POWELL — A new bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would prevent future grizzly bear hunts and increase Native American influence in bear conservation efforts.
Sponsored by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., H.R. 2532 is called the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act. It would ban all hunting or killing of grizzly bears except in certain cases of conflict and tribal religious ceremonies. The bill would also create a new committee that would work in conjunction with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that oversees the species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; the new panel would add members of any federally recognized Indian tribe “whose tribal land is … located within historical range” deemed suitable habitat for grizzlies.
More than 200 tribes, including leaders of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone nations on the Wind River Reservation, signed a statement that opposed delisting the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears in 2016.
Lynnette Grey Bull, senior vice president of Global Indigenous Council and a spokesperson for the Wind River Northern Arapaho Elders Society, said tribes within grizzly territory were excluded from conservation discussions.
“Our elders were among those who felt vulnerable as the delisting contention grew, which was due to the hostility that was generated toward our people at interagency and state grizzly bear meetings in Wyoming,” Grey Bull said at a Wednesday hearing on H.R. 2532.
The feeling is common among tribal leaders in the West, said Tom Rodgers, senior adviser to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.
“During the grizzly delisting process, the Interior [Department] failed to answer tribes’ questions about the influence of multinational extractive industry corporations on grizzly delisting,” Rodgers said.
Instead of trophy hunting the grizzly bear — which tribal nations consider sacred — they advocate relocating problem grizzlies to sovereign tribal lands in historic grizzly range, where biologically suitable habitat exists. The tribes say they would like to explore the development of an ecotourism industry with the bears.
Testimony in favor of the bill was heard from three tribal representatives on Wednesday, as well from Barrie Gilbert, a conservation ecologist at Utah State University.
Gilbert testified it is well accepted among large carnivore scientists that state wildlife agencies are not as equipped or resourced to manage at the level of federal personnel — and that state management suffers from anti-grizzly bear political interference.
“Just because grizzlies are expanding their range further from the protected park does not indicate that there is a surplus available for legal killing,” Gilbert said. “Rather an interpretation of lowered density because of an impoverished food base is more likely.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik disputed Gilbert’s condemnation of state management and traveled to D.C. to oppose the bill. Nesvik argued state agencies are the best to manage wildlife not under federal Endangered Species Act protections. While the grizzly is currently under federal management, Nesvik argued it’s fully recovered according to the standards set by the act and only currently listed due to activist litigation.
“The states played a lead role in the GYE population recovery. From a data collection, public education, conflict management, law enforcement and research perspective, the states have conducted the majority of the work even under federal protection,” Nesvik said.
Jonathan Wood, senior attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, also appeared in opposition of the bill. Wood said Congress should incentivize continued state and tribal efforts to establish additional populations and seek to convert grizzlies into less of a liability and more of an asset for landowners who accommodate them.
“Ultimately, managing recovered wildlife is a state responsibility, and it’s time for states to lead on grizzly bear conservation,” Wood said.
Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., were allowed to join the committee meeting to question witnesses, but Cheney was unable to attend due to meetings in the Capitol; she did meet one-on-one with Nesvik immediately after the hearing.
In an email, Cheney voiced her opposition to the bill.
“Decisions regarding the management of our state’s wildlife population should be made by the stakeholders on the ground, and not un-elected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” Cheney said.
She said legislation “pushed by the far left” denies all scientific evidence about conservation of the species, noting both Democratic and Republican administrations have concluded that the area’s grizzly population is fully recovered.
“However, this proposal ignores those findings, all at the expense of Wyoming’s ecosystem, the interests of our ranchers, and the grizzly bear itself,” Cheney said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grijalva, was also absent on Wednesday, with the hearing headed by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo.
“It comes as no surprise that recent attempts by (the Trump) administration to remove protections for the grizzly, as well as blatant disregard for proper tribal consultation, warrants this subcommittee’s attention,” Neguse said.
When Grijalva proposed H.R. 2532 earlier this month, Kristine and Allen Hogg were in the midst of a damage claim investigation on their historic ranch, the Lazy BV near Meeteetse. They were missing several calves and a grizzly was suspected. The Hoggs are frustrated by their inability to protect their herd and have seen depredation for more than a decade as grizzlies expand out of what is considered suitable habitat.
Losses come at a time when area ranchers are struggling to make a living raising cattle, Allen Hogg said. “It’s not highly profitable,” he said.
The Hoggs produce about 250 calves a year right in the middle of bear and wolf country. Many ranchers in the area have had confirmed kills by both species, including neighboring ranches. But proving calves were killed by predators isn’t always easy — and they lost several last year they were unable to prove were the result of predation.
“I ended up getting nothing,” Hogg said.
In 2018, the Game and Fish paid out nearly $1 million in damage payments to Wyoming ranchers and farmers. It’s not just dead calves that cost ranchers their hard earned profits. Hogg said the stress on the herd as they’re targeted by predators also cost him money. The stress causes a smaller percentage of cows being bred, calves chased by predators don’t gain weight as fast and it’s harder to keep cattle in the right pastures, Hogg said.
He refuses to take predator management into his own hands and is supportive of Game and Fish efforts to conserve grizzlies. Wyoming large carnivore biologists, directed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, euthanized 32 grizzlies in conflict situations last year.
“The ranchers in our area don’t do that. To me, it’s not worth the risk. I don’t want to go broke, but I don’t want to go to prison either,” he said.
The Hoggs have long been fans of wildlife in northwest Wyoming and have worked to help save a special endangered species. The last wild populations of black-footed ferrets were found on their ranch in the early 80s and were reintroduced there last year, thanks in part to their efforts. But he wants the state to have the right to manage grizzlies, including scheduling hunts.
“It seems like a common sense situation to me if they’d just open up the hunting season and get the population knocked back a little bit,” he said. “They don’t have to hunt right outside the park. Bring the hunters down here.”
If H.R. 2532 passes, it would ban all hunting or killing of grizzly bears except for scientific, Indian religious, protection of agricultural interests or conflicts that threaten public safety. The bill further frustrates many agricultural producers in grizzly country, who are upset about U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen overturning Fish and Wildlife’s delisting attempt last year.
“It bothers me that, with a stroke of a pen, some judge can throw 30 years of scientific research and data out the window,” Allen Hogg said.
Meanwhile, Nesvik said the trip to D.C. was a good opportunity to present Congress with Wyoming’s contributions to grizzly bear recovery.
“I was able to convey the fact that the science clearly demonstrates the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population is healthy, viable and recovered by all measures. It also was an opportunity to shed light on the fact that with recovery comes increased conflicts between bears and people and that the states are the best to manage this species,” he said. “I think anytime we can talk to national level decision makers about issues that are important to Wyoming is a good use of our time. The grizzly bear management issue is certainly one that is important to our citizens.”
Cheney and U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., have introduced legislation to uphold the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist the grizzly and return management to the state.