Yellowstone Ranger Vindicated Under Whistleblower Laws

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 3, 2002 (ENS) - A seasonal park ranger whose crusade to protect the grizzly bears of Yellowstone led park officials to order his silence will be reinstated next season and allowed to speak with reporters. Bob Jackson was censured in August by the National Park Service for publicizing the effects that elk baiting in nearby Bridger Teton National Forest has on the behavior of Yellowstone's grizzlies.

With the help of lawyers at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Jackson filed a claim against the Park Service (NPS) under the nation's whistleblower laws, which protect employees who report health and safety problems or other violations by their employers.

Jackson

Bob Jackson has spent three decades patrolling the backcountry in Yellowstone National Park (Two photos courtesy National Park Service)
"I am happy that the Park Service chose to do the right thing by me rather than have a protracted fight," Jackson said. "I hope to work with the new Yellowstone Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis to address the growing dependence of the Park's grizzly population on the tons of elk meat discarded on our boundaries."

Jackson, known for his frequent arrests of wildlife poachers and for documenting unethical use of salting to bait elk by commercial hunting outfitters, had been given a written order this August to stop speaking with reporters about any NPS issues.

Various Yellowstone managers had also threatened to block Jackson, a 30 year veteran at Yellowstone, from returning to the park next season, according to documents appended to the complaint filed by PEER last week on Jackson's behalf with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

An agreement reached December 27 between Jackson and NPS requires the agency to rehire Jackson as a backcountry ranger in the Thorofare area. Jackson has served in the Thorofare region, located in the remote southeast corner of the park, for the past 24 years.

elk

Elk are protected in Yellowstone National Park, but can be legally hunted if they cross park boundaries. Unscrupulous hunters use salt licks to lure the herds out of the park
The NPS also agreed to rescind the gag order issued to Jackson, freeing him to discuss his concerns with the public and with reporters. The agency will provide all Yellowstone National Park employees with written guidance on their free speech rights.

All evidence of the Park Service censure, including the gag order, a counseling letter and a performance improvement plan, are to be removed from Jackson's NPS file, and a letter of commendation is to be inserted instead.

The NPS was concerned about Jackson's well publicized attacks on the common but illegal practice of salt baiting by elk hunters. Along the park's southern boundary, private hunters and commercial hunting outfitters have created semi-permanent salt licks to draw elk out of the protected park and onto private or national forest lands where they can be legally shot.

With the elk come the bears, who, Jackson charges, learn to associate hunting parties and the sound of gunfire with food. As many hunters also leave large portions of elk carcasses behind, the grizzlies learn to descend quickly onto kill sites to claim their portion of the meat.

Both practices lead to increased dependence of the bears on human elk kills, rather than on more natural food sources. They also increase contact between bears and humans, which may lead to the accidental or deliberate killings of so called nuisance bears.

In October, PEER released documents showing that intense elk hunting on the boundary of Yellowstone National Park is altering feeding habits of grizzly bears, leading to a recent increase in hunter caused bear deaths. The draft federal-state study was obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act.

bears

Some grizzly bears will follow hunting parties in hopes of scavenging elk carcasses (Photo by Dr. Christopher Servheen, courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
"During the 1990's, numbers of hunting related grizzly mortalities have increased in the GYE [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem]," the documents reveal. "Much of this increase can be attributed to incidents occurring during the early elk harvest in Montana and Wyoming."

As grizzly bears learn to migrate outside the protected park during elk season, they may pass this pattern on to their cubs, perpetuating the problem in additional generations.

"Bears learn to use available food resources quickly, and when food availability becomes predictable, bears will establish traditional use and impart that behavior to their offspring," the report reads. "Availability of food associated with the elk harvest may be considered a predictable food resource to bears."

Grizzly in search of elk meat are losing their fear of humans, the documents show.

"During recent years, anecdotal descriptions from outfitters, guides and hunters ... indicate encounters between humans and bears are a common occurrence during [the] hunting season," the report says. "Two decades ago many of these same outfitters and guides considered observations of grizzly bears a rare event."

bear

Grizzly bear cubs may learn from their mothers that gunfire means food (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
According to the study, hunting encounters have "become the single largest source of known human caused grizzly deaths." As one Wyoming game official remarked, gunshots in the early fall sound like "a dinner bell" to hungry grizzlies.

"This study echoes what Bob Jackson was saying when park officials ordered his silence," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "Bob Jackson is trying to prevent a biological train wreck by drawing attention to the total the non-enforcement of hunting laws."

The draft study, "Possible Effects of Elk Harvest on Fall Distribution of Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem" (Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey and Wyoming Game & Fish Department), is available at: http://www.peer.org/montana/grizzly_study.pdf