Urbanites glamorize deadly bears that attack ranchers

William Perry Pendley

The grizzly bear is in the news, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s removal of a massive, isolated, and thriving population of the predator from the Endangered Species Act list to allow management by western wildlife officials. That drew lawsuits by several radical environmental groups that argue there are too few grizzly bears, to which three western states responded in a rare show of support for a federal Endangered Species Act program. Days ago, ranchers from Wyoming and their associations joined those lawsuits to put human faces on an environmental cause célèbre supported by coastal urban elites.

“It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize grizzly bears,” writes Scott McMillion, author of Mark of the Grizzly: Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned. “They are so much like us. They … love sugar and meat and fat. They stand upright, wander, are curious, get angry, can be jealous, possessive, and promiscuous. They spank their children. And they are so much stronger than us [‘and incredibly fast’].” It’s little wonder the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is the subject of such wild fascination and idle curiosity for those outside the rural West.

Wyomingites like Mary E. Thoman of La Barge (population 551) and Charles C. Price of Daniel (population 150), who graze their livestock south of Yellowstone National Park, know the grizzly bear is indeed “horrible” and even “dreadful.” In 2016, for example, the Thomans lost 8 ewes and 15 lambs to grizzly bears and suffered massive indirect costs from grizzly bear activity. Worse yet, one of their employees was nearly killed while guarding a flock in 2010. In 2017, Charles Price, along with his fellow ranchers in the Upper Green River Valley, lost 71 cattle to the grizzly bear, and endured indirect economic losses because of grizzly bear activity. That is why, along with the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and Wyoming Stock Growers Association, they entered the lawsuits.

In 1975, two years after enactment of the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated the grizzly bear as a threatened (not an endangered) species. In 1982, the agency issued its first recovery plan for the species by identifying six ecosystems within the coterminous United States. Over the decades, much to the horror of rural western residents and to the detriment of their economies, the FWS continually proposed audacious recovery plans.

In 1996, the FWS approved designation of grizzly bear populations that are distinct, separate, and significant from other grizzly populations. In 2007, the agency designated grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — a 9,200 square mile area (the size of New Hampshire) in northwestern Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and southwestern Montana — as a “distinct population segment” and removed it from the Endangered Species Act list. Last summer, after extensive revision and research, following a remand from a legal challenge, the agency issued a new, 133-page rule. It noted, among other matters: more than 700 bears roam the area (the original goal was 500); there is only a 1 percent chance the area’s bears will go extinct in the next 100 years; the grizzly has doubled its occupied range since the 1980s; and the bears have successfully recolonized 92 percent of the region’s suitable habitat. Still, that is not enough for radical environmental groups.

Charles Price, whose ranching family is in its fourth, fifth, and six generations in the region, knows the importance of Wyoming having the authority to manage the bear population consistent with human economic and safety needs. A former commissioner of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, he and his colleagues were often frustrated by the intransigence of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the inflexibility of the Endangered Species Act. Mary E. Thoman, whose family arrived from Austria around 1900 to homestead near Kemmerer, where they still ranch, spent decades attempting to educate well-meaning outsiders about real life grizzly bears and not the ones of their fantasies. She hopes she will have more luck with the judge.

William Perry Pendley is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, has argued cases before the Supreme Court and worked in the Department of the Interior during the Reagan administration. He is the author of Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today.