Inside the Effort to Kill Protections for Endangered Animals

A. J. Not Afraid, chairman of the Crow Nation in Montana, is fighting to keep grizzlies—which are sacred to Native Americans—protected under the Endangered Species Act. Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic

The Crow tribespeople call the grizzly bear their ancestor, the Elder Brother who protects their home, which is the land.

They have grizzly bear songs, grizzly dances, grizzly names for their children, grizzly lullabies that women sing to infants, and grizzly spirits that guide warrior societies and guard tepees, transform into human beings, and beguile their daughters.

So when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said the grizzly would be removed from the U.S. government’s endangered species list this year and opened for hunting, I traveled to Montana to meet the chairman of the Crow Nation, A. J. Not Afraid, who has lobbied to stop the delisting.

We stood on a promontory in the Big Horn Mountains called Pretty Eagle Point, where Not Afraid showed me the grizzly habitat on the 2.3-million-acre reservation. In the distance there were snowbound peaks where grizzlies in summer eat army cutworm moths, and broad plateaus where the bears graze the grass and dig for grubs.

There were forests of fir and pine, watersheds feeding the streams that over millions of years carved the dark chasms of Big Horn Canyon and Black Canyon, where the bears like to amble in the rushing flow looking for fish.

Not Afraid, 43, had testified before Congress a few weeks before my April visit. He said he believed that delisting the grizzly would be a calamity for the animal.

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