Don’t Delist and Risk Yellowstone Grizzly Bears’ Future


As Yellowstone grizzly bears begin to reemerge from their dens after winter hibernation, they awake to a debate over what may be their first sport hunt in over 40 years. This was triggered by last week’s proposal by US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to remove federal endangered species protections.

Grizzly bears awaken too to a world of mounting threats, including a warming climate, ever more humans, poorly managed livestock, sloppy and incautious big game hunters, and isolation from other bear populations.

It is sad, but true, that without the vital safety net provided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Yellowstone’s vulnerable grizzly bears will likely be pushed back to the brink of extinction. Here I briefly summarize the major reasons why delisting is premature and needlessly risks the future of the grizzly bear in and around our nation’s oldest park.

Yellowstone’s current population of roughly 650 to 750 grizzly bears is much smaller than the 2000+ animals widely considered by experts to be necessary for long-term viability. Altogether, the five remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower-48 states number perhaps 1500, a mere 1-2% of the 100,000 grizzly bears that once roamed the contiguous U.S. in a range that was formerly 100 times larger.

The federal government plans on deliberately perpetuating this precarious situation, even though it means trucking bears into Yellowstone every ten years to deal with genetic problems, and trusting state wildlife management agencies that have notoriously anti-carnivore track records.

We can do better. Yellowstone grizzly bears can be reconnected naturally to the more robust grizzly bear populations that live in Canada and lands surrounding Glacier National Park. But with mounting numbers of ranchettes, second homes, and hunters prospectively in pursuit of a grizzly bear trophy, the window of opportunity to link these grizzly populations is closing fast.

Caught Between Love and Aggression   

The grizzly bear has been called “uncle,” “grandmother,” and “healer” by native peoples around the world, whereas the European-given Latin name, Ursus arctos horribilis, bespeaks a more negative, fear-based relationship.

Today, while more people embrace protecting wild animals and their ecosystems, views of grizzly bears are still conflicted. Just as families flock to Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear in the flesh, ranchers outside the parks pressure state officials to kill them to protect their cows. More fundamentally, the debate about grizzly bear delisting is about competing values, one oriented to life, the other death.

With the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, we as a nation rejected the ethos of domination that had resulted in the slaughter of wolves, bison, grizzly bears, and other species. We chose to embrace instead an attitude of respect and reverence for nature. Without the ESA’s protections, including a prohibition against hunting, grizzly bears would likely have been relegated to just a few bears hanging on in the confines of Yellowstone Park.

But under the ESA’s umbrella, grizzly bear numbers have probably doubled in Yellowstone since protections were instituted in 1975 (link). Population growth has been particularly slow because grizzly bears have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any terrestrial mammal; a female in Yellowstone is lucky to replace herself with another reproductive female in her lifetime.

That the population has increased is cause for celebration. But bears are not out of the woods yet.  Their future lies in our hands and in our practice of tolerance. Codifying respect for nature, the ESA has helped resolve our conflicted views about grizzly bears, but all bets are off if protections are removed.

An Unraveling Ecosystem, Leading to More Grizzly Killing   

As scientists teach us, and as Native peoples know full well, the grizzly bear serves as a window into the complexity of entire ecosystems. The bear eats everything from ants to bison plus hundreds of plants in between. It knows when and where foods are most palatable, and it monitors them constantly for their nutritional quality, teaching their cubs to do the same. To win the seasonal war of calories, in preparation for hibernation and winter birthing, the grizzly bear has to be a champion forager, which means keenly observing the subtlest details of the natural world.

We humans also have long watched what the bears ate, and followed suit. Foods that fatten bears sustain us as well: salmon, acorns, bison, elk, moose, berries, and pine seeds. In Yellowstone, grizzlies have historically depended on just four key foods for most of their energy and nutrients: seeds from whitebark pine, meat from elk and bison, army cutworm moths, and cutthroat trout (link).

Tragically, since the early to mid-2000s, two of these critical bear foods have been essentially wiped out (link). Trout in Yellowstone Lake have been victims of drought, climate warming and predation by a nonnative fish.  Mature cone-producing whitebark pine have been clobbered by the spread of a non-native fungal disease called blister rust and by an unprecedented climate-driven outbreak of bark beetles.

That leaves only two of the historically most important bear foods: elk and army cutworm moths. Yet most elk populations have declined dramatically from highs reached during the 1990s and early 2000s, and moths are imperiled by the projected disappearance of their alpine haunts during the next 50 to 100 years (link).

Meanwhile, bears have been compensating by eating more meat, especially from cows and the remains of hunter-killed elk. Despite the protestations of government “experts,” dandelions and mushrooms don’t cut it (link). Unfortunately, with the turn to meat, trouble with livestock operators and hunters has mounted, resulting in dramatic increases in the numbers of grizzlies dying each year because of meat-related conflicts (link). In fact, mortality rates are now at unsustainable levels.

Grizzly bears reminds us of what John Muir famously wrote: you can’t “…pick out anything by itself [without finding] it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

There is a bottom line to all of this. Now could not be a worse time to remove ESA protections, as the Yellowstone ecosystem unravels. Yellowstone’s grizzly bears need access to a lot more wild country to compensate for the loss of critical foods. They also need continued protections, incentives, and resources offered by the ESA.

Absent federal control and oversight, the states have little inclination and few resources to deal with mounting conflicts. Worse yet, these states intend to use a sport hunt and freer killing of bears involved in conflicts to reduce the size and distribution of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population.

Indeed, the central problem with delisting is that grizzly bears would be managed by anti-carnivore states.

