Today is the last day to hunt black bears near Missoula, Montana. But it’s not just black bears who have been “harvested.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are investigating the death of a male grizzly who was killed in the Johnson Creek drainage by a hunter on May 16th, north of Bonner. Grizzly bears, unlike black bears, are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Violating the ESA is a federal crime.
The mistake, so easily avoidable, reminds us of how many times Gray wolves, also protected under the Endangered Species Act, have been illegally poached or allegedly accidentally killed by coyote hunters. A loophole in the interpretation of the ESA, called the McKittrick Policy, makes it difficult for prosecutors to do their job (because they have to prove intent in the mind of the hunter). But we must legally prosecute those who kill federally protected animals or the federal protections have no meaning.
Wolves are vulnerable to the “Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up” actions of hunters and ranchers who don’t feel like abiding by environmental protection laws. Grizzlies are harder to hide. Yet these magnificent bears are found in some of the wildest lands in the lower 48 — without many people to come looking for them. In this instance, the hunter who shot the grizzly reported his mistake, as he is obligated by law to do.
But when it comes to violating the ESA, the intention of the hunter should be irrelevant. If you pick up a gun with the intention of killing an animal, and there are similar-looking endangered animals in that territory, you better be damned sure who you’re shooting. Our laws have to have real teeth.
Although black bears and grizzlies (who are also called brown bears) can vary in color, the size difference — in bulk, teeth, claws, head and neck— don’t really compare. But the enormous hump in the shoulders of grizzly bears and the different profiles of their faces is perhaps most notable.
But even if it wasn’t — even if a trained bear hunter was as easily confused by the species as the average person might be — that only proves the point: We should not allow the hunting of a similar-looking species in the territory of endangered species. There is no rhyme or reason why anyone needs to hunt black bears or coyotes anymore than anyone needs to hunt wolves or grizzlies. If we want to protect grizzlies and wolves, we must protect coyotes and black bears. And that’s exactly why some want to remove ESA protections from Grizzlies and wolves, instead of protecting all four keystone predators and the ecosystems that benefit from their presence.
According to a report in Helena’s Independent Record, a local resident observed that “this spring bear hunt is crazy anyway. Lots of hunters can’t tell the difference between bears. This could be female with cubs, in which case they just killed two, three or four bears.”
And here’s the kicker: that bear was one of two endangered bears killed in Montana within a two week period. Two weeks later, a four year old bearwas found shot, killed, and hidden — dumped over a bridge into the Stillwater River. (State and federal officials are offering a reward for information about this case at 1–800-TIP-MONT).
But beyond the failure of the law to protect (and of hunters to distinguish between species) these endangered bears, a powerful lobby is working hard to delist — that is, to remove Endangered Species Act protections from Grizzlies.
In the West, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, politicians secure their privilege by openly attacking legal protections for endangered animals like bears and wolves — using these animals to jump up their career ladders and pad their pockets. A majority want these animals protected. But a powerful minority doesn’t and the politicians cater to those wallet-feeders. They do so in denial of science: Grizzlies have only about 2% of their native range and do not meet the population standards of a “recovered species.”
Writer Christopher Ketcham notes in National Geographic that it is the Endangered Species Act (even with its flaws) that has kept grizzly bears and 200 other species from the brink of extinction. Despite catastrophic and mind-blowing, senseless political maneuvers — like the lifting of the ban on point-blank shooting wolves and hibernating bears in their dens in Alaska(can you imagine anything more cowardly?) even on wildlife refuges.
We must keep Endangered Species Act protections — and make them work. Congressional Conservatives are gearing up for a full-scale war on legal protections for wildlife and for wild lands. We must be ready and speak out on the importance of protecting grizzlies and other endangered species.