Grizzlies and Endangered Species Act


After my last post on the ESA and reform, the US District Court For Montana issued a ruling overturning the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s  determination that Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region had recovered enough to delist them. A delisting would return management of the bears to state agencies in Idaho and Wyoming. This ruling came after multiple rounds of public comment, two rounds of litigation, and a decade of delay. Predictably a bill is now advancing in Congress to overturn the court and delist the bear.

Can you imagine a worse process and outcome?

Science vs. Social Issues

Recently, I was honored to attend  the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) on behalf of Colorado. During a day long meeting with my fellow commissioners from all the Western states, we discussed the changes in conservation. The biggest change is the rise of social issues as a dominant issue for managing wildlife. And the hardest challenge from that change is what happens when science dictates one result and social issues, particularly social issues imposed from afar, dictate another?

Examples of social issues dominating science abound: climate change; GMOs, pipelines, electric cars, ethanol … Wildlife is no different. But, the thoughtful decision of Judge Christensen clearly demonstrates why we need reform of the ESA. The judge was essentially convinced that the Fish & Wildlife Service needed to consider whether the science required the creation of grizzly bear super highway from Canada, Washington State, Oregon, and California to Southern Utah and Colorado. This opportunity to connect the six isolated grizzly populations for genetic diversity is not science, it is social policy.

That does not make it wrong, but it does mean Congress not a federal judge in Montana should decide the issue. Congress needs to debate  – does the ESA require that apex predators roam freely across human populated landscapes?

It is a legitimate debate. I believe strongly it does not. We need to act in every way we can to restore these species. But, the idea that the ESA requires apex predators to freely roam human populated areas is a huge threat to the ESA politically, particularly in the West.

And many well meaning residents of heavily populated areas in distant parts of the US thinking about bucket list vacations are not listening. Grizzlies are not allowed to roam without management in Central Park in New York, City Park in Denver, Grant Park in Chicago, or The Presidio in San Francisco. They are not eating your pets, livestock, occasionally a neighbor, and requiring you to alter your everyday life.

What does it mean for an apex predator to “recover”. My view is it means recovering them in refuges such as Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks. As those populations expand out of refuges, allow the states to manage them as they do predator species today.

If smaller recovering populations need genetic diversity, we trap and reintroduce bears from one healthy population to the recovery population. Federal and state agencies conduct this type of adaptive wildlife management everyday. A Grizzly superhighway is neither practical nor necessary.


A good rule of thumb in life is if you want something that imposes no cost on you and enormous cost on someone else, you are the problem.

ESA reform should address and acknowledge:

  1. Dedicated funding for species recovery;
  2. Enhanced role of the states;
  3. Certainty in federal policy;
  4. Streamlining the public input front end and court fight backend of science based wildlife decisions; and
  5. That the rural West is a patchwork of public and private land covered with people recreating, working, and living their lives. It is not an empty landscape perfect for a giant national wildlife refuge dedicated to a return of a fantasy landscape before Europeans.

Reform must unite us as in 1973. Reform must focus on species recovery. As Judge Christensen’s opinion makes clear, reform must come from Congress not the courts.




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