fFrmer Hopi Chairman, Ben Nuvamsa
Published November 10, 2015
WASHINGTON—Tribal leaders took the fight to save grizzly bears from trophy hunters’ guns, and in the process defend tribal spiritual rights and sovereignty, to the highest offices of the federal government last week. What began with a loudly applauded announcement denouncing the delisting of the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by NCAI President, Brian Cladoosby, in the presence of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, concluded with a delegation of tribal leaders meeting with Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Mike Connor, and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director, Dan Ashe.
Over forty tribes have issued declarations and resolutions opposing the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the ESA, a status change that will hand management of the grizzly to the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, all of which intend to operate high-dollar trophy hunts of the grizzly on sacred and ancestral tribal homelands. Removing federal protections from the grizzly will also remove the existing protections on the lands the bear occupies, loosening restrictions on energy, livestock and timber leases on approximately two million acres of Greater Yellowstone.
“These are our treaty lands, our ancestral homelands,” Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Vice Chairman, Lee Juan Tyler, reminded Ashe and Connor.
Coalescing around GOAL Tribal Coalition, tribal nations state that delisting the grizzly is contrary to tribal interests and will cause irreversible damage to tribal cultural practices due to the significance of the grizzly in foundational narratives and ceremonies.
“The grizzly bear is sacred to us. We want the grizzly bear to remain protected. We do not want the states trophy hunting the grizzly bear,” insists Vice Chairman Tyler.
Tribes contend that it is an infringement of tribal sovereignty and a violation of the federal trust responsibility for the Department of Interior to disregard tribal interests and impose a delisting rule that benefits three states over a coalition of tribes from Montana to Arizona.
“This policy has clear implications for tribal religious and spiritual rights, potential threats to tribal sovereignty, negative economic impacts, and undermines tribal self-determination,” GOAL Co-founder, R. Bear Stands Last, told federal officials throughout the week.
“We are aware that it is the states that are driving the delisting and the trophy hunting of the grizzly bear, and that the federal government is bowing to the states,” says Vice Chairman Tyler.
The tribal delegation presented Director Ashe and Deputy Secretary Connor with a letter that reinforced tribes’ objections to delisting, and outlined current concerns. High on the list is what tribes consider FWS’s failure to consult, in contravention of a weight of executive orders, secretarial orders, federal acts and laws.
“There has been no meaningful consultation with us on this issue by our trustees, the federal government,” continues Vice Chairman Tyler. “A ‘meaningful’ consultation process is supposed to be followed by all federal agencies when decisions are being made that affect Indian tribes. This is a fiduciary trust responsibility, which has been disregarded by FWS in its attempts to delist the grizzly bear from the ESA.”
FWS has invited tribes to a webinar, which Deputy Secretary Connor defended as a step in the consultation process, maintaining that consultation “takes many forms.” Bear Stands Last challenged Connor on that assertion, and when pressed by GOAL Chairman, David Bearshield, to provide an insight into what Interior thought the consultation process should entail in this instance, Connor did not elaborate. The tribal delegation has urged tribes to boycott the webinar, which it described as a “PR stunt” in its letter.
Both Connor and Ashe claimed that FWS has written to “all the tribes in GOAL.” However, several tribal leaders, including Oglala Sioux Tribe President, John Yellow Bird Steele, state that they have received no communication from FWS.
“Contrary to the recent claims made by the FWS in the press, as President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, I have received no invitation from the FWS to initiate the formal consultation process on this issue,” President Steele wrote in a statement.
“We advised them that there’s nearly fifty federally recognized tribes that have a vested interest in protecting the grizzly, so the consultation process must take place so that we can work together to ensure the future of the grizzly bear,” says James Walks Along, Director of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
Walks Along became the face of tribal resistance to delisting the grizzly when he has forcibly removed from the floor during an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) meeting in Cody, Wyoming, last April, an incident captured on video. Connor apologized for the “disrespect” shown to Walks Along.
“The Department of the Interior needs to institute a moratorium on the delisting of the grizzly bear until proper consultation is addressed with each affected tribal nation respectively, so we can get better solutions for the future of the grizzly bear and for our people,” Vice Chairman Tyler asserts.
Despite tribes’ objections, Director Ashe informed the leaders that FWS still intends to issue the proposed rule to delist the grizzly bear by the end of the year. Ashe contends that issuing the proposed rule provides context for the consultation process, but the tribal delegation vehemently disagreed, and explained why the “thorough” and “meaningful” consultation with tribes mandated by President Obama must not only be initiated, but also concluded, before the proposed rule is issued.
“The consultation process should be initiated at the beginning of any type of proposal or project that may impact and concern us as sovereign nations and treaty tribes. We don’t want to hear about the rule to delist the grizzly bear after the fact,” insists Vice Chairman Tyler.
“Tribal input must be incorporated into the rule before it is written, otherwise tribes will have no influence,” reinforces Bearshield.
Director Ashe denied that the Yellowstone grizzly population had declined this year, but Bear Stands Last cited the government’s population estimate of 714, a drop of 6 percent, that was released two days prior to the meeting. Government statistics reveal that when hunter, agency, and other human caused mortalities in 2015 are subtracted, that estimate is reduced to 660 bears.
Part of the tribes’ alternatives to trophy hunting the grizzly is to return the Great Bear to tribal lands to create linkage zones between the two genetically isolated populations of Yellowstone and Glacier, and to enable the grizzly to roam in portions of its historic domain pre-contact. Ashe told former Hopi Chairman, Ben Nuvamsa, that FWS would be open to discussing initiatives to return grizzly bears to tribal lands that offer biologically suitable habitat, including in Nuvamsa’s homeland.
“Returning the grizzly to tribal lands, and tribes being partners in managing grizzlies and formulating their own grizzly bear management plans that reflect our cultural values is an issue that needs to be addressed,” says Vice Chairman Tyler.
Nuvamsa believes that FWS plans to move forward with delisting the grizzly despite the objections of tribal nations. “That became obvious today,” he said after the meeting. “It does not appear that they will entertain our request for full and meaningful consultation, and so we must demand that Secretary Jewell place a moratorium on delisting until there is full and open consultation with tribes.”
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