Tribes on griz: Our beliefs not recognized

Tribes on griz: Our beliefs not recognized

Source: Jackson Hole News & Guide
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By Mike Koshmrl

The argument is that federal wildlife managers inadequately consulted with Native American tribes and illegally ignored their religious beliefs as they pulled protections from Yellowstone-area grizzly bears.

That’s the contention of a fifth lawsuit that’s pending in the courts, this one filed in U.S. District court in Montana by a coalition of tribes that are represented by tribal law specialist and Denver-area attorney Jeffrey Rasmussen.

Like the large contingent of conservation and animal rights groups litigating grizzly delisting, Rasmussen also filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue based on alleged Endangered Species Act infringements. But other legal claims the tribes are making, he said, are unique and can be filed in the courts right away.

“One of those claims is there was a failure to properly consult with the tribes, as is required by federal law,” Rasmussen said in an interview. “There are a bunch of presidential declarations and policies and office procedures that all say you have to properly consult with the tribes.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rasmussen said, consulted with only four tribes nearest to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem before making their decision. By the time other tribes were contacted, he said, the wheels of grizzly delisting were already in motion.

“They said, ‘We didn’t realize that the other tribes would be interested,’” Rasmussen said. “That’s not true. They knew that there was broad tribal interest in grizzly delisting.”

Federal agencies customarily do not comment on pending litigation, and Fish and Wildlife Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley previously declined an interview with the News&Guide about delisting lawsuits.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s website says it solicited government-to-government consultation with 53 tribal governments through letters, phone calls, emails and webinars since a draft grizzly bear delisting rule was issued in March 2016.

The tribes’ second argument is that Fish and Wildlife violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed to ensure that interests in religious freedom are protected.

“They are required to consider how [delisting] would impact tribal, religious and spiritual beliefs, and they did not,” Rasmussen said. “In the notice that they put out with delisting, they even say, ‘We can’t take that into consideration, we can only look at the best-available science.’ We disagree with them on that.”

Some tribes consider grizzlies deity-like, creatures that are never to be killed, he said.

Former Hopi Tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa told the Associated Press that for “Bear Clan” members grizzlies are considered an uncle.

“If that bear is removed,” Nuvamsa said, “that does impact our ceremonies in that there would not be a being, a religious icon that we would know and recognize.”

Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have not signaled an intention to hunt grizzlies in 2017, but the framework is in place, approved by Fish and Wildlife, that would allow hunting.

The population of grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem’s core, where bears are counted, was last estimated at 690. Plans in place would bar hunting if numbers dip below 600.

Rasmussen said he anticipates the tribal lawsuit he is litigating will be joined with one or more of the other grizzly delisting lawsuits. The federal government, he said, has 60 days to respond to his clients’ complaint.

“I think legally it will be off to a fairly slow start, unless there is an attempt at a hunting season,” Rasmussen said, “in which case I think there will be filings for more immediate action.”

Tribal members who signed onto the lawsuit hail from the Crow Indian Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Piikani Nation, Blackfeet Nation, Hopi Nation Bear Clan, Northern Arapaho and others.

Their legal complaint can be found alongside the online version of this story at