By Jesse Logan
My birth – a historical fact of little significance to anyone other than myself – occurred less than a week following D-day. Another D-day recently occurred, the delisting of Yellowstone Grizzlies – this D-day, the removal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&W) of Yellowstone’s grizzlies from Threatened and Endangered Species protection, is a historical fact of considerable significance, particularly if you happen to be grizzly or someone who cares about them or wildness and the wild places they represent. Delisting-Day occurred on August 1, 2017. It wasn’t the first of these latter D-days, the previous one occurred in 2007, and was subsequently reversed in court.
The reversal by the courts was based on sloppy and misleading science used by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) to justify delisting, primarily relating to the misrepresentation the seriousness of whitebark pine decline, a critical grizzly food resource.
This time around, the science is no less sloppy, but the obfuscation has improved. One effective strategy the IGBST has used is promoting the false narrative that ‘Science says’ it is time to delist, or, ‘science supports’ delisting. This is important because any decision to delist a species must be made, “solely on the basis of the best scientific … data available.” The false narrative of ‘science supports delisting,’ has been repeated so often by the IGBST that it has become accepted on face value by much of the media. But what does science really say? Let’s take a look.
A recent article published by The Ohio State University documented a disturbing bias on the part of government scientists when it came to the subject of delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies. In fact, members of state and federal agencies were found to be 2-3 times more likely to advocate delisting than scientists employed by academic institutions. What is scientific bias, and how might it effect the decision made by US Fish & Wildlife Service to delist Yellowstone’s Grizzlies?
Scientific bias is defined as “the assumption that a theory is true or false without evidence one way or another, or the attempt to dismiss or discourage research efforts to confirm or deny the theory – often on political or ideological grounds.” By this definition, the hotter the political topic, the greater the chance (probability) for bias. It’s hard to think of a resource management issue with more excess political baggage than grizzly delisting. So, what is the evidence for bias in the USF&W’s delisting decision?
The states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana have long resented Federal Protection of grizzlies in their states, and consider protection under the Threatened and Endangered Species Act a classic example of Federal overreach. In a May 24, 2012 letter to then Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming wrote, “The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee directed a team to evaluate existing data and to address concerns of the 9th Circuit on white bark pine as it relates to grizzly bear populations. This evaluation could take two years. Two years is too long and the cost is too great . [ emphasis added]”
Salazar’s response is even more troubling. Salazar stated, “All participants (in a meeting convened by the IGBST) agreed that the Yellowstone grizzly population was recovered and that declines in whitebark pine do not threaten the future of this Grizzly population.” Language in the remainder of Salazar’s letter leaves no doubt what the expected outcome of “scientific results” will be, and concluded by adding, “We look forward to a scientifically-sound decision which will validate [emphasis added] our State/Federal partnership as one of the greatest success stories under the Endangered Species Act.” It is hard for me, as a former federal scientist, to imagine a clearer directive for agenda driven science – and it came from the Secretary of the Interior. It suggests the result was determined (ordained) before the research was conducted into the actual fate of whitebark pine and the impact of its dramatic decline as a food source for grizzlies. The agenda clearly seems politically driven.
As the Mead/Salazar interaction indicates, the Obama Administration was not particularly friendly to conservation issues. However, the ambivalence of the Obama Administration pales by comparison to the overt hostility of the Trump administration, which seems hell bent on dismantling any federal science that deals with environmental issues. These Secretarial level appointments that are overtly antagonistic to the very mission of their bureaus, to drastic cuts in funding, to overt censorship. In the face of such inertia, what possible difference can a citizen, or even a group of citizens make? Although the system is badly bent, it’s not entirely broke, and citizens, particularly those united by a shared vision can yet make a difference, and we need to before it IS in fact too late.
The legal system is not the best, or even a particularly good, way to establish environmental policy, but at present, this is what we have. Organizations that have filed lawsuits protecting Yellowstone’s grizzlies in court include: EarthJustice representing the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and the National Parks Conservation Society; another has been filed jointly by Western Watershed Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council. In addition, the Western Environmental Law Center is representing Wild Earth Guardians, the Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals. Further, the Crow Nation is leading a coalition of other tribes and indigenous religious leaders in a challenge, based on the grounds that delisting the grizzly is in violation of their religion and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A good strategy for anyone concerned about the grizzly’s future in Yellowstone would be to funnel financial support to one (or several) of these organizations.
In future columns I plan to explore the implications of scientific bias on the “Best Science” criteria that is the legal foundation of the Endangered Species Act. In particular: the loss of critical foods; genetic isolation; and above all, climate change
Authors Note: A previous version of this article appeared in Mountain Journal.