Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Tom Udall join bipartisan effort in Congress to support Indian tribes in grizzly fight for rights

Senator Bernie Sanders and Crow Nation Chairman AJ Not Afraid

Published June 13, 2017

WASHINGTON – US Senate heavyweights Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have joined a bipartisan movement on Capitol Hill to compel the Department of Interior to uphold fundamental tenets of the federal-Indian trust responsibility in respect to tribal rights that are threatened by the imminent delisting from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone region. In a just-sent letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the senators express their “concern with the reported lack of meaningful consultation.”

“As you know, the federal government has a trust and treaty responsibility to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes when tribal interests may be impacted by actions of the federal government. However, tribes have indicated that the federal government, in particular the Fish and Wildlife Service, has abandoned that responsibility in its delisting process,” they write.

“The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe is categorized by the federal government as one of the ‘Associated Tribes of Yellowstone’ and yet we were completely ignored in this delisting process, despite our declaration, our resolution, and petition for inclusion. Denying us input is one more way that the government is attempting to sever us from our culture. They did it to our ancestors through boarding schools, and they are doing it to us today by failing to consult, hoping that if they ignore and deny us long enough we will forget vital parts of our culture, like our relationship with the grizzly bear,” says the tribe’s chairman, Brandon Sazue.

US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Senator Tom Udall with Crow Nation Chairman AJ Not Afraid and Chief Stan Grier of the Piikani Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Under Zinke’s purview, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is expected to remove protections from the grizzly this month, opening the door for states to begin trophy hunting seasons on the iconic bear considered sacred by a multitude of tribes. “Grizzly bears are profoundly important to North American tribes, so any federal action to delist grizzly bears must take into consideration tribal input on any impacts to tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and spiritual and religious freedoms,” insist 2016 presidential candidate Sanders, touted 2020 presidential contender Booker, and Udall, the Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

“The Grizzly Bear, historically, is a religious icon to virtually all tribal nations. The Fish & Wildlife Service promised us that it would conduct full and meaningful consultation with us but it turns out, those were only empty promises,” explains Chairman Ben Nuvamsa, former head of the Hopi Tribe.

Tribes have denounced the trophy hunts as “a regression to the Old West frontier mentality, masked as management.” In the previous two years, Yellowstone grizzlies have suffered record levels of human caused mortality without a hunt, the population of fewer than 700 having been reduced by some 17% over that period. Adding to the threats, in keeping with the Trump Administration’s position on climate change, in its proposed delisting rule the FWS denies that “climate change scenarios” will negatively impact grizzlies. However, one of the bears’ primary food sources, whitebark pine, has been reduced by 85% due to pine beetle infestation and blister rust caused by warming temperatures.

“It has been part of our lifeways and religion to safeguard all life in this intricate balance the Creator set in motion on Mother Earth. Everything has its gift to offer. With so many species being eliminated by development and resulting climate change, we cannot allow one more ‘delisting’ of a Sacred Being, the Grizzly Bear. The same is true with the Buffalo and the Eagle; our lives are intertwined. We, the Indigenous People, have had our entire existence impacted by loss of land and misuse of all the Natural Laws. Maybe we should join that list with the Sacred Ones – Endangered Species,” reflects Councilwoman Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation.

Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ranking Member on the House Committee on Natural Resources wrote Zinke in May and stressed, “In the historic The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, and through multiple resolutions and letters, Tribal Nations have raised concerns over the science being presented by the Service.” Echoed by Senators Udall, Sanders and Booker, Grijalva implored Zinke to “initiate a formal consultation process on this delisting before a decision is made” and that “impacted Tribal Nations should be included in the formulation of all grizzly bear management plans.”

In their letter, Congressmen Tom Cole (R-OK) and Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) also “urge” Zinke “to honor the mandatory pre-decision and meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes,” and reference the treaty initiated by the Piikani Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, now signed by 126 tribal nations, making it the most signed tribal treaty in history. “The treaty also proposes reintroducing the grizzly bear into its historic range within several tribal nations that have biologically suitable habitats. The proposal would include relocating the hunting quota from Greater Yellowstone and the Crown of the Continent to sovereign tribal lands.”

Representative Mullin acted as President Trump’s Native American Adviser during the transition. Mullin and Cole are the only tribal members in the House. The Republicans refer to Crow Nation Chairman AJ Not Afraid’s testimony at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing entitled “Identifying Indian Affairs priorities for the Trump Administration” at which the Crow leader described the treaty as, “a blueprint for the Crow and other tribal nations in this sphere, with the promise of cultural, economic and environmental revitalization.”

Congressman Grijalva warns of “irreparable harm” to tribes if “this premature, piecemeal and politically driven approach” continues, which, he states, “would violate the ESA and grievously undermine tribal rights.”

“This we know, as it goes with the Earth, so it goes with mankind,” concludes Councilwoman Camp-Horinek.

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