First Nations leaders spoke up for the North American grizzly bear in Washington, DC yesterday, as they appeared before the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife hearings on H.R. 2532, the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act.

“There is no soundbite that can communicate the importance of the grizzly in our cultures,” Tom Rodgers, the Senior Adviser to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, told the subcommittee, “but that our ancestors wouldn’t say the name of the grizzly out of respect, speaks to the Great Bear’s cultural significance.”

Introduced on May 7 by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz), the bill would ban the killing and transportation of grizzly bears in the continental United States in the face of proposals in Idaho and Wyoming to permit hunting. A federal judge ruled in September that plans in both states to kill 23 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area violated the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly as an endangered species in 1975, but hunters have been campaigning to have it delisted ever since. Although grizzly bear populations have recovered significantly since the 1970s and, due to its prevalence in Alaska and northern Canada, the IUCN Red List categorizes the species as “least concern,” many wildlife biologists believe that the bears remain vulnerable in the lower-48 states.

Moreover, First Nations leaders are concerned that the delisting campaign is the thin edge of a wedge aimed at Indigenous sovereignty. “In the long struggle to protect the grizzly and in turn our sacred, ancestral lands that the grizzly protects for us, we defended our sovereignty from state and federal intrusion; we defended our treaty rights; we fought flagrant abuses of consultation mandates; and we defended our spiritual and religious freedoms,” Lynnette Grey Bull, Senior Vice President of the Global Indigenous Council, said in her statement.

However, the First Nations may be facing an uphill struggle, as state and federal wildlife management officials have continuously cited bear attacks on livestock as all the justification they need to declare open season on grizzlies. Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik insists that a bear hunt would be for the grizzlies’ – and the First Nations’ – own good, and that his department and white hunters know better.

“Keeping an animal such as the grizzly bear listed for sociopolitical reasons is disenfranchising to the public and to those that have dedicated so much of their lives and livelihoods toward recovery of the animal,” Nesvik told the subcommittee. “We have noted a waning tolerance for grizzly bears, especially along the Absaroka Front in Park County of Northwest Wyoming. If tolerance and acceptance of this iconic animal decreases, support for maintaining grizzly bears throughout the [greater Yellowstone area] becomes more difficult.”

Grey Bull was having none of it. “The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and employees of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Service continue to present the impression that in northwest Wyoming, there’s a grizzly around every corner,” she said. “I live in Grizzly Country. I have only seen two grizzlies on our reservation, a mother and a cub, high in the mountains near Moccasin Lake, miles from any communities.”

She continued that, although federal officials recently presented a slick computerized video simulation to make the case that grizzly bear populations were growing out of control, “I live on the land, not in virtual reality models.”

The “uncontrolled” expansion of grizzly bear populations is a myth. “What we know to be fact is that since 2015, grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone have suffered the highest recorded human caused mortality on record, which, by some estimates, equates to nearly 10% of the current population annually; that death toll now rising to 60-plus bears a year,” Grey Bull said. “Now that is uncontrolled, and once more emphasizes the need for the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act.”