State Management: of Domination and Handshake Agreements

Wildlife management in western states continues to be organized around controlling nature and killing large carnivores to produce a “harvestable surplus” of elk, deer, and other large herbivores.  More to the point, wildlife managers in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are locked down in service of a politically influential minority who place top priority on opportunities to hunt big game (link). The interests of outdoor enthusiasts who prize anything other than hunting are not represented on the commissions or among the leaders of the state wildlife management agencies.

State managers commonly see large carnivores as tacit competitors for big game hunting licenses, which are the cash cow of these agencies. This despite the fact that there is no evidence that carnivores typically harm big game populations — and plenty showing that excessive hunting does have major negative impacts, along with climate change and drought.

Nonetheless, sport hunting has been used during recent decades by state managers to drive down populations of mountain lions and wolves, and accounts for roughly 70-80% of adult carnivore deaths in the Northern Rockies. State managers will almost certainly treat grizzly bears in the same ways as they do other large carnivores — which will preclude ever securing connections between ecosystems.

This is especially true given grizzly bears’ inherent difficulty colonizing new habitats, due to females’ tendency to stay in or near their mothers’ range. (This lack of resilience contrasts with that of wolves and mountain lions, which reproduce at higher rates, and readily colonize areas hundreds of miles away.)

For these and other reasons, grizzly bears will be acutely vulnerable to the effects of sport hunting. Moreover, the first bears to be killed will be those on the periphery of ecosystem best positioned to connect with other bear populations, as well as the highly popular and tolerant bears that frequent roads inside National Parks and occasionally range into non-park jurisdictions.

One big problem with the plans developed by state agencies to manage grizzly bears after delisting is that there is no binding commitments to do anything other than hunt bears. Despite some laudatory language on coexistence, all suggestions are voluntary.

The same is true of the Conservation Strategy (CS), developed to guide the monitoring of bears and bear habitat on public lands once ESA protections are removed. As FWS admits, the CS cannot compel any agency to do anything (link). It is a 100 plus page handshake agreement.

One of the biggest problems facing grizzly bears is the lack of any enforceable limits on mortality once delisting has occurred. What will happen if grizzly bear deaths exceed prescribed levels? The post-delisting plans do not compel ANY response. In fact, state laws don’t limit but rather promote killing grizzly bears.

Even if the states were inclined to do more for grizzly bears after delisting, they lack most of the relevant authority. According to the federal government, over 40% of habitat currently occupied by grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone lies outside an antiquated Primary Conservation Area (PCA) that was delineated decades ago primarily to serve political purposes.

After delisting, no habitat protections would apply in the extensive areas excluded from the PCA. Moreover, most areas occupied by grizzly bears are federally-administered public lands over which the states have no direct control.

In short, nothing in state management is about compassion for grizzly bears, which will get anything but a safety net after delisting.   The fact that there is no free board and huge uncertainty regarding the size of the population exacerbates the problem.

Biased and Unreliable Numbers 

You often hear from government officials how we have grizzly bears coming out our ears and that the population has grown at a rapid clip for decades.

Although some growth has likely occurred, it is much more modest than advertised. According to federal data, the population is probably declining as a result of high death rates linked to deteriorating habitat conditions (link). Moreover, recent research has shown that the methods used by Yellowstone’s grizzly bear managers to assess the status of the population are unreliable and fatally biased (link).

The government’s refusal to release the raw data upon which population estimates are based is making matters worse. These data have been paid for by taxpayers, and should be made available for independent review. Until then, the claims of scientists operating under a government monopoly should be treated with skepticism.

Dismissing the Spiritual Concerns of Nearly 50 Indian Tribes

The Tribes have emerged as another major critic of the government’s science and management of grizzly bears. Native people across western North America saw grizzly bears as relatives, teachers and guides vital to their cultural and spiritual health.

Not surprisingly, the proposal to delist and permit sport hunting of grizzly bears is an anathema to most Indians. So far, nearly 50 Tribes, from Canada to Mexico, have passed legal resolutions opposing delisting and trophy hunting of grizzly bears (link).

As sovereign nations, Tribes are demanding that the federal government formally consult with them to address their concerns about delisting. Reasonably enough, they seek a moratorium on delisting until an adequate consultation process has been completed. The Tribes are also articulating an alternative vision for recovery of grizzly bears, involving restoration of bears on lands tribes own or have legal claims to.

But so far, state and federal agencies have exhibited a disturbing lack of respect for the Tribes. Which is not surprising given the long history of racism among federal and state bureaus, and the deference of wildlife managers to largely white male hunters, typically at the expense of the broader public interest.

We Can Still Achieve Grizzly Bear Recovery

We can still achieve lasting recovery for our remaining grizzly bears, and in a way that respects the interests of all Americans. We have ample wild habitat capable of sustaining a contiguous grizzly bear population from Yellowstone to Canada (link), but only if we protect these wildlands now and expand programs that foster coexistence between the people and grizzly bears living in connective habitat. We do not need to truck bears around to address genetic problems – bears can deal with the issue naturally, if we let them.

The grizzly bear is as an ESA success story even if bears in Yellowstone are not delisted any time soon. Science shows that grizzly bears are still threatened throughout the Northern Rockies, and will probably remain so for the indefinite future. But by sharing space with them as they seek the food that they need in ever-larger areas, we will insure that grizzly bears will be here for generations yet unborn to marvel at.

With their ability to awaken after a long winter of seeming death, the grizzly has long embodied the promise of transformation. In fits and starts, as a society we have been of transforming our relationship with grizzly bears to one that is more life-affirming. But now is not the time to gamble with their future.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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