As federal wildlife managers prepare to move grizzly bears off the Endangered Species List in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, opposition to delisting the iconic — and to many, sacred — animal has continued.
Led by several tribal nations, a crowd of roughly 100 people met at the eastern gateway of Glacier National Park on Friday for a “Prayer for the Great Bear” ceremony.
David Bearshield of the Cheyenne Nation sang a prayer in his native language with the shore of St. Mary’s Lake as the backdrop.
A group of roughly 20 New Zealand motorcyclists stood to his right and three park rangers stood to his left as a symbol the diversity of their unity. All bowed their heads as he sang to honor the bear.
“We ask you from above today, to honor this being, protect it,” Bearshield prayed. “We ask that you would send a blessing to those in leadership in Washington, D.C., … to release regulation, policy, but most of all, to protect the religious freedoms of our people this day.”
Federal wildlife managers proposed delisting the grizzly bear in March.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have said the proposal is in response to the animal’s successful recovery, stating the bears have met every criteria set in a recovery plan to be removed from the Endangered Species List.
Since the grizzly bear was added to the list in 1975, its population has rebounded from as few as 136 bears at that time, to an estimated 700 to 1,000 today.
Bearshield is the chairman of GOAL, or Guardians of Our Ancestors Legacy, a tribal coalition of more than 50 federally-recognized tribes.
Bearshield said removing federal protections for the grizzly beer is a violation to American Indian tribes from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande who consider the animal a sacred ancestor.
In June, GOAL sent a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock opposing the delisting on the basis of violations of sovereignty, treaty rights, and religious and spiritual freedoms.
The letter included the tribes’ alternative plan to delisting and trophy hunting the grizzly. The plan outlines reintroducing grizzlies to tribal lands in the “Great Bear’s historic range” to provide cultural, economic and environmental revitalization to tribal communities.
The plan seeks to convert the number of hunting quotas planned for Montana, Wyoming and Idaho into the number of grizzlies transplanted throughout tribal lands.
Throughout the ceremony, the bear was referred to as “the Ancient One” and “grandparent.”
Some of the people who attended the ceremony had stumbled into the event as a detour from their vacations in Glacier. Others had traveled from across the state.
Kat Brekken of Gardiner said she drove six hours for the ceremony.
Brekken said the federal government’s proposal doesn’t make sense.
“I’m skeptical about whether there even are 1,000 grizzly bears today,” she said. “Even so, that number still wouldn’t be enough to justify hunting them — they’re still too small in number for this to be a good decision.”
Brekken, part Cherokee, slipped into moccasins as she talked and pulled out a camera to record the ceremony. She wore a GOAL shirt with the view of a gunsight covering the silhouette of a grizzly bear. Under the image were the words, “Not in my name.”
She said while she was part of a nation from far away, she stood in unity with the western tribes.
“As soon as the federal protection is removed from the grizzly, they’re in danger and the land they roam is opened up to consumer agendas,” Brekken said. “We’re gathering in unity to protect these animals and this land.”
Co-Founder of GOAL Rain Bear Stands Last introduced himself to the crowd as representing his uncle, Don Shoulderblade, who founded the tribal coalition.
He listed the traditional teachings of the grizzly’s healing qualities and powers of regeneration.
“And yet, here we stand, praying that the Great Bear … will not be managed by lead and bloodlust,” he said. “How do you manage the sacred? One does not manage the sacred, one seeks, reveres, and stands humbled by the presence of the sacred.”
Standing in a line of Cheyenne and Blackfeet tribal leaders, Bear Stands Last said the coalition would continue to fight to protect the ancestor as long as the possibility of delisting was still on the table.
For the proposed grizzly hunting guidelines issued by Fish and Wildlife Service, go to http://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FWS-R6-ES-2016-0042-0001.
To learn more about GOAL, go to http://www.goaltribal.org/.
Jimmy St. Goddard, a traditional chief of the Blackfeet Nation and vice chairman of Guardians of Our Ancestors Legacy, performs a song during a ceremony to honor the grizzly bear and bring attention to the proposed removal of the grizzly from the federal endangered species list at the Rising Sun picnic area in Glacier National Park on Friday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)