputable fact that the switchover of bear management from federal to state control represents a radical diminution of democracy.

Right now 319 million Americans – the current population of the United States – are proud legal stakeholders and investors in the management of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies.

Because of their classification as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act along with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s role as chief custodian, these bruins belong to all of us, every U.S. citizen, no matter where we live.

They aren’t “federal” grizzlies; they are our grizzlies, the same way federal public lands belong to all Americans.

But if bear management is handed over to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, that will radically change.

In essence, delisting means 319 million Americans who by and large have supported grizzly conservation will be replaced by a shockingly small number of individuals.

In Wyoming, just eight people – Gov. Matt Mead and seven of his political appointees to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission – will wield unchallengeable authority.

None are particularly sympathetic to bears – some run livestock – nor do they seem willing or able to accept the fact that grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone are worth far more alive than dead.

Those eight people in Wyoming will decide whether grizzlies will be sport hunted, where they will be tolerated on the landscape (including federal public lands) and whether bears will live or die.

Famed primatologist Jane Goodall remembered in a recent phone chat how certain hunters resisted calls to end sport hunting of gorillas in Africa. Highly intelligent animals with feelings and emotions, Greater Yellowstone grizzlies, she says, similarly should also not be regarded as trophies.

I asked Robert Keiter, a nationally renowned environmental law professor at the University of Utah, for his take.

“With trophy sport hunting of grizzlies, we would be allowing states to convert a symbol of our national wilderness heritage into a mere economic commodity. Many people find that repugnant,” Keiter said.

The vast majority of my fellow hunter friends – all of whom hunt big game – are opposed to sport hunting Greater Yellowstone grizzlies. They say it will give both the states and the hunting community a black eye. And they note there is little, if any, empirical evidence to support the contention that bringing back a sport hunt will build more “social tolerance” and result in less poaching.

Were the issue of sport hunting Greater Yellowstone grizzlies put to a national poll, Goodall and Keiter believe American citizens would overwhelmingly reject the killing of their bears for fun.

Dan Ashe, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s national director, does not answer to Gov. Mead. His clients are 319 million American citizens. They want to know why the most iconic bears on Earth could be sport hunted if they don’t need to be. Whose interests, they ask, is Ashe representing?

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in Wilkinson’s story, “The Shooter,” published in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine now on newsstands.

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