Published November 24, 2018
MISSOULA, Mont. — In one norm not yet dismantled by President Trump, his administration made an announcement on the eve of a holiday that wasn’t good news for its policy objectives. The Department of Interior has abandoned its previously stated intent of removing Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from the grizzly bear in the heartland of Blackfoot Confederacy and Confederated Salish and Kootenai country in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). For Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a resident of Whitefish, Montana, it is the second crushing defeat on the grizzly issue in a matter of weeks.
“We were on track to try and have a proposal, or at least have an evaluation of recovery and a potential proposal, out by the end of the calendar year,” said Hilary Cooley, Zinke’s so-called grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Cooley conceded that the Trump Administration’s defeat in Crow Tribe, et al v. Zinke, the legal challenge led by tribes and environmental groups to return protections to grizzlies in Yellowstone had derailed Interior’s policy. For tribes, the court ruling stopped trophy hunts of the sacred being and protects ancestral lands from being opened to extractive industry development.
“That’s put things on halt for both ecosystems. So we need to take a little time and figure out what this means, how to move forward,” Cooley summarized.
The announcement was welcomed by tribal leaders. “This is another historic victory for our people,” responded Chief Stan Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation and President of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs. “Once again, the coalition of conscience has prevailed in the defense of the sacred against senseless killing and industry’s desire to pillage our lands and leave us to deal with potentially catastrophic environmental consequences from fracking and other processes,” he said.
Due to a recent court decision favoring Solonex LLC and Texas billionaire W.A. Moncrief Jr., the 98-year-old patriarch “wildcatter,” the Blackfoot Confederacy’s Badger-Two Medicine area, a spiritual center on the Blackfeet Nation, continues to be threatened by fracking. In a report submitted to Cooley in January, the Blackfoot Confederacy warned, “The NCDE contains Bakken Shale, which has driven the boom in North Dakota and other parts of Montana. The Blackfeet Nation has deposits of Bakken Shale. For the grizzly population, having a swath of habitat bounded by Bakken Shale south of the border and Exshaw Shale in the Alberta Basin does not portend well.”
“As the elected leaders of the Blackfoot Confederacy, by opposing the Trump Administration on this issue we reaffirmed our commitment to the publicly stated positions of our Spiritual Leaders and Traditional Societies,” emphasized Grier. The Horn Society, Crazy Dogs and Brave Dogs all opposed the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly bear. Blackfeet Sun Dance leader, Nolan Yellow Kidney, was among the lead plaintiffs in Crow Tribe, et al v. Zinke.
“We are grateful the aligned efforts of conservationists and our Tribal allies led to the government delaying its rushed, politically motivated efforts to strip Northern Continental Divide grizzlies of vital ESA protections. We hope the feds will change their tune, adequately consult with the Tribes and follow the
best available science in future grizzly bear decisions,” reflected Bethany Cotton, Wildlife Program Director for Wild Earth Guardians.
“With this victory, we acknowledge the Blackfoot Confederacy and every tribal entity that contributed to this outcome, both in the Glacier and Yellowstone regions,” said Dr. David Bearshield, chairman of GOAL Tribal Coalition. GOAL was at the forefront of the grizzly fight, with Bearshield on the frontlines. “Let’s also remember Cheyenne Sun Dance Priest, Don Shoulderblade, who founded GOAL and sparked the flame that became the united tribal opposition to this desecration of the sacred, and his nephew, Bear Stands Last, who through his work with the Grizzly Treaty literally made history. I am proud of my relatives for their selfless work on behalf of our people and future generations,” added Bearshield.
Spiritual leader Shoulderblade has collaborated with ethnographer and artist Winfield Coleman on a forthcoming book, Almost Ancestors – The Grizzly Bear in Cheyenne Religion. Former Northern Cheyenne presidents Llevando Fisher and L. Jace Killsback had key roles in the grizzly struggle. Acting Northern Cheyenne President Conrad Fisher is among the most effective spokespeople for the issue.
The Grizzly Treaty advanced by the Piikani Nation, and an extensive public comment document submitted to the USFWS by the Blackfoot Confederacy on NCDE grizzly delisting in January 2018, are believed to have influenced Interior’s decision to retreat. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) previously referred to the Blackfoot submission as “an awesome and comprehensive resource.” The newly-reelected senator has also recognized the significance of The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration, now the most signed tribal treaty in history, with some 200-plus signatory nations.
The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), representing every tribe in Montana, Wyoming and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho, began lobbying against the proposed NCDE grizzly delisting in 2015. In March 2018, RMTLC Executive Director, Bill Snell, supported the Blackfoot Confederacy’s position in a series of letters to lawmakers, including Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), and advised, “Regrettably, USFWS is following the same pattern of violations in the NCDE grizzly delisting as it did in Yellowstone, which resulted in 18 tribes filing suit against the Department of Interior.”
Those violations were highlighted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who gave false testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee on June 22, 2017, when he committed to honor the federal-Indian trust responsibility and engage in government-to-government consultation with tribes affected by grizzly delisting. Instead, later that day, he announced the delisting of the grizzly in Greater Yellowstone.
Despite their success, tribal leaders remain cautious, as evidenced by recent testimony from the RMTLC, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, and Blackfoot Confederacy to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by ESA opponent, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). “It is clear from Chairman Barrasso’s proposed amendments to the ESA that a far greater emphasis would be placed upon the input of energy companies, with considerable influence being accorded extractive industry executives in ESA listing and delisting decisions. This approach is consistent with that enacted by Secretary Zinke at DOI, where vast swathes of public lands have now been opened to extractive industry,” the tribal alliance submitted.
Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), soon-to-be chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, shares the tribes’ concerns, particularly in the forthcoming lame duck session of Congress. “I think you’llsee uglier aspects during the lame duck,” he said of Republican-led efforts to dismantle the ESA. “For eight years we knew we could rely on President Obama to not let this get past his desk. Now you have this perfect storm,” he cautioned.
Tribes are hopeful that with a Democratic majority, the House will pass Rep. Grijalva’s Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act, that is closely aligned with the Grizzly Treaty.
“It is long past time that Secretary Zinke recognized the Grizzly Treaty and worked with the tribes on their grizzly relocation initiative,” concluded Wild Earth Guardians’ Bethany Cotton.
Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media.