Science (not politics) should drive recovery of species – October 2020

Readers of my column will see a column from time to time expressing how the current Endangered Species Act (ESA) needs some work.  For those of you who have read these columns and are tired of hearing about how the ESA doesn’t work you may want to stop reading now because I’m going to talk about another example of how the current ESA needs some changes.

For those of you interested in the grizzly bear issue, you probably saw how a judge in the 9th Circuit ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot delist the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  The delisting decision was challenged by the environmental community and some tribes.  The state of Wyoming, the US Justice Department, and several ag organizations, including WyFB, appealed this decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and to no-one’s surprise the original decision was upheld.

When the grizzly bear was listed as an endangered species, the Fish & Wildlife created a recovery plan which was developed by wildlife scientists.  The plan called for around 500 or so grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area before they would be considered recovered.  One of those details that haunts natural resource managers is how do you count something like grizzly bears?  Since grizzly bears can’t be rounded up and run down a chute so we can count them, a computer model was developed by wildlife professionals.  The idea is to take information that could be obtained and use it to estimate how many grizzly bears there are on the landscape.  Like most computer models, it isn’t exact.  Wildlife professionals have for some time felt that the model used to estimate grizzly bear numbers probably underestimated their numbers.  Of course, as time and techniques improved it was inevitable that a new model would be developed that would give a better estimate of how many grizzly bears were wandering around the country.

Therein lies one of the opportunities for a legal challenge.  The new model for estimating grizzly bear numbers results in more grizzly bears than the old model.  You would think that this would make folks who are concerned about grizzly bears happy.  And to some degree I suppose they are, but instead of supporting the Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to delist grizzly bears, they challenged the agency.  At the heart of the computer model challenge is that if you have a more accurate model that results in more grizzly bears they feel the number for recovery should also be increased.  It’s an argument that eludes me.  If I need 100 head of replacement heifers every year and I get a low count on my cows one day but a month later I get a more accurate count, it doesn’t change the fact that I still need 100 head of replacement heifers.

If scientists say you need 500 grizzly bears running around the area to feel confident there would be enough grizzly bears 10 years or 50 years from now, how does counting them better change that number?  This makes sense to most people but unfortunately when one can find the “right” judge, logic goes out the window and we are left with a species which scientifically has met the recovery goal, but a judge won’t let them be delisted.

That is why the ESA needs changed.  We in Wyoming have seen the same thing happen to wolves and now grizzly bears.  Whether anything ever gets done with ESA amendments is questionable, but the statute becomes more and more tarnished when citizens see that science doesn’t drive recovery under the ESA but politics does.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President

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