Playing Politics with Endangered Species: Beginning of the End for the Yellowstone Grizzly?

Essay by Doug Peacock in Counterpunch.

To most Doug Peacock needs no introduction.

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  1. be Avatar

    this is a great essay that steps back and evaluates some of the macro-implications – thank you …

  2. chris Avatar

    I don’t see a solution to the food shortage/global warming issue other than expanding the recovery area. That won’t be palatable to the affected public and it may not be legal at this point. But to keep the grizzly fully protected until global warming is solved is to keep it on the endangered list forever. That is not the intention of the ESA.

    My understanding of the act’s legal standing is to come up with a sustainable population number, achieve it, and delist. Can you legally do all that and than change both the numbers and recovery area?

    I also doubt the legal merit of the other implications of delisting raised in the essay. You can’t legally keep the Yellowstone grizzlies protected because of the Glacier grizzlies. They are currently defined as separate subpopulations. Nor can you legally keep grizzlies protected to use the ESA to force habitat protection from Yellowstone to the Yukon. That’s a stereotype of the ESA that those working to conserve endangered species are trying to fight.

  3. SAP Avatar

    Chris – I agree with some of your points, and disagree with Doug Peacock at numerous points in his essay.

    I don’t agree with Mr Peacock that there’s no way we can re-connect Yellowstone grizzlies to somewhere else if delisting occurs. The Yellowstone grizzly population is recolonizing a lot of historic range west of Yellowstone already.

    Grizzlies from the Glacier-Northern Continental Divide population have already made it up to and then south of I-90 — although the one known to have made it south of I-90 got poached (see

    So, I’m optimistic that grizzlies are already starting to re-populate their historic range, thus potentially growing these populations together someday (maybe already). Then, they can function as one big population, more or less, and thus have far less extinction risk than small, isolated populations.

    And let’s be clear: the point of reconnecting small, isolated grizzly populations is primarily so they’ll function as one big population; and second, so bears can spread out and adapt to what may be dramatic changes (probably all negative) in food distribution.

    To justify connectivity solely in terms of genetics is misleading — misleading about population viability, and misleading about what this challenge entails. Genetic diversity is certainly important, but we’re not talking about a tiny population of black-footed ferrets or pandas here. It’s not an immediate concern, as numerous geneticists have pointed out.

    Unfortunately, activists with little understanding of population viability have sounded the alarm about “inbreeding,” probably because we all “know” that inbreeding is bad.

    The other consequence of this focus on genetics is that it misleads people into thinking that “corridors” are intended to allow an individual grizzly to every now and then take off and go 200 miles to get his freak on with other bears somewhere far away.

    I can’t really see things unfolding this way. I think we’re projecting our wishes onto bears, pretending that what we want is something they also consciously want (no, I’m not saying we want to get our freak on with bears, I’m saying we get obsessed about “inbreeding” and think that bears must be fretting about it too).

    No, what we’re really talking about — since dispersal distances for grizzlies are generally quite limited, compared to wolves or cougars — is exchange of individual bears and their genes through the multi-generational recolonization of habitat, until these populations more or less grow together.

    If we make the focus solely on genetics, then we get what we deserve: a plan to periodically trap and translocate bears among various grizzly populations so we can keep the gene pool stirred up.

    What’s wrong with that? Well, there’s nothing absolutely wrong with it. For me, it’s a better plan than letting them go extinct due to genetics problems.

    BUT, as a VALUE PREFERENCE, I’d rather see grizzlies “running themselves,” with minimal intervention by us. That’s what’s happened with recovery: we got a lot of the sources of human-caused mortality out of their way (cleaned up garbage, cleaned up backcountry camps, closed roads so bears wouldn’t get poached or displaced while trying to make a living) and let the bears do their thing.

    Wouldn’t it be great to keep this tradition going? To let them do their thing and keep their populations strong just by giving them the freedom to do so? Rather than making them a little more like livestock?

    But I have to reiterate: that’s my VALUE PREFERENCE. It’s subjective. It’s not scientific. We need to be clear about that, and not pretend that our value preferences are scientific facts. The ESA doesn’t say you can’t solve genetics problems through trapping and translocations.

    That’s a good question about what the ESA is supposed to do about climate change. My disagreement with de-listing is that the agencies don’t seem to have a clear plan for what they will do as climate change unfolds and leads to changes in distribution and abundance of key bear foods. Conceivably, yes, you COULD keep bears listed forever, if there was no other way to respond to some threat to their survival.

    Your term, “sustainable population,” also raises some interesting questions. “Sustainable” is another one of those value-laden terms. It’s certainly not bad to have values, but it’s trouble when we confuse values and facts.

    “Sustainable” has to be defined: sustainable for how long, under what conditions, at what level of risk that we could lose this population.

    Each of those parameters is about our values. Although scientists can help us better understand each of these factors, and help us quantify and monitor each factor, scientists are no more qualified than anyone else to make the final decisions. They’re value judgments.

    So, in this case, it’s not a simple matter of having scientists tell us that, say, 600 grizzlies is “sustainable,” and then delisting once we get to that threshold.

    Remember, they’re committing to keeping at least 500 grizzlies around. Peer-reviewed research has shown that the Yellowstone grizzly bear relies heavily on whitebark pine seeds. If trends in whitebark pine mortality continue, can we expect to be able to maintain at least 500 bears? How do we fulfill that commitment if whitebark pine is nearly eliminated?

    The whitebark situation gets to that “under what conditions” factor I mentioned regarding “sustainability.” We need to be making plans NOW for how we’ll deal with the loss of whitebark pine, because it’s really happening.

    But some folks in the agencies are sticking their heads in the sand and saying “let’s wait and see.” Some even try to deny there’s a problem. If they won’t seriously address this threat NOW, how much weight should we give their assurances that they’ll “relist” pronto if something starts to go wrong? That’s my worry.

    So, what can we do about loss of whitebark pine? Well, not much, other than give the bears more room, and strictly limit all unnatural mortality. And, rest assured, the ESA doesn’t only allow for recovery zones to change, it seems to mandate it if conditions warrant.

    Let me throw out one more thought: this is Congress’s fault, ultimately. Those value judgments I mentioned above are supposed to be hashed out in the political arena. We’re not supposed to fob them off on civil servants to figure out during implementation.

    When Congress passed the ESA in 1973, our understanding of extinction and population viability was quite limited. Not so anymore. We can re-vamp the ESA to have a uniform definition of “viable” or “sustainable” across all species, so we’re not having such unproductive debate like we see in the wolf and grizzly case.

    We could even have a higher standard for REALLY rare species like black-footed ferrets, and then a lower standard for species that are actually fairly abundant globally, but doing poorly in the lower 48 (grizzlies and wolves). But those are all decisions that spring from our subjective values. Congress is obligated to clarify those for us.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan