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A Grizzly Manifesto

How to save Canada's endangered 'great' bears? Look to Yellowstone. And brace for hate mail.

Jeff Gailus 23 Jun

Jeff Gailus is the author of The Grizzly Manifesto: In Defence of the Great Bear.

[Editor's note: Earlier this month, the Albertan government declared grizzly bears a threatened species, or "a species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed." In his recently published book The Grizzly Manifesto: In Defence of the Great Bear, Jeff Gailus of Canmore, Alberta, considers measures that the U.S. has taken as a potential model for Canadian bear conservation -- but it won't be easy. Below is an excerpt.]

The ongoing recovery of grizzly bears in the contiguous United States is one of the most politically contentious recovery efforts ever undertaken anywhere. This is in large part because grizzly bears require a lot of real estate but have no money to pay for it. Unlike the Banff springs snail, an endangered species found only in a few small thermal pools in Banff National Park, maintaining wild grizzly bear populations on the landscape precludes a whole lot of recreational and industrial activity.

To keep the Banff springs snail alive means prohibiting drunken teenagers from sneaking into the hot pools late at night.

To keep grizzlies alive means limiting mining, ranching, oil and gas wells, roads, hunting, logging, poaching and a slew of other human activities that directly and indirectly result in dead bears.

Also, people living and working in bear habitat must take precautionary measures, some of which are time consuming and expensive. The resulting increase in government oversight doesn't always sit well with people who still live by the myth of the frontier that suggests that everyone can do everything everywhere all the time. And so the acrimony grew.

When restrictions on motorized vehicle use came into force in the early 1990s, some ATV users refused to obey the new rules. Chris Servheen [the man who had overseen grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states for most of the last 30 years] refers to these people as "knuckleheads." They cut the locks off gates and exercised their perceived right to use the roads and trails they had always used. In response, the U.S .government sent in law enforcement officials to lay charges and hand out fines. Eventually they began confiscating the quads and dirt bikes of the most recidivist perpetrators, slinging their machines up out of the forest with helicopters and leaving the rideless yahoos to hump it home on foot.

This, of course, did not enhance the popularity of the grizzly bear recovery coordinator or the environmentalists that used the law to staunchly defend the grizzly bear. Servheen began getting hate mail and threatening phone calls. Public meetings often saw slanderous tirades, and personal insults were thrown every which way. Threats of violence were also not unheard of, as more than a few environmental advocates working in rural locales tell of vandalism and bullet holes in their walls.

Attacks from all sides

If you think this kind of abuse made Servheen and the environmental movement allies, think again. All along the way, many (but not all) environmentalists believed Servheen and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service were not doing enough to protect the grizzly bears. Environmentalists routinely threw jabs and hooks in the media. They also filed lawsuit after lawsuit against various government departments for not obeying laws and policies meant to protect grizzly bears. While the lawsuits seem justified, as the environmentalists won most of them, the acrimony that accumulated over the years has left a sour taste in the mouths of many key players.

Servheen has accused Louisa Willcox [from the Natural Resources Defense Council in Montana] in particular of taking personal shots at him and even of trying to get him fired. She maintains she has no beef with Servheen in particular, but, like an aggressive sow protecting her cubs, she continues to defend the Yellowstone grizzly population. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is trying to remove grizzlies from the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

While Servheen feels the ESA has sufficiently recovered the Yellowstone population, Willcox has led the charge to prevent delisting. She and various litigious environmental groups cite concerns over the security of important food sources that may worsen as the climate warms.

Still, it seems like these two opponents, working together in symbiotic opposition -- her yoga-inspired yin and his boot-wearing yang -- seem to have gotten the job done. While the story in Banff makes it seem impossible to share a busy national park with grizzlies, the American experience indicates it can be done.

Measures of real success

The Yellowstone grizzly bear population is on the verge of being delisted and Servheen believes the population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) could follow suit in as little as five years. The NCDE lies just south of the Canadian border and shares a population of more than 1,000 grizzly bears with British Columbia and Alberta. In Montana, this population has rebounded with such vigour that grizzly bears have been found as far east as Fort Benton, recolonizing parts of the Great Plains where they haven't been seen in 125 years. At a time when four species every hour are becoming extinct, this is an incredible story of restraint and responsibility.

When I asked Servheen what the keys to success have been, he mentioned education, good people, political support and healthy budgets. "What about the Endangered Species Act? Could you have done it without the ESA?"

"No," he says. "No way. Without the ESA, we wouldn't have been able to recover grizzlies."

I know he would like to say otherwise. I know he would like to say that Americans in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem just decided what needed to be done and then worked together to make it happen. But the reality is that there wouldn't be 600 grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone without the authority to enforce the ESA and force local and state governments to change the way they do business.

More importantly, grizzly recovery has also relied on the ability of American citizens to use the courts to ensure the federal government obeys its own laws. Without these two forces, there might be 250 grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park but the population would never be big enough to be called "recovered" and success would always be just over the horizon.

Alberta's time warp

Servheen, the only person in the world to oversee the successful recovery of a grizzly bear population, had been invited to Alberta to advise the government on grizzly bear management north of the 49th parallel.

So, I asked him to compare what he found in Alberta with what he was used to at home.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he said: "Alberta reminds me of the United States in the 1950s, before we had strong environmental legislation. When we still believed there were no limits."

This is excerpted with permission from The Grizzly Manifesto: In Defence of the Great Bear by Jeff Gailus, newly published by Rocky Mountain Books.  [Tyee]

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