White House

Will Barack ‘Black Eagle’ Obama save the grizzly bears?

For Lee Juan Tyler, shooting a grizzly bear would be just as unthinkable as killing a member of his family.

“It’s a sacred animal, our brother, our sister. It would be like going out there and murdering,” said Tyler, vice chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Fort Hall, Idaho.

On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the grizzly bear from the federal endangered species list, allowing the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana to manage the bears and allow hunting.

Nearly 40 tribes in Western states are counting on President Barack Obama to intervene.

As the fight heats up, tribal officials say they may hold the ultimate trump card: a president in the White House whom they consider to be one of their own.

That would be Barack Black Eagle, the adopted son of a Crow Tribe family in southern Montana.

As a freshman senator campaigning for president in May 2008, Obama made a stop on the Crow Indian Reservation, where he became part of a new family. Hartford and Mary Black Eagle adopted him as their son during a private traditional Native American ceremony, giving him the new name and making him an honorary tribal member.

Since then, tribal leaders say they’ve never had a better friend in the White House.

“Obama has advocated for Indian ways more than any other president of the United States,” Tyler said last week when he attended the National Congress of American Indians annual legislative summit in Washington, D.C. “You can’t take that away from him.”

The long-running battle over the grizzly pits tribes and environmental groups against ranchers and state officials who argue that there are too many bears in the Yellowstone region and they constitute a threat to public safety.

On Thursday, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the recovery of the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone region “stands as one of America’s great conservation successes,” with the population rising from as few as 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 or more today.

“The recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear represents a historic success for partnership-driven wildlife conservation under the Endangered Species Act,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

Mike Keckler, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise, said the delisting is “long overdue.”

“We have a very healthy population, and it is time for the bear population to be turned over to the states – Idaho, Wyoming and Montana – for management.”

On Capitol Hill, Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch has been among those promoting the idea. He has been a key player in the debate, serving on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In November, Risch met with Ashe, arguing that the state of Idaho needed to have more authority to remove “problem bears.

“Ashe has heard, loud and clear, that Idahoans have major concerns with grizzlies in our backyards,” Risch said.

Risch said conflicts between grizzly bears and humans were on the rise and that the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to “make the necessary changes to keep humans safe.”

High-profile bear attacks in the past year have heightened the concern.

Last August, a 63-year-old Billings, Montana, man died after he was attacked by a female grizzly while hiking at Yellowstone National Park. The bear, which had eaten much of the man’s body, was euthanized.

In another case that attracted widespread attention last summer, a rancher from Island Park, Idaho, complained that he had lost 14 of his cows to grizzly bears in the past four years.

Wildlife experts are trying to determine what’s causing more grizzlies to roam closer to people and farms. One theory is that food sources have shifted, with bears looking for more meat as they’ve lost access to seeds from whitebark pine trees, which grow in high elevations and have been decimated in recent years by outbreaks of pine beetles and blister rust.

Brian Hires, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife national headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, said the proposed delisting would be followed by a comment period, allowing the public to have a say in any final rule.

U.S. tribes have won major allies in Canadian tribes, which have also appealed to Obama, and the Sierra Club, which has mounted a campaign to keep the grizzly on the endangered list.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Bonnie Rice, a senior representative for the Sierra Club who works on wildlife issues in the Yellowstone and Northern Rockies region. “If bears are delisted, they’d still have some protection in the national parks, but once they go outside the parks they are going to be completely at the mercy of hostile state management policies. . . . And they go outside the parks – they don’t understand those arbitrary political boundaries.”

The two sides disagree on how many bears are roaming free in the Yellowstone ecosystem, which encompasses 19,000 square miles in three states.

Last year, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimated the number of bears in the Yellowstone region at 1,150 and said the rising population had “exceeded all recovery goals.”

Rice said the department was using an inflated number, citing the official 2015 estimate of 717 bears in a report from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a group of scientists and biologists who monitor the population.

Keckler defended the higher number, saying the 717 count is a minimum estimate.

“There are more than that out there,” he said.

The battle has a long history.

In 2007, the federal government removed the grizzly from the federal endangered list, but the delisting was short-lived. Two years later, a federal judge reversed the decision, saying the government had underestimated the effect of a dwindling food supply due to climate change and the loss of whitebark pine trees.

Since then, state officials have pressed their case hard.

In 2013, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game adopted a position statement that called for a “prompt delisting” of the grizzly bear.

“Additional protections under the Endangered Species Act are unnecessary,” the department said in its position paper.

Rice, of the Sierra Club, said it was too soon to remove federal protections for the grizzly.

“We’re seeing more older bears, and fewer cubs and yearlings surviving to adulthood, which we think is a very troubling trend,” she said.

As they pressure Obama, many tribal members say they’ve had a string of successes with the White House, most recently when they joined a long list of opponents in urging the president to kill the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, or “the black snake,” fearing it would pose a threat to Indian lands.

At last week’s meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, tribal leaders noted that Obama has hosted a White House summit on Indian affairs in each of the last seven years, appointed Indians to key posts and even visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2014.

“This administration has been the best administration ever for Indian Country,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington state and the president of the National Congress of American Indians, a group that has not taken sides in the dispute.

Tyler has high hopes for Obama’s last year as president, hoping he’ll first appoint a Native American judge to the U.S. Supreme Court and then move to protect the grizzly bears from trophy hunters.

Tyler said he was particularly worried about what might happen if an unforeseen disease hit the grizzly population after states allowed hunting.

“Then the only ones that will be left will be in the zoo,” Tyler said. “Why are you going to kill them?”

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009, @HotakainenRob