Native Sun News: Tribes take DOI to task over grizzly bear policy

The following story was written and reported by Native Sun News Staff. All content © Native Sun News.


Grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. Photo from National Park Service

‘Grizzly bear czar’ taken to task by tribal leaders
By Native Sun News

YELLOWSTONE, Wyo. – In a strongly worded letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Senator John Tester (D-MT), Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council has voiced misgivings about the impartiality of Dr. Christopher Servheen in any proposed tribal consultation process over the government’s controversial delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.

Servheen, long-dubbed the government’s “grizzly bear czar,” has the title of Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator in the FWS. Servheen first advocated removing Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from the Yellowstone grizzly bear in the 1990s.

“Concerns have been raised with this office about the presence of Dr. Christopher Servheen in any consultation process,” writes Ivan D. Posey, Chairman of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.

The influential Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council joined the effort to save the grizzly bear’s ESA status after unanimously passing a resolution introduced by GOAL (Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy) Tribal Coalition last December.

GOAL Tribal Coalition has liaised with prominent spiritual leaders, elders and tribal governments to form an alliance against delisting the Yellowstone grizzly bear, citing spiritual, sovereignty and treaty violations among its concerns.

The coalition has grown to 33 tribal nations, including all of the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation, the 315,000 strong Cherokee Nation, and the nations that comprise the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.

“Dr. Servheen’s recent comments to the press have been interpreted by some as belittling the tribes’ opposition to the proposed delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear,” cautions Chairman Posey.

If the Yellowstone grizzly bear is delisted the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will sell high-dollar grizzly trophy hunts across a landscape defined by a multitude of sacred sites that 26 tribes have traditional ceremonial and ancestral connections to.

“The grizzly bear is a living spirit that is a part of our ceremonies and our ancestors have been using the medicine given by the grizzly bear for generations,” explains Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe.

“We talk about harmony, balance, understanding and the sacred relationship between all things, while others talk about trophy hunting. Even the white ones that are born, the sacred messengers of Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth, are being killed and will continue to be killed if this abuse is not stopped. My heart is heavy because of this,’” said Looking Horse.

One of Indian Country’s most recognizable spiritual leaders, Looking Horse opposes the delisting and the subsequent trophy hunting of the grizzly, and instead advocates for the grizzly to be returned to vast swathes of biologically suitable habitat that it roamed pre-European contact.

“We have to honor and respect Mato Oyate, the grizzly bears, and secure a place in this world for them. The medicine Mato gives us, the Bear Medicine, is used in a lot of different ways, and those ways heal our bodies,” he says.

In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the Cherokee Nation supported that position.

“For many Indian tribes, the grizzly bear is sacred and has a significant place in their cultures and ceremonial ways of life,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker informed Secretary Sally Jewell.

In the Cherokee Nation’s presentation, Principal Chief Baker stressed that tribal consultation by the government on this issue was not optional, and reminded the Secretary that, “This administration has engaged in tribal consultation on federal policy decisions that have tribal implications at historic levels.”

“Fulfillment of this commitment on FWS’s effort to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear is consistent with Executive Order 13175 and other policies that strengthen the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes,” Principal Chief Baker wrote.

In response to questions from the press at the turn of the year about the lack of tribal consultation in FWS’s move to delist the Yellowstone grizzly from the ESA, Dr. Servheen claimed that his office had done what they were required to do.

Recent letters from FWS Deputy Regional Director John Bryan to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and GOAL Tribal Coalition appear to contradict that claim.

In those letters, Bryan offers to facilitate three “broad” consultation meetings on the issue, but with only 10 of the 33 tribes. The Lakota Oyate was excluded, despite high-profile tribal leaders such as Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby appealing to Secretary Jewell for the consultation process to be inclusive.

Dr. Servheen previously stated that he had written to all of the affected tribes, but disclosures subsequently revealed that Servheen had only written to four of the affected tribes in April 2014.

“I know for a fact that three out of the four tribal chairmen Servheen wrote to never had sight of his letter,” says Sara Atiqtalik, GOAL Tribal Coalition’s national coordinator.

“I had a journalist from Servheen’s home base, Missoula, call me to comment but it was more like a defense of Servheen than an interview. He told me that Servheen had consulted with ‘all’ of the tribes. ‘All’ turned out to be only four,” Atiqtalik continues.

“I immediately called Chairman Nathan Small of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho, one of the nation’s Servheen had supposedly contacted, and Chairman Small told me categorically that he had never received or seen such a letter,” she recalls.

Atiqtalik said the journalist relayed to her Servheen’s view that “the tribes looked silly” for opposing the delisting and trophy hunting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.

Dr. Servheen has made repeated statements to the media that he never received any response to those letters.

“That is patently false,” insists R. Bear Stands Last, co-founder of GOAL.

“The Eastern Shoshone Tribe responded to FWS’s intent to proceed with delisting by issuing their resolution in opposition on 10/28/14. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho did similarly 11/4/14, and as a member tribe of the Montana & Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council (TLC) the Northern Arapaho did the same when the TLC issued a resolution opposing delisting on 12/11/14,” he catalogs.

Dr. Servheen released his April 2014 letter to Eastern Shoshone Tribal Chairman, Darwin St. Clair, to the press. Servheen continued to claim that he received no response, despite the official resolution against delisting the grizzly bear passed by the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.

“If you are aware of others who should also receive this request, either within your tribe or with another tribe, please forward this letter,” Dr. Servheen bade Chairman St. Clair.

“This attitude is very revealing,” says Bear Stands Last. “Since when has a tribal chairman become a ‘gofer’ for a federal department regional coordinator?”

FWS’s February letters to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and GOAL informed both that all “Tribal information regarding Yellowstone grizzly bears” was to be submitted to Dr. Servheen by March 31. “Why would any political, traditional or spiritual leader, or elder or storyteller, have been inclined to do that?” asks Bear Stands Last.

“Is Servheen the arbiter of the validity of the tribes’ knowledge of the grizzly bear which has been amassed since time immemorial? No, he’s just the latest federal employee to publicly deride the tribes’ positions on sovereignty, specifically in regard to this issue,” he says.

“Tribal leaders are not boy scouts he can boss about,” Bear Stands Last concludes.

Dr. Servheen is Scoutmaster of BSA Troop 1911 in Missoula, Montana. There are no Native American members in Dr. Servheen’s troop.

Native Americans comprise the largest minority population in Missoula County. The Flathead Indian Reservation of the Selish Ktunaxa is twenty-miles north of Missoula.

Dr. Servheen’s troop promotes a religious emblems program. The troop’s policies and procedures handbook advocates “opportunities for Scouts to grow in their duty to God.”

The 33 tribal nations that have so far issued resolutions, declarations and letters against the government’s intent to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the ESA have highlighted infringements of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in their opposition.

“These state game commissioners, wardens and government agencies don’t see the spiritual nature of this,” bemoans Chief Looking Horse.

“Even when our people ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ they will say ‘It’s just part of our job.’ These are not the words or thoughts of people connected to Unci Maka, but we as First Nations’ people are very connected to our Grandmother Earth,” says Looking Horse.

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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