As grizzly bear activity has filled Facebook newsfeeds and newsroom email boxes this spring, Congress has launched its own bid for bear attention.

On Wednesday, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, gets a hearing on his “Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act (H.R. 2532) before the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife.

Grijalva’s bill would rearrange the legal landscape for grizzly bear recovery by greatly expanding American Indian participation. While leaving in place the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that’s overseen the bear’s recovery for more than three decades, it would add members of any federally recognized Indian tribe “whose tribal land is … located within the historical range of the grizzly bear pre-Lewis and Clark Expedition (and) suitable to support grizzly bear populations.”

The bill also creates a Grizzly Bear Scientific Committee with tribal representatives from each of the six existing regional recovery areas. That committee will study the feasibility of reintroducing grizzlies on “tribal land that is located within the historical range of the grizzly bear and is suitable to support grizzly bear populations.”

That could trigger a geographically huge change in grizzly politics. Ursus arctos horribilis used to roam from North Dakota to northern Mexico and all the way west to the California coast. Its six present-day recovery areas in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington have only two reservations with active grizzly management: the Blackfeet and Flathead.

But the Piikani Nation Treaty released in 2016 has signatories from nearly 200 tribes, although not all participants represent elected tribal governments. It demands full consultation between the United States government on grizzly management, prohibition of trophy hunting of grizzlies and reintroduction of bears to suitable tribal lands.

“There is no soundbite that can communicate the importance of the grizzly in our cultures, but the fact that our ancestors wouldn’t say the name of the grizzly out of respect speaks to the Great Bear’s cultural significance,” Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council senior advisor and Blackfeet tribal member Tom Rodgers said in a letter of support for Grijalva’s bill. “It is time that tribal nations had input and parity in decisions that will determine the future survival of our sacred ancestor, the grizzly bear.”

Rodgers was scheduled to testify for Grijalva’s bill on Wednesday, along with Benjamin Nuvamsa of the Hopi Bear Clan in Arizona and Lynnette Grey Bull of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center senior attorney Jonathan Wood and Brian Nesvik of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department were expected to testify against the bill.

“(W)e believe that the creation of the Grizzly Bear Scientific Committee is not only unnecessary and redundant, but also an affront to the concepts of state management and state-federal cooperation, both of which are fundamental priorities for the sporting conservation community,” members of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation wrote in opposition to Grijalva’s bill. “On its face, H.R. 2532 does not advance the concept of collaborative wildlife management because it fails to recognize the monumental effort that states, federal agencies and others have undertaken to recover grizzly bears in places such as the GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem). In 1975, when grizzly bears were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, there were as few as 136 grizzlies in the GYE. Today, through the investment of countless hours and dollars and the application of science-based management principles, the population segment contains upwards of 700 bears, at or near the GYE’s carrying capacity.”

Grijalva’s bill would ban all hunting or killing of grizzly bears, except for scientific, Indian religious or protection of agricultural interests or public safety. Grizzlies in experimental, nonessential reintroduced populations could also be killed.

Wildlife managers in Wyoming and Idaho authorized grizzly hunting seasons last year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies in 2017. However, a court challenge overturned that move last September, canceling the hunts hours before they were to begin. Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission opted to delay a grizzly hunting decision while the legal challenges were going on.

The lawsuit, Crow Tribe v. Zinke, was decided on the federal government’s failure to analyze how delisting grizzlies in one recovery zone might affect smaller populations of bears elsewhere. So it never addressed a second argument put forward by a coalition of Indian tribes and organizations claiming cultural and spiritual rights to grizzly recovery.

The complaint specifically said tribes wanted to restore the grizzly bear, not just to recovery status, but as a resident species on several reservations. They argued that sport hunting “profoundly disrupts, if not entirely prevents, the GYE grizzly bears’ sustainable recovery to its full habitat range, including lands within the jurisdictional boundaries of the Tribes and/or their treaty or aboriginal lands, including culturally and spiritually significant lands.”

There’s already precedent for Indian religious entitlement to the feathers of bald and golden eagles. Were they to claim such entitlement to grizzly bears, which wander in and out of their reservations, that could extend to protection from any form of discretionary hunting. The district court brief forecast a potentially bloody clash when someone making a religious rights case in the presence of a grizzly trophy hunter “will result in not only physical danger, but civil and criminal liability as well; accordingly this conference of (state hunting) rights coerces plaintiffs into complicity with behaviors that contravene plaintiffs’ sincere religious beliefs.”

In other words, what happens if an Indian stands between a hunter and a grizzly bear it considers sacred? Is that hunter harassment? Or an exercise of Freedom of Religion?

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