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Endangered Species Act

Cooperation, or Coercion? Navigating the minefield of stewarding rare animals

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Western Wyoming burrowing owls
A pair of burrowing owls at their nesting burrow on a western Wyoming ranch.
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Monitoring comes naturally to ranchers, even though we may not consider much of our daily habits as such. We monitor a variety of natural resources or resource components on a regular basis, from irrigation levels, weather, grazing distribution and utilization, and plant diversity, to breeding dates, conception rates, and desirable herd characteristics.

Many ranchers participate in structured rangeland monitoring in conjunction with federal land managers – a program that began as a cooperative venture for some, but expanded due to threats from anti-grazing activists. Instead of volunteering to work together toward a shared goal of sustainable use of vegetative resources, grazing permittees and agencies were effectively coerced into participation.

But ranchers monitor many other resources independent of agency support or oversight. The popularity of camera traps (trail cameras, game cameras) has opened up new realms for monitoring. Cameras are now used to monitor vehicles accessing ranch-owned gravel pits, and to document trespassers ignoring posted property boundaries. 

With increased public concern about rare species in Wyoming, some ranchers have developed their own monitoring programs to inventory for species occurrence, seasonal use, and habits of these species on their properties. It’s good to know and understand the wild species that share your range, but sadly, ranchers have little incentive to share that data with wildlife managers. That’s because rather than celebrating the occurrence of previously undocumented sage grouse leks, breeding pairs of short-eared and flammulated owls, nesting long-billed curlews, small populations of pygmy rabbits, or any of a long list of federally listed, proposed, or candidate species of concern, private landowners fear that acknowledging the presence of these species only opens the door to more coercion.

That’s a shame, because the detection of rare species on private property should be celebrated – these landowners should be proud that their stewardship includes sustaining these species. Instead, property owners keep quiet, fearful that detection of these rare species only brings restrictions on their property rights and use.

I’m part of a small group of ranchers who work together in an informal wildlife monitoring program for our neighboring parcels, using camera traps as its main component. Our program aims to help in protecting our livestock herds by knowing and understanding the movement and frequency of large carnivores in our neighborhood.

Every year ranchers get requests from wildlife managers or researchers requesting permission to access private property to observe wild animal numbers, survey for rare species, document migration routes, etc. Although we may be inclined to want to cooperate, often we need to say no, and that’s because what is being requested isn’t actual cooperation. Sometimes the data collected is later used to impose restrictions on private property.

I’m a member of an international network focused on human-wildlife conflict research. Last week one network participant explained in a group email that a non-governmental organization (NGO) had installed an electric fence to prevent black bears from preying on goats held in the pen. One of the cameras installed on the fence captured a video of a mountain lion jumping the fence and killing a goat. Not surprisingly, the farmer wants a copy of the video. Also not surprisingly, the NGO is now questioning how it should handle such a request.

I suspect that the NGO wouldn’t be asking such questions had the fence succeeded in deterring predators, and would instead be happily sharing video footage of a predator getting zapped by the fence and running from the scene. 

Instead, the NGO wants to learn if there are protocols or guidelines for the sharing of such information with the public. While none of the researchers who responded offered such a guideline, one Canadian-based researcher noted, “I can see potential ethical issues (e.g. would sharing induce some sort of conflict or misuse of the data by the landowner, could it be used as evidence to illicit intensified predator control, etc.).”

This researcher’s response provides a prime example of why some ranchers won’t cooperate in wildlife research and monitoring programs. The notion that data should be controlled or censored because it had an undesirable outcome to the researcher is appalling. That the livestock owner could use the data to seek intensified control shouldn’t be viewed as a negative – the negative is that despite increased efforts at protecting his livestock, predators continued to succeed at killing his goats.

I also noticed the researcher’s Freudian slip in the use of “illicit” (as in forbidden), when the proper verbiage is “solicit” (as in to ask for or try to obtain) when suggesting predator control.

Cooperation is the process of working together to the same end. It’s not cooperation if it’s one-sided.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Range Writing: Endangering Success

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
1289

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem achieved biological recovery goals nearly two decades ago, but the animals remain under federal protection – after more than 40 years of such protection.

This threatened-species success story is due to the extraordinary efforts and tolerance of the human communities that share the landscape with the great bear in this region, including affected individuals, businesses and local governments, federal and state bear managers, and local conservation organizations. No credit should go to groups whose only action is to file lawsuits that prolong federal protection for wild animal populations that are no longer in jeopardy. One such group has its Trump Lawsuit Tracker (currently at “122 and counting”) displayed prominently on the homepage of its website.

When a federal judge reinstated federal protection for the Yellowstone-region’s grizzly bear population of at least 700 bears last fall, the judge ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had “erred in delisting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear without further consideration of the impact on other members of the lower-48 grizzly designation.”

Federal officials had argued that delisting the Yellowstone region’s grizzly bear population would leave any other grizzly bears located in the lower 48 states with full protection as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But the court ruled that argument wasn’t enough “because decreased protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem necessarily translate to decreased chances for interbreeding” with grizzlies in other populations such as the 1,000-bear Northern Continental Divide population in north-central Montana. The court faulted FWS for its lack of recognition that the long-term health of the grizzly population depends on the introduction of new genetic material (as in genetic interchange between grizzly populations).

While the Yellowstone grizzly decision makes its way through the appeals process, bear advocates continue to pretend that this grizzly bear population is in jeopardy. It’s not.

