Published June 10, 2016
Another three of Yellowstone’s ancestral tribes have rejected federal proposals to remove protections from the area’s most iconic species, the grizzly bear, as threats posed to the region by mining have been ratcheted up in what is supposed to be a celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial. Tribal leaders describe Yellowstone as “a matrix of sacred sites.”
“It’s a good thing that the CSKT is backing other tribes in protecting the grizzly bear. They know how sacred, how powerful the grizzly is. I really like what our council is doing to protect, preserve and perpetuate our language and culture,” says Johnny Arlee, internationally respected elder and a traditional leader of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
Following a second meeting with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the CSKT has formally opposed delisting the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The unprecedented alliance of fifty tribal nations resisting the government’s drive to delist and enable Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to open grizzly trophy hunts is supported by the Assembly of First Nations, and has coalesced around GOAL (Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy) Tribal Coalition.
“We adamantly oppose the proposal to de-list the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem due to our strong opposition to the inclusion of plans for sport hunting of the population,” writes Chairman Vernon Finley in the CSKT’s official response to the FWS. “The grizzly bear is a species of great spiritual, cultural and ecological significance to the people of the Confederated Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille Tribes. Grizzly bears have been revered by our people since time immemorial, and they continue to be so honored today,” continues Chairman Finley.
Chairman Finley cites the earlier Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC) resolution as indicating “that reverence.” The RMTLC document states that trophy hunting the sacred bear not only represents, “a threat to tribal sovereignty, but also contravenes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” The law specifies that actions such as delisting cannot be “passed without consideration of their effect on traditional American Indian religions.”
The RMTLC resolution outlines FWS’s failure to meet the standard of “meaningful consultation” required by President Clinton’s Executive Order 13175, and raises concerns that the states’ plans “threaten to detrimentally impact tourism initiatives that would aid the economies of the affected tribal nations,” adding, “in strictly economic terms grizzlies are a legitimate ‘economic powerhouse,’ worth far more alive than dead.”
“We, as a tribal government, support that resolution,” affirms Chairman Finley. During recent Indian Country campaign stops for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Secretary Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton met with both the RMTLC, and GOAL representatives. President Clinton discussed economic development through natural resources with the RMTLC. Clinton continued the green theme with GOAL leaders, recognizing the potential in tribal eco-tourism plans centered on the grizzly and its reintroduction.
Tribes have stated that if, as FWS claims, the GYE and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) are at “carrying capacity” for grizzlies, the sacred bear should not be trophy hunted, but reintroduced to sovereign tribal lands in its historic range where biologically suitable habitat exists. “The precedent exists for partnering with FWS to return the grizzly to tribal lands,” advises former Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvamsa, who raised the matter with FWS Director Ashe. “Our model will offer economic opportunity to our people and cultural revitalization that will have the potential to improve the lives of our youth,” elaborates Chief Charles Weasel Head of the Kainaiwa (Blood) Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Trump’s speculated VP pick, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, has championed grizzly delisting. The state’s Democratic Senator, John Tester, supports trophy-hunting advocate Zinke’s position. “When Tester became vice chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee he said, ‘Standing up for Indian Country is a responsibility I never take lightly.’ But here he is, not only favoring a Trump acolyte over Montana’s tribes, but over tribes from Canada to Mexico,” says Bear Stands Last. In contrast to Tester, both President Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders have expressed support for the tribes’ stance on the grizzly.
Chiefs of the Blackfoot Confederacy align with what CSKT Chairman Finley describes as “strong opposition” to “sport hunting of grizzly bears.” Like the CSKT, the Blackfeet Nation is, as Councilman Tyson Running Wolf describes, “on the frontline” of the issue. “I don’t think that we, at all, would encourage big game hunting of the grizzly,” he says. “The grizzly is sacred to the Blackfeet people. The grizzly is part of our medicine pipes, and most every ceremony we have,” the councilman explains.
“A grizzly can’t just be hunted for sport,” Running Wolf continues. “As Blackfeet people there are only two reasons for taking a grizzly; one is self-defense, and the other is for power, but that is a transferred right, which is very limited. Today I don’t know that there is anybody who has that right. Even if they had it, there has to be a purpose, and that purpose would have to benefit all of the people, not just the individual.”
Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes is also concerned about “more degradation of the habitat and ecosystem” that delisting the grizzly in the GYE and NCDE could bring. Last June, the RMTLC issued a statement opposing delisting in the NCDE, and supporting the sovereignty of the CSKT and Blackfeet. “We as the Blackfeet have to determine what we are going to do on the Blackfeet Reservation,” says Running Wolf.
With Chairman Barnes, Chairman Finley expresses concerns about scars upon the landscape if the grizzly is delisted. “Much of Greater Yellowstone overlays our aboriginal territory, and we retain treaty rights in the area under the provisions of the Treaty of the Hellgate of 1855,” he specifies.
“The grizzly has always been the guardian of our lands. If ESA protections are removed from the grizzly, our lands will be vulnerable to further environmental devastation due to the inevitable push to issue more energy leases once those restrictions are relaxed with delisting,” elaborates Chief Weasel Head.
Tribal leaders have warned that two million acres of the GYE could be opened to extractive industries, livestock and timber leases post-delisting. “If you didn’t think that was a danger before, consider it now, in light of Donald Trump’s energy priorities,” says GOAL Chairman, David Bearshield. The architect of Trump’s energy policy is Harold Hamm, the fracking mogul of the Bakken. Trump has vowed to increase fracking, traditional fossil fuel extraction, restore the Keystone XL pipeline tribes have fought against, and to cancel the Paris accord on climate change.
Federal public lands in Greater Yellowstone are subject to the 1872 General Mining Act, and, as the US Forest Service has previously conceded, “Processing of mineral operations under the 1872 General Mining Law is not discretionary.” FWS’ s delisting rule states that there are already 28 mining claims with operating plans within Yellowstone’s core grizzly habitat. Legal experts advise that the primacy of the General Mining Law will likely take precedence over any post-delisting conservation provisions FWS may be able to implement.
“Ashe appears to have commonality with Trump,” suggests Bear Stands Last. “Trump calls climate change ‘a total hoax’ and Ashe’s delisting rule makes absurd claims about grizzlies not being impacted, and even benefiting, from climate change. Plus, they both seem hot for K-XL.” After investigation, the Interior Department found that under Ashe, the FWS has committed scientific misconduct, with scientific integrity violations related to the Keystone XL pipeline. “We have said all along that the political special interests that dominate the tri-states are driving this, not the alleged ‘best available science,’” reiterates GOAL’s co-founder.