Native American tribes question grizzly delisting

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Natives in Canada and North America who view the grizzly bear as a cultural icon and sacred protector of the people say they want to be heard in the debate over the proposed delisting of the species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Tribal nations signed a treaty emphasizing the importance of continued federal protections for grizzlies Friday in Alberta, Canada, and at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.

The treaty has been signed by around 30 or 40 tribes, said Piikani Chief Stanley Grier. Approximately 200 people attended the signing at the lodge.

Sara Mathuin, Guardians of Our Ancestors Legacy Tribal Coalition, described the delisting plan as “flawed” at a Monday press briefing.

Piikani Chief Stanley Grier said he’s concerned with the diminished bear population and “gunsight management.”

“There’s just not enough of the species to justify any delisting,” Grier said.

Brian Jackson, Piikani council member, suggested reconsidering delisting, saying there’s been a lack of consultation by the federal government with Native Americans.

The indigenous people have a right to be a part of deliberations, said Ben Nuvamsa of the Hopi Bear Clan. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton signed executive orders mandating tribal consultation when it impacts those tribes and Nuvamsa said those orders are not being followed.

“To us consultation means coming into the room,” he said. Listening is crucial to consultation, Nuvamsa said, adding, “We haven’t had any opportunity to share our concerns with Fish and Wildlife.”

Serena Baker, a public affairs specialist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said the agency recognizes that the grizzly is culturally and spiritually significant to many tribes.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has and will continue to offer government-to-government consultation with federally-recognized Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River on the Yellowstone (ecosystem) grizzly bear population proposed delisting,” Baker said. “Tribes have a tremendous amount of traditional ecological knowledge and scientific information to contribute to this matter, and their input is very important to the service.”

Baker said the agency has received input from Native Americans via meetings, letters and formal comments and will “absolutely” consider them before deciding whether to delist at the end of 2016.

Since April 2014, the service has contacted 48 tribes via both letters and personal phone calls or emails to offer an opportunity for government-to-government consultation, Baker said.

The service conducted five consultations with tribes located in the GYE prior to the release of the proposed delisting rule, Baker said.

“We try to make those meetings in and near the ecosystem, but accessible to the tribes,” she said.

Since the release of the proposed rule, the service has held a consultation meeting in Bozeman, Montana, and in Rapid City, South Dakota, and invited all tribes west of the Mississippi River to attend, Baker said. The service announced the meetings in the Federal Register and contacted tribes directly.

“Since these meetings, we have reached out to five additional tribes who have requested government-to-government consultation and are actively working to schedule these meetings,” she said.

The service met with the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council in Billings and in October 2015, the service invited 53 tribes, tribal councils and First Nations in Canada to participate in a tribal webinar and conference call, Baker said. The letters also invited federal tribes to engage in government-to-government consultation.

The agency has a webpage about the issue at www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/ea/tribal-grizzly.php.

Grier, the Piikani chief, said that if there is an overabundance of grizzlies, the bears could be relocated from the Rocky Mountains west to the West Coast and south to Hopi land in Arizona.

Grier said grizzlies are native people’s guardians. “A being that has protected us since time immortal.”

Nolan Yellow Kidney, Blackfeet Sun Dance leader, recalled people embarking on spiritual fasting. During one pipe ceremony, a grizzly joined a fasting individual; another fasting native was joined by a sow and her two cubs while sleeping and could not recall ever getting a better night’s rest or feeling safer, he said.

Animals with hooves are for hunting and food, according to the Creator, said Jackson, of the Piikani Council. “Animals with claws you can’t hunt.”

Fish and Wildlife and corporate interests are driving the delisting process to allow grizzly hunting, Nuvamsa said. “We have to do what we can to save this sacred icon.”

Trophy hunters will take the biggest bears to display in their homes or offices, Jackson said. How will removing the most robust bears impact the GYE grizzly gene pool? 

Kidney said every creature from small to the large has a place in the ecosystem. “Everything in this world has a purpose.”

Wolves and grizzlies bring balance, he said, adding that the world is out of balance if one species is missing.

The tribes plan to send a copy of the new treaty to President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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