Late winter in the northern hemisphere harkens a time of quickening, rapid growth and change no matter where you look. Robins, English sparrows, northern flickers and black-capped chickadees are once again bustling with activity, crocuses and other early blooming flowers are adding color to the slowly greening landscape, and overnight snows melt quickly into the earth, feeding natural rhythms and cycles that have nurtured earth and its inhabitants for eons.
Of course, human-driven forces and processes have also been around for a long while, too. Tensions between “developed” and “developing” nations, as well as between large predators and agricultural and ranching communities immediately come to mind. Add to that the seemingly never-ending struggle of preserving and conserving natural resources versus their extraction on publicly held lands, or on lands of often already displaced people with little to no political clout or voice, and you’ve got a maddening mix of competing forces and interests which never seems to abate.
Sometimes dramatic progress is made, such as this past December, when over 190 nations meeting in Paris committed to reduce carbon and other emissions in response to rapid climate change. Sometimes, it seems that when we look around, we are smacked by setbacks, which has been the case around here in Big Sky Country as of late.
In early March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (G.Y.E.) as a recovered species. Thus management of grizzlies could soon be handed over to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, six different U.S. national forests (responding to three different regional headquarters), other federal and state land agencies, and a patchwork of private lands, replete with conflicting missions, goals and attitudes toward legally hunting and otherwise managing grizzlies within their respective boundaries..
This could happen by 2017 if not sooner, and while grizzly numbers have indeed rebounded over the past 40 years in the region, Greater Yellowstone remains an island ecosystem whose natural integrity is being threatened on multiple fronts. Continuing to manage this iconic, often maligned animal on an ecosystem-wide basis would be the wise thing to do, for when you remove grizzlies from their legal protections, it makes it easier for other forces to impact the long-term health and viability of their diminishing habitat, and of all other species that dwell there, too.
Greater Yellowstone is indeed a wild island 200 miles distant and disconnected from other grizzly bear strongholds such as the Bob Marshall-Great Bear-Scapegoat wilderness areas and Glacier National Park., where grizzlies will continue to receive protection under The Endangered Species Act. Delisted G.Y.E. grizzlies will be hard pressed to successfully disperse in search of new habitat, to adapt to conditions impacted by climate change, to respond to shortages of critical foods, and avoid conflicts in a human-dominated landscape as they do so.
The G.Y.E. bears, once delisted, would also have less genetic variability and resilience as they become more isolated from their better protected brethren farther north and west in Montana.. Montana U.S. Senator Steve Daines doesn’t think the delisting of grizzlies should stop with the Greater Yellowstone population-he advocates delisting of grizzlies throughout their range in the Northern Rockies. He neglects to mention that if this were to happen, public lands without protections for grizzlies or wilderness designation equals a green light for increased habitat fragmentation and motorized use, and for extractive industry to operate and profit in these untrammeled places..
Fortunately, within national parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton, grizzlies will continue to remain protected and not hunted, even if G.Y.E. grizzly bear delisting were to happen. The National Park Service continues to support the big picture here of connectivity, The N.P.S. Yellowstone National Park website states that “Efforts to reduce conflicts with people and preserve habitat for dispersal, and eventually, connecting with other populations outside of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will be essential for future restoration.”*
By protecting areas large and contiguous enough to support grizzlies, we also support healthy watersheds, clean air, and an incredibly wild and attractive place for people to live near by and to recreate in. This also causes problems, as folks in Greater Yellowstone can attest to. The same week that G.Y.E. grizzlies were proposed for de-listing, a malfunctioning pipe at the Yellowstone Club in the Big Sky Sewer District spilled 35 million gallons of sewage water into the south branch of the West Fork of the Gallatin River.
The effluent wastewater was deemed to not be a significant threat to human health, but what about to its fragile blue-ribbon fisheries, and the integrity of the watershed? What about to farming and ranching communities downstream? Big Sky and the Yellowstone Club are not incorporated towns or cities where everyday citizens have a voice. You have to be a member of their homeowners’ association(s) in order to have one.
Shoddy construction practices, minimal oversight and private gain seem to dominate the environment there, yet everyone downstream ultimately pays the price when human-caused shit storms happen. Flint, Michigan comes to mind as well. Short-sighted short cuts serve no one.
These developments and setbacks remind me not to be naïve, not to take things at face value and assume that things will always be alright for grizzly bears, the wild lands that sustain them, and us. They remind me to be vigilant, to advocate for something that is bigger than all of us individually. They remind me that we are all connected to a larger life and to the lives of future generations, and that through greater honesty and transparency, we can transform the rampant complacency, apathy and cynicism found throughout the world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I refuse to be silent. My passion for nature and the wild sparks something in me that makes me a fierce and relentless advocate on their behalf. It’s vital for all of us to use our voice for something we are passionate about. Raise your voice, refuse to be silent. Your voice matters. We all matter.
*SOURCE OF GRIZZLY BEAR QUOTE www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bearesa.htm