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Of Bias And Bears: Is Delisting Greater Yellowstone's Grizzlies Based On Science Or Politics?

Retired Forest Service scientist Jesse Logan says the rationale for removing federal protection for bruins doesn't hold up to scrutiny

Mother's Watch, photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
Mother's Watch, photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
My birth - a historical fact of little significance to anyone other than myself - occurred less than a week following D-Day. Another D-day recently occurred, the delisting of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population. This D-day, the removal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service of Yellowstone’s grizzlies from protection under the Endangered Species Act, is a historical fact of considerable significance, particularly if you happen to be a grizzly or someone who cares about them or wildness and the wild places they represent.
Delisting-Day occurred on August 1, 2017. It wasn’t the first of these latter D-days, a previous one occurred in 2007, and was subsequently reversed in court.

The reversal by the courts then was based on, what I consider, as a retired researcher, to be sloppy and misleading science used by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to justify removal of federal bear protection, primarily relating to misrepresenting the seriousness of whitebark pine decline, a critical grizzly food resource.

This time around, the science is no less sloppy, but the obfuscation has improved. One effective strategy the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has used is promoting the false narrative that “science says” it is time to delist, or,  that ‘science supports’ delisting. This is important because any decision to delist a species must, by law be made, “solely on the basis of the best scientific … data available.” The false narrative of “science supporting delisting” has been repeated so often by the grizzly bear study team that it has become accepted on face value by much of the media. But what does science really say? As a scientist myself, I say let’s take a look.

A recent article published by The Ohio State University  documented a disturbing bias on the part of government scientists when it came to the subject of delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies. In fact, members of state and federal agencies were found to be two to three times more likely to advocate delisting than scientists employed by academic institutions. What is scientific bias, and how might it effect the decision made by US Fish & Wildlife Service to delist Greater  Yellowstone’s grizzlies?

Scientific bias is defined as “the assumption that a theory is true or false without evidence one way or another, or the attempt to dismiss or discourage research efforts to confirm or deny the theory -often on political or ideological grounds.” By this definition, the hotter the political topic, the greater the chance (probability) for scientific bias. It’s hard to think of a resource management issue with more excess political baggage than grizzly delisting. So, what is the evidence for bias in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting decision?

The states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana have long resented federal protection of grizzlies and consider protection under the Endangered Species Act a classic example of federal overreach. In a May 24, 2012 letter to then Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, Wyoming Gov. Matt. Mead forcefully requested immediate delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Salazar’s response to Mead’s letter is, to me, even more troubling. Salazar stated, “All participants (in a meeting convened by the grizzly bear study team) agreed that the Yellowstone grizzly population was recovered and that declines in whitebark pine  do not threaten the  future of  this Grizzly population.”

Language in the remainder of Salazar’s letter leaves no doubt what the expected outcome of “scientific results” will be, and he concludes by adding, “We look forward to a scientifically-sound decision which will validate [my emphasis added]  our State/Federal partnership as one of the greatest success stories under the Endangered Species Act.” It is hard for me, as a former federal scientist who spent years of my life dealing with whitebark and other species, to imagine a clearer directive for agenda driven science - and it came from the Secretary of the Interior. It suggests the result was determined (ordained) before the research was conducted into the actual fate of whitebark pine and the impact of its dramatic decline as a food source for grizzlies. The agenda clearly seems political.
"The political appointees serving under the President and Mr. Zinke have demonstrated overt antagonism to the very mission of their bureaus, drastically cutting, and engaging in overt censorship." —Jesse Logan
The Trump Administration seems hell bent on dismantling any federal science that deals with environmental issues, all the way from Secretary Zinke’s level on down. The political appointees serving under the President and Mr. Zinke have demonstrated overt antagonism to the very mission of their bureaus, drastically cutting, and engaging in overt censorship. In the face of this, what possible difference can a citizen, or even a group of citizens make?

Although the system is badly bent, it’s not entirely broken, and citizens, particularly those united by a shared vision can yet make a difference. We need to do it before it is in fact too late.

The legal system is not the best, or even a particularly good, way to establish environmental policy, but at present, this is what we have. Organizations that have filed lawsuits protecting Yellowstone’s grizzlies in court include: EarthJustice representing the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and the National Parks Conservation Society; another has been filed jointly by Western Watershed Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council. In addition, the Western Environmental Law Center is representing Wild Earth Guardians, the Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals. Further, the Crow Nation is leading a coalition of other tribes and indigenous religious leaders in a challenge, based on the grounds that delisting the grizzly is in violation of their religion and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  

In the future, I will explore the implications of scientific bias on the “best science” criteria that is the legal foundation of the Endangered Species Act. In particular: the loss of critical foods; genetic isolation; and above all, climate change.  These aren’t issues that are abstractions for me. They at the center of my career as a forest ecologist.
Jesse Logan
About Jesse Logan

Jesse Logan is literally a man of the woods. Much of his former career as a civil servant was spent studying why forests of the American West live and die. He amassed an impressive body of work publishing papers as a researcher. He is also revered, even among millennial-aged telemark skiers, for his ability to hold his own off-piste with wayfarers a third his age.
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