Here in Yellowstone the drums are beating: “Grizzly bears are recovered”! With the press push of the government during recent weeks, you might be led to believe that grizzly bears are coming out our ears. So what constitutes recovery anyway? And who decides?
Recovery is not just some arcane scientific construct, which only government professionals are qualified to determine — it is a social issue, for all of us to collectively decide as an expression of our values. Although scientists can provide information on threats and risk, we as a society must decide what level of risk we want to take with species that have few places left to go. Often without knowing it, we make choices every day that create a world that is either more or less lethal to grizzly bears, the natural world, and ourselves. By what we consume and how we dispose of our waste.
Context is critical to how we conceive of recovery for any endangered species. Take a look at the graph that shows the big picture of where we are with grizzly bear numbers relative to what were here when Europeans arrived. It is easy to lose perspective on how grizzly many bears were here – perhaps 100,000, from Canada to Mexico — how fast 99% of them were gunned down by well-armed, intolerant settlers, and how long even modest recovery takes.
Yes, as a culture, we saw the error of our ways when grizzly bears were protected as an endangered species in the lower 48 states in 1975, but the population increase since then is hardly discernable on this graph that shows the larger context. The small blip on the right represents an increase from maybe 325 to 750 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and from perhaps 900 to 1900 in the entire northern Rockies (link), a laudable and hard-earned boost, but not as big a deal as you might believe from listening to the government.
The fact is that the relatively small increase in numbers is very vulnerable to reversals. It is hard to grow a grizzly bear even under the best of conditions. Their reproductive rates are the lowest of any mammal in North America. And, grizzly bears cannot withstand high levels of killing, as has occurred in recent years (link). Even the government concedes that the Yellowstone population has not been growing since 2002, and may be declining (link).
While there is no magic population size that protects bears from extinction, you might think so to hear the number 500 bandied about. That is the target for Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery established in the 1992 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. It was not set as a result of any rigorous scientific or social process (or even the most basic analysis of the number of bears the ecosystem could support), but because that was roughly how many bears were estimated in the population at that time.
It is important to note that the recovery target was set by technocrats in the government, catering to politically well-connected hunters and ranchers — not the broader public. During the public processes related to the Recovery Plan and the seven other decision documents since then, the vast majority of non-government scientists and people who submitted comments challenged the 500 number as being far too small to ensure a healthy population, especially given development pressures, climate change, and excessive human-caused mortalities (link). These comments were virtually all ignored by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the states.
While the government’s thinking about recovery looks in the rear view mirror, other scientists have been looking ahead. The best available scientific thinking defines recovery as being comprised of bigger connected populations which total perhaps 3000-5000 bears (link). This makes sense if you want to buffer against the effects of disease and climate change, which continues to yield surprises, from wiping out most whitebark pine forests to worsening elk summer range, with the prospect of eliminating many berries as well (link). This approach to recovery would not come anywhere close to restoring bears to pre-European levels (which of course cannot be done), but would at least lift the populations further from zero, and extinction.
The government has acknowledged that connecting the long-isolated Yellowstone population to others in the Northern Rockies is a good idea, but not essential. To the government, grizzly bear recovery can entail a permanent program of trucking bears in from other places to deal with inbreeding problems. Is this how we envision recovery?
There is an alternative. We know that the vast wilderness of Central Idaho could support a robust restored grizzly bear population, which would provide a vital ecological bridge for grizzly bears between Yellowstone, Glacier and Canada (link). We should demand a revision of the outdated recovery plan to pursue such a vison of connected populations.
Accomplishing this vision goes beyond revising the recovery number and reintroducing bears in some places. Because people are affected. Yet the state and federal governments have given shallow and one-sided attention to the complex social issues affecting grizzly bear recovery.
For example, arbitrary lines were drawn to exclude bears from certain areas of suitable habitat, under the argument that grizzly bears are “not socially acceptable.” Who decided that? If you dig into the history, you will find the influence of sheep producers in excluding grizzly bears from Wyoming’s remote Wyoming Range; the influence of conservative elected officials in excluding bears from the southern tier of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains (which boasts some of the healthiest whitebark pine forests left in the ecosystem); the influence of political hard liners in Idaho in keeping bears out of the Palisade Mountains and the southern side of the Centennial Mountains, which comprises the best ecological connection to another grizzly bear ecosystem
These decisions were hardly fair or justified in the first place. Now, they suffer from age, having been made 12 or more years ago. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has changed a lot since then and all of the people with a stake in this grizzly bear population — not just the politically well-connected — should be asked where they would be willing to live with bears now, and what management systems should be in place to facilitate coexistence and manage risk.
In contrast to the mostly top-down traditional technocratic approaches, some promising citizen-driven initiatives have emerged. In Cooke City, Gardiner, Big Sky, Wapiti, and Island Park, citizens have come together to solve bear-garbage problems. This involves the constant challenge of outsmarting bears, so the job is never completely done. But things have improved for bears and people as a result of these shared efforts. The government would be wise to build on these initiatives in revising its recovery program. These are examples of how to begin to think about implementing a bigger vision of recovery that acknowledges the capacity of people to change.
So, what happens after recovery has been declared by the federal government and endangered species protections have been removed? For a heart patient just released from the hospital, recovery would involve long term diet and exercise restrictions, and close monitoring by a doctor.
Not so for grizzly bears. Once delisting has occurred and management authority is turned back to the states, their wildlife management agencies plan to return to the practices that landed grizzly bears in the emergency room in the first place. This includes sport hunting of grizzlies and loosened restrictions on killing bears for any and all reasons.
The federal government is limited to monitoring the grizzly bear population for only five years post-delisting. Moreover, because of resistance by the states, the federal government has refused to consider any trigger that would restore endangered species protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears even if serious problems arose after delisting. That means that, for all intents and purposes, the emergency room door will be effectively shut to the grizzly bear even if it is on death’s doorstep again. Is that what we want recovery to mean?
Let me finish by reflecting again on the graph. Do we want grizzly bears to stay forever flat-lined and vulnerable, do we want a meaningful increase in their populations, or do we want bears to have a place on the graph at all?
And who should decide the face of recovery, according to what values? Should recovery be decided by technocrats in the service of regressive special interests? By the states in the service of sport hunters? By county commissioners who are hostile to large carnivores? I believe that the larger public with a stake in our parks and wild places should decide the fate of the iconic grizzly bear. But that’s just me. Each of us has to choose for ourselves. If we choose silence, technocracy wins, again.