Celebration and warnings as Greater Yellowstone Coalition marks its 30th year

Former Yellowstone superintendent Michael Finley doubts grizzly delisting due to lack of habitat-

West Yellowstone, MT.  Last weekend the Greater Yellowstone Coalition celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding back in 1983. Along with honoring the founders, especially activist Rick Reese, and former Board members, the Coalition (GYC) had a prime time panel consisting of  Yellowstone Park superintendents. They were current superintendent Dan Wenk, and two of the three past superintendents Mike Finley and his predecessor Bob Barbee. Suzanne Lewis, who preceded Wenk did not attend.

Barbee and Finley had plenty to say. Wenk, due to his relative newness and likely too being under the constraints of office, said less.

Both Finley and Barbee expressed their pride in many accomplishments, but Finley had a dark view of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) second attempt to delist the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone (GYE) from the threatened species list. Finley flat out said the USFWS couldn’t prove there was enough grizzly bear habitat in the Greater Yellowstone to sustain a recovered grizzly bear population.

The grizzly population has increased by perhaps 300% during the long period it has been on the list. Current estimates are from about 600 to 800 grizzlies in the GYE. The GYE includes the 2.2 million acre Yellowstone Park and perhaps 18 million more acres of surrounding land, mostly public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, USFWS, BLM, Park Service, and state agencies. In addition, there are significant acreages and areas of private land within the GYE where grizzly bears now live. The area occupied has been expanding, likely due to the decrease in food quality within the core of the GYE.

Finley particularly focused on the collapse of two of the main sources of high quality food in the grizzly bear diet and threats to the third — the army cutworm moths which arrive in the billions at alpine elevations in the summer. The near demise of whitebark pine nuts and Yellowstone cutthroat trout took place during, rather than before the time the grizzly has been on the threatened species list.

The army cutworm
The army cutworm

Finley pointed out that there is almost no scientific knowledge of the geographic life cycle of the army cutworm moth which exists as an agricultural pest in the midwest. The newly hatched moth then arrives at the flower fields of the alpine peaks at about 11,000 feet during the Yellowstone country summertime. In the areas where the larva live — the army cutworm caterpillar — strenuous efforts are made to eliminate it due to crop damage.  Success would save crops but greatly harm the grizzly, it would seem.

The army cutworm moth. Great grizzly bear food which might provide 40,000 calories a day. Phtoo from maine,gov
The army cutworm moth which is terrific grizzly bear food which might provide 40,000 calories a day. Phtoo from maine,gov

Whitebark pine is in rapid retreat almost everywhere due to accidentally imported whitebark pine blister rust. On top of this is climate change. Warmer winters provide succor to the pine tree-killing, pine bark beetle. The change also creates the conditions for greater wildfires. The growing number of fires at high altitude kill the otherwise long lived whitebark pine.

The formerly very abundant Yellowstone cutthroat trout has been reduced in numbers manifold by the artificial introduction (accident?) of the voracious lake trout which eats the cutthroat, and is useless to bears and many other kinds of wildlife because it does not come to the surface or run up the rivers and creeks to spawn.

Earlier efforts by USFWS to delist the Yellowstone grizzly were overturned by a federal judge on the very issue of the availability of food. Finley said that the USFWS’s latest bandwagon for delisting was sure to crash on this issue again. Twice he told the audience that sometimes lawsuits by groups are needed. He stopped short of saying “The GYC must sue on this issue,” but his meaning seemed obvious.

The 2007 case that overturned the earlier grizzly delisting was the Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Servheen. The GYC won in district court on a summary judgment.  In summary judgments there is no contest over facts — both sides agree. It is only a matter of law in contest.

The government appealed their loss to the ninth circuit. They lost again there, but not as badly. The ninth circuit reversed the lower court on the matter of inadequate regulatory mechanisms. Given what has happened to the delisted wolf, that part of the appeals court decision is troubling. Conservationists believe adequate regulatory mechanisms clearly don’t exist, as seen in the current grizzly shootings in Island Park (see our current story on those).  The ninth circuit did uphold the district court’s decision that the USFWS failed to provide a rational explanation for why the potential decline in whitebark pine would not threaten grizzy bears.

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Related story. Withering whitebark Keystone species is climate-change poster child. By Laura Lundquist, Bozeman Chronicle Staff Writer. Sept. 22, 2013


  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It looks like some are getting an early start and are champing at the bit to kill grizzlies, even before a formal delisting. 🙁

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Oh, and I wonder if fire damage would delay a delisting due to the food supply?

  2. Sam Parks Avatar

    I am very glad Mr. Finley spoke up on the grizzly bear issue. The bear needs more friends in high places like this.

  3. Leslie Avatar

    I’ve often wondered about the cutworm moth in the prairie–an area where GMO’s are more and more prevalent.

    1. ramses09 Avatar

      Interesting …..

  4. CodyCoyote Avatar

    My local Cody Enterprise newspaper ran a 3-part series on the GYC’s 3 year history and impact , written by a young new reporter not from here, who was not up to the job nor had the depth or background to tackle the assignment.

    What we ended up reading here in Cody was a profile of a GYC that I did not recognize. And I worked with them extensively in the 90’s during the GYC’s hayday as lead adversary to the horrendous Noranda gold mine that was going to be situated 3 miles from the Yellowstone Park boundary above Cooke City MT. The GYC and their partners won that fight , but it was a slog and nenver a sure thing.

    The Enterprise series depicted a different GYC altogether. it was mostly a PR fluff piece since the only folks quoted were the GYC founder and the current PR guy in Bozeman, and the reporter gave them a free pass, printing whatever they said.

    She did NOT interview the local GYC rep or any folks ehreabout who had long GYC conenctions, even current and past board members. In fact, it’s rumoured the GYC exec office did not want the reporter talking to anyone but ” corporate ” and especially the Cody unit.

    Personally I no longer support the GYC. I do not use tha term ” going corporate” ightly . but they have done just that . They no longer fight the good fight east and south of Yellowstone on real on-the-ground issues of natural resources and conservation , except to give lip service in most cases. Frankly the GYC corproate HQ has forsaken their field offices to some extent, but especially my Cod office, marginalizing it except as a fund raising tool. And therein lies the real issue. They went mainstream, they went elite, they went corporate along the likes of the national office of the Sierra Club and their ilk.

    Earlier this month , journalist of renown Naomi Klein pubished a condamning essay on te Big Enviro groups. it prepared all over the web. [ here’s a link as it appeared at Alternet : http://www.alternet.org/environment/naomi-klein-why-big-green-groups-can-be-more-damaging-right-wing-climate-deniers ]

    I agree with Klein that Big Enviro needs to be lumped in right alongside Big Oil and King Coal and all the other mega-lobbies and big special interests. And the corporates.

    The grassroots have withered at the GYC in my neighborhood, northwest Wyoming, where we have real need of effective green-tinted policy making. Now more than ever. Way beyond grizzles and wolves and snowmobiles.

    I’m back to doing it alone in the wilderness.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Yes. I look forward to reading the link you provided about Big Green groups being more damaging than right-wing climate deniers!


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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