Tribes Want Protections To Remain For Sacred Grizzly Bears

Wyoming is the first Northern Rockies state to initiate a hunting season for grizzly bears in over 40 years. Yet hunting grizzlies is an anathema to 850,000 people who opposed removal of endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzlies (“delisting”) in comments and petitions submitted last year to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). This represents about 99.99% of all comments received by the FWS.

Notable scientists such as Jane Goodall, George Schaller, and E.O. Wilson, and scientific societies such as the American Society of Mammalogists and Society for Conservation Biology, also filed comments highly critical of the government’s plans to drop protections and open the door for state-sponsored trophy hunting. In fact, these experts were so passionate that I could not resist filming interviews with some of them (link).

But what’s even more astonishing to me has been the tsunami of protest from Tribes, tribal traditional societies, and medicine men to the FWS’s removal of ESA protections. But this outpouring from the Tribes is consistent with unprecedented tribal opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the Keystone pipeline, and, more recently, the decision to eviscerate national monument protections for Utah’s Bears Ears.  In all these cases, Indians and non-Indians have united under the banner of protecting water, wildlife, and our sacred relationship with the earth.

Although I have worked as an advocate for grizzly bears for more than thirty years, I have never seen anything like this tribal uprising. Because of their legitimacy and bipartisan nature, Tribes hold the promise of changing the dynamics surrounding a host of conservation issues in the West. (More on this later.)

But whether that happens or not, I can say that my work with the Tribes has transformed me, changing my views on Indian people, their aspirations, and the vision of a different relationship with the earth. And this work reminds me of the importance of basic courage, the conviction to simply stand your ground. As the late Tom Petty sang:

I’ll stand my ground

Won’t be turned around

And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down

And I won’t back down.

Importantly, Tribal efforts have not been limited to comments, protests and lawsuits. They also aim to redefine what grizzly bear recovery looks like.

The Grizzly Treaty

During the past year, Tribal leaders have crisscrossed the country circulating a positive vision for grizzlies in a treaty called “The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration” (link). In 2016 about 300 people, including tribal representatives and their families from Montana, Alberta, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and South Dakota gathered at a treaty signing event at Lake Lodge in Grand Teton Park. Only once before, in a case related to buffalo, had Tribes developed a treaty expressly with the purpose of protecting an animal.

Afterwards, Tribal members reflected that they saw this as an historical event. One family, the Walks Alongs of Lamedeer, Montana, had 3 generations in attendance: James Walks Along who represented the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, his daughter Kinsley and his granddaughter SadieBlu.

“To us, [hunting grizzlies] would be like trophy hunting our grandparents,” says Chief Stan Grier of the Piikani Nation, who initiated the Grizzly Treaty.  “This treaty between our nations is not just about the preservation of this sacred being, the grizzly bear, or the protection of one river, this is a struggle for the very spirit of the land – a struggle for the soul of all we have ever been – or will ever become,” he said. “Within this struggle to protect the grizzly, and thus the land — as the grizzly, in turn, protects with the water — we find many of our struggles: the struggle to defend our sovereignty; the struggle to defend our treaty rights; the struggle to preserve and enforce consultation mandates; the struggle to defend and strengthen our spiritual and religious freedoms. In summary, we have an ongoing struggle to make the government uphold its trust responsibility to Tribal Nations.”

The Grizzly Treaty since traveled from Jackson to Canada and across the country several times. To date, the treaty has been signed by some 200 tribes, from the Mohawks on the Eastern Seaboard to the Karuk on the Pacific Coast. This is now the most signed of any tribal treaty in history.

Not since the Indian campaigns waged by Tecumseh roughly 200-years ago have so many tribes united around common causes in the spirit of Tecumseh’s famous admonitions: “…we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire! Brothers, we are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens.”