Blocking livestock-related reprisals against grizzlies on public lands

Western Watersheds Project Alliance for the Rockies, and the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection are seeking to block the killing of up to 72 grizzly bears over the next 10 years on national forest land in the headwaters of the Green River. With the Yellowstone grizzly listed as a ‘threatened species’ under the Endangered Species Act, one might assume killing bears in reprisal for livestock depredations – real or imagined – would be prohibited. But the reality is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often elects to invoke an obscure provision of the law to issue an Incidental Take Statement authorizing the killing of listed species when faced with political pressure.

By authorizing such a large number of grizzly bears to be killed, the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have turned the headwaters of the Green River into a population sink, an area of prime habitat that will continually attract dispersing young bears that then face a high likelihood of being killed once they establish a territory of their own. Killing bears implicated in livestock losses prevents them from becoming longstanding territory holders that become familiar with the seasonal distribution of natural food sources. Bears that can’t find natural foods are more likely to prey on domestic livestock, which have had all the intelligence and survival instincts bred out of them in an effort to make them docile and easy for ranchers to handle. The Forest Service even requires ranchers to drag cattle carcasses away from roads, dumping them where grizzly bears are more likely to find them and acquire a taste for beef. It’s a vicious cycle that guarantees endless killings for grizzlies, higher livestock losses for the ranchers, and elevated extinction risk for the Yellowstone bear population.

I cut my teeth as a wildlife biologist in Alaska, where both wolves and grizzly bears are abundant and ubiquitous. Alaskans aren’t afraid of wolves or grizzlies, by and large, because Alaskans have developed the knowhow and woodcraft to coexist with them. In Wyoming, by contrast, far too many of us approach our large native wildlife from a standpoint of baseless paranoia, ignorance, and malice. Wyoming could learn a lot from Alaskans with their greater courage and stronger wilderness skill sets.

Wyoming, unlike Alaska, has livestock scattered all over the public lands, and this factor lies at the root of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. The livestock industry’s default approach to nature is to subjugate it: poison the prairie dogs, kill off the large carnivores, chase off the elk and bison, fence off the open spaces. It’s a war against wildlife that has continued unabated since the bison were killed off as a means of subduing the original Wyoming natives. Paradoxically, the livestock industry’s “custom and culture” of death, destruction, and domination is the biggest threat to Wyoming’s spectacular abundance of native fish and wildlife, considered one of the state’s biggest assets by most residents.

Perhaps the flimsiest justification to justify grizzly killings was advanced by state lawyers in their oral arguments opposing grizzly de-listing, when they asserted that killing grizzlies was necessary to achieve the “social acceptance” of bears. In the past 8 years, 35 grizzlies were killed in the Upper Green livestock leases. If killing grizzlies promotes social acceptance, then why has this number doubled – to 72 bears authorized for killing – in the latest grazing plan?

Ranchers aren’t exactly keeping an eye on their vulnerable livestock out in the wilds. Cattlemen rarely hire range riders to accompany their animals and scare off the natural predators. Turn the livestock loose in the spring, collect the survivors in the fall. It’s institutionalized negligence.

And yet the wildlife suffer when the ranchers lose animals, because federal agencies are too timid to require ranchers to take responsibility for the welfare and safety of their livestock.

If ranchers drop off domestic livestock in the wilds of the Yellowstone ecosystem, then losing a few to natural hazards is the cost of doing business. Our federal agencies should recognize this explicitly, and refuse to be party to the senseless killing of native wildlife.

Let’s be clear: Commercial livestock operations, not grizzly bears, are the cause of the problem. If private livestock were kept on private property, there would be no grizzly depredations on public lands. And the public lands would be a lot healthier, with more elk, deer, moose, and other wildlife into the bargain.

Decades ago, ranchers had a similar destructive approach to bald and golden eagles, shooting and poisoning these majestic birds until they landed at the brink of extinction. Then Congress stepped in, passing the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, making killing an eagle a federal crime. Even possessing eagle body parts was restricted to tribal members, for use in religious ceremonies. Federal regulation worked, and eagles are making a comeback. It’s time to impose similar federal protections for wolves and grizzly bears. Congress has introduced the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act to do just that, and a companion bill for wolves is the next logical step.

In the meantime, grizzly bears need good lawyers. Attorneys from Western Watersheds Project and the Akland Law Firm of Missoula are providing that legal defense to our plaintiff group. If we are successful, grizzly bears will be shielded from livestock-related killings, at least in this small corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for the duration of the lawsuit. This is the least we can do until the grizzly bear can get stronger legal protections rangewide, or Wyomingites can learn to live compatibly with the native wildlife. Whichever comes first.

It is time for Wyoming to make a quantum leap into the 21st Century, and learn to coexist with our native wildlife instead of killing it as the default response. As a society, we also deserve better wildlife stewardship out of our land and wildlife agencies. If federal agencies won’t do their jobs to ensure rare and imperiled wildlife get the protection they deserve, conservation groups must stand ready to use the laws and regulations to hold the agency accountable. Our wildlife deserve nothing less.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group that works to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.


  1. rastadoggie Avatar

    I am beyond grateful that groups like Western Watersheds provide education for people and lawyers for grizzly bears. Sanity in an insane world; leadership extraordinaire! Thanks for the uplift today.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Devious. 🙁 If they can’t get them one way (delisting and hunting), they’ll get them another way.

    Thank you for seeking to close this loophole!


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