What Size Wilderness?

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 10, 2016 1

What patches, plots or parcels of wilderness will you settle for? Henry David Thoreau said, “It depends on how you are yarded.” ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Scarface is dead. Otherwise known as Bear No. 211, the Yellowstone National Park bruin was shot and killed just outside the park in Gallatin National Forest in November 2015. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the death just two weeks ago, on April 25, 2016.

Since grizzlies are currently listed as a threatened species and protected by both federal and state law, the service is investigating the incident.

According to a release published by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, “No. 211 was recognizable because of distinctive scars on the right side of his face, likely the result of typical fights with other male grizzlies for females during mating season or to claim deer and elk carcasses. No. 211 was known to many photographers and wildlife-watchers. For this reason, his life was often documented in the media.” You can find several movies of him on YouTube.

Why was he killed? For sport? Was it a mistake? Was it because someone took issue with the grizzly bear’s status as threatened on the Endangered Species List? Why wasn’t Scarface’s death announced sooner? We may never know the answers to these questions. It may turn out that he just brought the wilderness a little too close—to us.

The size of your “yard”

There are about 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. ©NPS photo by Neal Herbert, flickr

There are about 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. ©NPS photo by Neal Herbert, flickr

Grizzly bears are protected by the Endangered Species Act, but a growing population in the Yellowstone region from 136 in 1975 to about 700 today has led to a proposal to remove their protections there, potentially opening the door to hunting.

Some scientists say that’s not a good idea. Grizzly bears have all but disappeared from the continental United States, except in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and in a few other shreds of habitat. In total, there are about 1,800 grizzly bears in the Lower 48. One reason for their overall decline is that they have the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal in North America, besides humans.

A delisting was tried once before, in 2007. Environmentalists sued, and a federal court forced officials to redo an analysis of whitebark pine trees, the nuts of which are an important food for the bears. The trees have declined widely, and their numbers are expected to continue to fall as mountain pine beetles and our changing climate take their toll.

If delisting is successful this time—perhaps as soon as the end of 2016—park officials will continue to manage and protect the bears within Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres. But in the wild and rugged country around the park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming would take over management of the bears. That would probably mean a return to the hunting of grizzlies for sport in those states.

If and when grizzlies are delisted, the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will probably institute grizzly bear hunts. ©NPS photo by Jim Peaco

If and when grizzlies are delisted, the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will probably institute grizzly bear hunts. ©NPS photo by Jim Peaco

It seems to me as though there is something more at play here than science-based decisions. Henry David Thoreau once wrote about wilderness and how much of it each of us wants or will accept: “It depends on how you are yarded,“ he penned.

What patches, plots or parcels of wilderness will we settle for? In his book All the Wild that Remains, author David Gessner writes, “With each generation, we settle for less wildness, less freedom, less space. We begin to accept things we would have previously deemed unacceptable. That our e-mails will be read, that we will stare down at screens for hours, that it’s okay for drones to look down on us, that only crazy or dangerous individuals seek solace by going alone into the wilderness. We shrug, half-accepting our limited lives and damaged land. What can we do about it after all?”

Wider roaming for wolverines

This lack of accepting—and granting—a wider wilderness is seen with wolverines. The animals’ numbers are plummeting due to climate change. Reintroducing wolverines to places where they have been extirpated, such as in the Sierra Nevada Range or in the Colorado Rockies, would partially mitigate their demise. According to scientists, parts of those high-altitude mountain ranges are expected to be spared the worst effects of climate change, so restoring populations there could help the species to survive. Other solutions include limiting trapping, snowmobiling and other winter recreation in denning habitat.

Some say listing wolverine as endangered is detrimental to economic development. ©Harald Olsen/NTNU, flickr

Some say listing wolverines as endangered is detrimental to economic development. ©Harald Olsen/NTNU, flickr

However, the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming oppose listing the wolverine as endangered. They see an Endangered Species Act listing—even for an animal that lives mostly above 8,000 feet—as detrimental to economic development. Immense political pressure was brought to bear on this issue, particularly by those Western states. By law, endangered species decisions are supposed to be based on science, not politics or economics. On April 4, 2016, a U.S. District Judge declared that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to list wolverines as threatened or endangered was “arbitrary and capricious,” and is forcing the agency to reassess.

In my own state of Wisconsin, half of the senior science staff at the Department of Natural Resources was recently fired. What science now will guide policy in states such as mine?

Decision day

I hope today you will think of the size of the “yards” that wildlife such as grizzlies and wolverines deserve and need, and how you, in Thoreau’s words, are “yarded.” I think it’s especially imperative today, May 10, 2016, because it is the final day that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on the rights of our few remaining grizzly bears.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

One Comment »

  1. Steve Black May 16, 2016 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Hi Candy,
    A true tragedy of our time is watching the decline of the wilds. Younger generations need to run free outside of the concrete prisons and feel the majesty of creation which few are exposed to. Of course Ursus horriblis is an umbrella species that protects mny other animals and open spaces – not to mention the changing climate and threats to rare plants. What can we do except vote and speak up for those who can not.

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