Grizzly End for Endangered Bears in Montana

Even legal black bear and coyote hunts can kill protected species

The seasonal hunt for black bears near Missoula, Mont. just ended. But it’s not just black bears who have been “harvested.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the death of a male grizzly who was killed May 16 by a hunter in the Johnson Creek drainage north of Bonner.

Unlike black bears, grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Violating the Endangered Species Act is a federal crime.

The shooting was likely the result of mistaken identity. It’s similar to the many times gray wolves, also protected under the Endangered Species Act, have been illegally poached or killed by coyote hunters. Wolves are especially vulnerable to the “shoot, shovel and shut up” actions of hunters and ranchers who don’t feel like abiding by environmental protection laws. Grizzlies are harder to hide. And in this instance, the hunter who shot the grizzly reported his mistake, as he is obligated by law to do.

Because of a loophole in the interpretation of the Act, called the McKittrick Policy, it’s often difficult for prosecutors to do their job. They have to prove what was in the mind of the hunter — that the shooter knew the true identity of the animal he or she shot — to get a conviction. This is difficult to prove. But federal protections have no teeth unless we can prosecute those who kill protected animals.

When it comes to violating the Endangered Species Act, the intention of the hunter should be irrelevant. It is the action, the crime, and the result of that crime that matters. If you pick up a gun with the plan to kill an animal, and there are similar-looking endangered animals in that territory, you better be damned sure who you’re shooting.

Black bears and grizzlies can vary in color, but differences like size, teeth, claws, head and neck are notable, especially the enormous hump in the shoulders of grizzly bears and the different profiles of their faces.

But that only proves the point: We should not allow the hunting of a similar-looking species in the territory of endangered species. There is no reason why anyone needs to hunt black bears or coyotes anymore than anyone needs to hunt wolves or grizzlies. If we want to protect grizzlies and wolves, we must also protect coyotes and black bears. That’s exactly why some want to remove protections from grizzlies and wolves instead of protecting all four keystone predators and the ecosystems that benefit from their presence.

According to a report in Helena’s Independent Record, a local resident observed that “this spring bear hunt is crazy anyway. Lots of hunters can’t tell the difference between bears. This could be female with cubs, in which case they just killed two, three or four bears.” (Hunters are not permitted to kill black bears with cubs).

And here’s the kicker: That bear was one of two endangered bears killed in Montana within a few weeks. Just two weeks later, a four year old bear was found shot, killed and hidden — dumped over a bridge into the Stillwater River. (State and federal officials are offering a reward for information about this case at 1–800-TIP-MONT.)

But beyond the failure of the law to protect these endangered bears (and of hunters to distinguish between species), a powerful lobby is working hard to delist grizzlies — that is, to remove their Endangered Species Act protections. Both these grizzlies were considered a part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Not far away, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, grizzlies are also vulnerable — their Endangered Species Act protections may soon be removed if right-wing lawmakers get their way.

Across the West, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, politicians secure their privilege by openly attacking legal protections for endangered animals like bears and wolves — using these animals to jump up their career ladders and pad their pockets. A majority of Americans want these animals protected, but a powerful minority doesn’t. Politicians cater to those wallet-feeders.

A Mother and Her Cubs, denning. Black bears. Photo: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

Writer Christopher Ketcham notes in National Geographic that the Endangered Species Act has kept grizzly bears and 200 other threatened species from the brink of extinction, despite catastrophic and senseless political maneuvers — like the lifting of the ban on the point-blank shooting of wolves and hibernating bears in their dens.

We must keep Endangered Species Act protections and make them work. Congressional conservatives are gearing up for a full-scale war on legal protections for wildlife and for wild lands. We must be ready and speak out on the importance of protecting grizzlies and other endangered species.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.