From the original goal of 15 breeding female grizzlies in a 9,200-square mile recovery zone, the population has increased to at least 58 sows with cubs occupying more than 25,000 square miles. Scientists tell us that the ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for the big bruins – more than 60 percent of occupied grizzly bear range occurs outside the original bear recovery zone, in a more human-dominated landscape.

We’ve learned to coexist with grizzlies, but it’s a somewhat uneasy coexistence. With grizzly bears under federal protection for four decades, they no longer have a fear of humans. Thanks to bear-jams in our national parks, some grizzlies become habituated to the presence of humans, and human-habituated grizzlies can be a problem when those bears are located outside the national parks. 

It’s no longer unusual to have grizzlies show up in western Wyoming communities like Dubois, Cody, and Thermopolis. Farmers encounter grizzlies in their corn and bean fields miles from mountain ranges; campers no longer use soft-sided tents; skiers now carry bear spray; hikers, fishermen, hunters, and picnickers no longer use traditional recreational areas because of the risk of encountering grizzly bears – far outside of the grizzly bear recovery zone.

We have more bear-human conflicts in the ecosystem because we have more bears in areas with humans. We have more livestock conflicts because we have more bears sharing the range with livestock. It’s not because of a human failure to adjust to the presence of bears; it’s because we all share the same range. And lest anyone forget, the grizzly bear is a top-of-the-food-chain predator. People are injured in conflicts with grizzlies every year. Some shoot and kill grizzlies in self-defense. Beloved human beings have been killed in tragic encounters with grizzly bears.

The Endangered Species Act is meant to serve as a safety net to ensure the survival of species teetering on the brink of extinction – a worthy goal endorsed by most Americans. By insisting on continued protection of recovered animal populations, animal advocates wield the ESA as a weapon to hinder management of recovered species, and to limit human activities for which they disapprove.

The FWS’s job is to protect threatened and endangered species. It is not the agency’s job to push for ever-higher populations of recovered species as some bear advocates desire. That would be a waste of limited federal resources that should be freed for use with species that are truly threatened or endangered. To insist on continued federal protection for animals that are no longer threatened only succeeds in eroding support for the Endangered Species Act.

Cat Urbigkit is the author of the book “Return of the Grizzly: Sharing the Range with Yellowstone’s Top Predator.” Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Coalition to sue over state’s new grizzly hunt law

in News/Recreation
989

By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A coalition of environmental groups plans to sue the state over a new law giving it the authority to conduct grizzly bear hunts.

The groups, including the Sierra Club, filed a notice this week with the state Game and Fish Department of their intent to sue over the statue, which was signed into law about a week ago by Gov. Mark Gordon.

The groups, in a news release, said the law is contrary to a federal judge’s ruling last year that said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service erred by removing grizzlies from the endangered species list and giving management of grizzly bears to the state.

But backers of the law, as well as the law itself, maintain that federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act require cooperation between federal and state governments.

Senate File 93, signed into law by Gordon on Feb. 15, was the Legislature’s response to a federal judge’s ruling in September that halted a hunting season on grizzlies.

The hunting season was scheduled after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had ruled recovery goals for grizzlies in Wyoming had been met and the animals could be removed from the endangered species list.The Fish and Wildlife Service is appealing the judge’s decision.

SF 93 would give the Game and Fish Department the right to declare a hunting season for grizzlies if it determined such a hunt would be beneficial to the state’s residents.

The coalition, which also includes the Center for Biological Diversity and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said the new law violates the Endangered Species Act and Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives federal law primacy over state law.

“This state law directly and unlawfully conflicts with the clear mandate of the federal Endangered Species Act that grizzly bears not be shot by trophy hunters seeking their heads and hides for bragging rights,” said Nichola Arrivo, a staff attorney with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), another member of the coalition.

But the law’s backers maintain the Endangered Species Act requires federal officials to work cooperatively with states in managing endangered species, so the law is valid.

The law itself raises the same point.

“In enacting the Endangered Species Act, the United States Congress requires the United States secretary of the interior to cooperate to the maximum extent practicable with the states in conserving and managing any endangered or threatened species,” it said.

Jim Allen, an outfitter in Fremont County who served in the Legislature from 2015 through 2018, said if nothing else, the legislation would show the state’s intent that federal laws be administered in accordance with laws in effect in the state.

“What (bill sponsor) Sen. (Wyatt) Agar’s (R-Thermopolis) bill does is just one more statement by the state that can’t be ignored by the (federal) agencies,” Allen said. “State and county use plans are statements the federal government is supposed to abide by.”

While the federal government may not recognize the law’s validity, it will still send a message, Allen said.

“Nothing else that we’ve tried has worked to gain (grizzly bear) management, so why not pass a bill?” he said. “It can’t hurt.”

In Brief: Bill calling for grizzly bear hunting clears House committee

in News
874

By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would authorize the state Department of Game and Fish to set a grizzly hunting season cleared a House committee Wednesday.

The House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee voted to send SF 93 to the full House for debate.

The bill is a response to a federal judge’s decision in September to block a grizzly bear hunt. The hunt was set by the Game and Fish Department after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the grizzly population in and around Yellowstone National Park to have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the Endangered Species List. The federal judge ruled that action was improper. The Fish and Wildlife Service, joined by Wyoming and other groups, is appealing that decision.

SF 93 would allow the Game and Fish Department to set up a grizzly hunt if it determines such a hunt to be beneficial to Wyoming’s wildlife and necessary to protect the safety of its citizens and workers.

The bill notes that federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act are to be administered by the federal government in cooperation with state agencies and adds that the judge’s ruling prevents that from happening.

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