Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, third from left, prepares to testify before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C, on March 7, 2017. A copy of the Piikanni Nation Treaty can be seen on the table next to Chairman Alvin "AJ" Not Afraid, Jr. of the Crow Tribe. Photo by Indianz.Com Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Environment | National | Politics

Secretary Zinke removes protections for grizzlies over tribal objections

Just hours after promising to consult tribes before making any decisions that affect their interests, the new leader of the Department of the Interior heralded the removal of protections for grizzly bears.

Tribes with treaty rights and ancestral connections to Yellowstone National Park have unanimously supported the listing of the grizzly under the Endangered Species Act. But Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday afternoon said the bear population there is no longer in need of federal management.

The announcement came after Zinke told the House Committee on Natural Resources earlier in the day of his "obligation" to consult with tribes before taking action. He gave no hint of the fact that a decision had already been made on the status of the grizzlies.

"Some of the consultation has been a website, rather than personal," Zinke said just hours before the press release about the bears was posted on his department's website.

"Some of the consultation has been more notification, rather than consultation," he continued. "I think we need do a lot of work on what consultation really means and a lot of it is trust, quite frankly."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Committee on Natural Resources June 22, 2017. The exchange about tribal consultation and grizzly bears can be found at about 18:30 into Track 7, Q&A Part 5

As a former member of Congress, Zinke stressed that he enjoyed a "great relationship" with tribes, particularly those based in his home state of Montana Those tribes have been among the most outspoken when it comes to protecting the Yellowstone grizzlies.

Zinke is well aware of the connection. In early March, just days after joining the Trump administration, he sat by the side of Chairman Alvin "AJ" Not Afraid, Jr., of the Crow Nation, as the tribal leader from his state delivered a copy of a historic grizzly bear treaty to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

More than 120 tribes have signed the Piikanni Nation agreement, which calls on their treaty, religious and cultural rights to be respected. And more than 50 have passed resolutions or issued statements, demanding the United States live up to its obligation to consult them before making decisions about the animal.

"We have serious concerns about the science being presented, and worry that ultimately this process will result in ostensibly zoo populations in two national parks, Yellowstone and Glacier," Not Afraid said on Thursday.

Protections for Yellowstone grizzlies have long been a contentious issue. The bears were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 after their numbers dwindled to about 135, according to the National Park Service.

Grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: I-Ting Chiang

But in 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bears were making a recovery and deserved to be delisted. That led to a protracted administrative and legal fight in which the courts agreed that the agency failed to consider fully all of the environmental impacts.

Still, a new decision was never reached on their status and, before the end of the Obama administration in January, the agency said it would take months to review the 650,000-plus comments that had been sent in by tribes and the public.

Despite being short-staffed -- an issue Zinke complained more than once about during his appearance on Capitol Hill -- the Trump administration managed to get through the backlog. A lengthy notice that is being sent to the Federal Register for publication confirms that tribal interests played a back-seat to the "science" Chairman Not Afraid was worried about.

"We considered issues of cultural, spiritual, and ecological importance that tribes raised and we are sensitive to those concerns," the forthcoming notice, which runs a whopping 515 pages, reads.

"However, the Act requires the Service to make decisions based on the biological status of the species as informed solely by the best scientific and commercial data available," it continues.

"That said, once this action becomes effective, tribes will have the right to manage grizzly bears on their tribal lands in accordance with their spiritual, cultural, and historic traditions," the notice concludes.

Recognition of tribal management, while welcome, hasn't been one of the main concerns of the movement to protect the grizzlies. Tribes fear that states will open their areas around Yellowstone to non-Indian hunting, which was one of the original causes of the population decline.

"To remove the grizzly bear from the endangered species list will open the sacred bear to trophy hunting and destroy its natural habitat," Ben Nuvamsa, a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe, said on Thursday. He is the leader of his people's Bear Clan and he pointed out the significance of the animal to tribes across the country.

"The Fish & Wildlife Service promised us that it would conduct full and meaningful consultation with us but it turns out, those were only empty promises," Nuvamsa added.

According to the department, the rule regarding grizzly management at Yellowstone becomes final 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register.

Relevant Documents:
Press Release: Secretary Zinke Announces Recovery and Delisting of Yellowstone Grizzly Bear
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Final Rule to Federal Register