LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The nation's grizzlies are caught up in court. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried twice to take the iconic bears off the endangered species list. Twice, it's failed, losing to environmental groups. The agency says it will appeal. And the back-and-forth is frustrating some wildlife officials, who worry it could damage support for the bears and the Endangered Species Act itself. NPR's Nathan Rott has this story from Montana.
(SOUNDBITE CAR DOOR SHUTTING)
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Stepping out into a windswept field, it takes Trina Jo Bradley all of about six steps to find what she's looking for.
TRINA JO BRADLEY: The wind has blown so much that it's going to be hard. But see? Like, here's a track right here.
ROTT: A bear track - five toes and a wide paw pressed into the shallow snow.
BRADLEY: That's a big ol' foot right there.
ROTT: Yeah, it is.
Reaching down, Bradley's outstretched fingers cover maybe a third of the imprint. A gust of wind blows through leafless trees.
BRADLEY: Yeah, that's the one you don't want to be like, oh. Oh, there he is right there.
ROTT: Bradley is a rancher. And she's got a wry sense of humor about grizzly bears because she has to. Growing up here in northwest Montana on the Rocky Mountain front, she rarely saw grizzly bears. Now...
BRADLEY: There's bears everywhere.
ROTT: In the meadows, sheltering near trees, sometimes, right next to her house.
BRADLEY: We like to watch them. We watch them out the living room window. And, you know, as long as they mind their own business and stay out of our cows, I could really care less if they're here. I enjoy having them here, and I think most ranchers do.
ROTT: Bradley, also like most ranchers, has been largely accommodating of grizzly bears as their population has rebounded and they've spread from the nearby mountains into the more populated plains. They've changed how they put their cows out to pasture, changed how they calve and store food, working with wildlife biologists to try to find ways to minimize conflict. But now Bradley is just frustrated - frustrated because despite those efforts and an increase in grizzly populations, the bears are still on the endangered species list and under federal control.
BRADLEY: I would like to see the Endangered Species Act do exactly what it was written for. And when a species is recovered, it's done. And then it goes to the state to manage it.
ROTT: Bradley believes the state of Montana would better manage bears, that it would be more responsive, say, when a grizzly gets into a pasture. State biologists contend that, really, not that much would change outside of a highly controversial proposed hunt. The real source of folks' frustration here, they say, runs deeper. Here's Wesley Sarmento, Montana's bear biologist for Bradley's area.
WESLEY SARMENTO: People that are living with endangered species feel like their rights are being infringed upon and that recovery goals are going beyond what was originally agreed to.
DAN ASHE: We risk having the bear become the symbol of what people will call overreach, right? - federal government overreach.
ROTT: Dan Ashe was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Barack Obama. And before we go any further, it might be helpful to have some background. When grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were put on the endangered species list in 1975, there were just a few hundred left south of Canada, holed up in Yellowstone National Park and a few mountain ranges along the northern border. The listing put in place strict federal protections for the bears - protections that would remain until the bears were recovered. The problem now is nobody can agree on what recovered means. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that grizzlies in the Yellowstone area and northwest Montana have been recovered for more than a decade.
Wildlife groups and tribal governments believe the bears are still threatened by humans and climate change, that the populations are too isolated and that recovery goals were set too low to begin with - arguments that they keep winning in court. Ashe thinks there's no question that Yellowstone-area grizzlies are recovered.
ASHE: The question at this point around whether they should be delisted - it's kind of taken on a - it's more of a values-based question.
ROTT: Meaning it's less a question about the Endangered Species Act and more a question about the ethics of trophy-hunting, for example. Some states are planning to hunt the bears after delisting. It's a question of what's good enough. Grizzlies still only occupy 2 percent of their historic range. Surely, they can be recovered more. Ashe says those are valid debates to have. But he worries that having those debates in the courtroom over and over again...
ASHE: Feeds this dialogue that the Endangered Species Act is broken and that, you know, once a species goes on the list, it is difficult to impossible to get it off.
ROTT: Arguments that opponents to the act, particularly congressional Republicans, use all of the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
JOHN BARRASSO: When it comes to the Endangered Species Act, the status quo is not good enough.
LIZ CHENEY: When we've got a situation where fewer than 2 percent of species have ever been recovered, it tells you that it's an act that we've clearly got to make changes to.
JIM INHOFE: To me, it shows that that system is broken.
ROTT: According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there were 116 attacks against the Endangered Species Act in the last Congress alone.
BETHANY COTTON: All these riders and all these stand-alone bills just keep failing. And I think that's largely because public support for the Endangered Species Act is actually very, very high.
ROTT: Bethany Cotton is with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that has sued to keep the grizzly bear listed. She and other wildlife groups think those attacks are disingenuous. Wildlife conservation takes a really long time. And the act has been incredibly successful at preventing extinction. Cotton also thinks that Ashe's concern, that the back-and-forth over grizzly-delisting is eroding public support for the act, is overblown.
COTTON: That concern has been sort of a threat that's been leveled for over a decade. And we haven't seen that be proven true. We're seeing tolerance and efforts at coexistence higher than ever before. We're seeing public support for the Endangered Species Act at similar or higher levels than has historically been the case.
ROTT: And with the current makeup of Congress, she notes, it's less likely that an attack on the Endangered Species Act would stick. For wildlife officials on the ground, though, the more immediate concern is what the back-and-forth does to local support for grizzlies.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)
ROTT: Back at Trina Jo Bradley's northwest Montana ranch, standing next to a fresh set of grizzly tracks, she says some people here feel like the system is rigged, that bears will never get off the endangered species list no matter what they do.
BRADLEY: My dad is a prime example.
ROTT: He used to go to bear meetings, Bradley says, and work with biologists to accommodate grizzlies, hoping they deal with the problem bears.
BRADLEY: But he never made any progress. And his neighbors were like that, too.
ROTT: The interests of the bears seem to outweigh the interests of the ranchers.
BRADLEY: They got to the point that they don't even call the bear biologists if they need to.
ROTT: Chris Servheen, the nation's first grizzly bear recovery coordinator, says this is his biggest concern.
CHRIS SERVHEEN: The future of grizzly bears is in the hands of those people. It's not in the hands of the agencies or the courts or the environmental groups. It's in the hands of the people that live, work and recreate in bear habitat.
ROTT: Servheen says he spent decades getting buy-in from those folks.
SERVHEEN: And if those people feel that no matter what they do, nothing's ever going change, nothing's ever good enough, then they won't invest the time and the effort in helping us get to recovery.
ROTT: And that, he says, doesn't bode well for grizzly bears or any other species that needs protection. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KERALA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.