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3% is not Enough: Towards Restoring Grizzly Bears

The Delisting Scramble

November has offered us more than just the ghastly aftermath of our national elections. We have also been visited by the unseemly spectacle of federal and state wildlife managers rushing helter skelter towards removing Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. Due process be damned. Or, put another way, let the environmentalists sue us over patently deficient procedure and use of science; they win in court, and then take the fall. At which point state managers are perhaps smugly sure that a Congress under the thumb of regressive Republicans will use legislative fiat to remove protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, shortly before whetting their knives to gut the Endangered Species Act itself.

This legally, morally, and logically compromised scramble to turn Yellowstone’s grizzly bears over to the tender mercies of state wildlife managers is informed by several narratives. First is the fantastical notion favored by bureaucrats in the US Fish & Wildlife Service that species and populations need to be “delisted” to save the ESA. In other words, if we remove protections often enough for enough vulnerable species, we will somehow placate implacable foes of the ESA who see this law viscerally, illogically perhaps, as nothing less than an affront to the imperative to dominate and use everything—nature, resources, lesser beings, lesser races…  The fallacy of this narrative is perhaps self-evident enough to not require elaboration.

Second is the related imperative felt by wildlife managers working for the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, loosely embodied in a narrative holding that the principal and perhaps only virtuous purpose of wildlife is to satisfy cravings to kill, yes, for meat, but definitely for trophies comprised almost wholly of viral male animals, preferably with sizable sex-linked organs (e.g., antlers and horns); but the savage flesh-rending grizzly bears mythologized in hunting-magazines will do. And the frail ego being served in this case is primarily that of the demographic that fell squarely in line behind the narcissistic, post-truth, racist, misogynist, etc., Donald Trump—mostly rural, ill-educated, white guys.

How Much Is Enough?

But of greatest relevance to my thesis here is a narrative about how much is enough…and by what standards. This deliberation is covered by the rubric of “recovery,” and what numbers of animals, over how large an area, are enough to serve the purpose. Under auspices of the ESA, this consideration is metaphorically similar to notions of recuperation or convalescence in the wake of physical or psychological ill-health. So, by this reckoning, we are trying to restore populations or species diminished by ill-health to something akin to health. Reasonable enough.

Running with this health metaphor, scientists have developed rules of thumb for judging the genetic “health” and “ill-health” of wildlife populations and animal species. But driven by the imperatives of politics and the technocratic construction of policy, managers have gone beyond guidelines to specify hard boundaries, on one side of which is health, and on the other side, ill-health—recovered versus not recovered. For Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, these presumed magic numbers include a total population size of 500 plus 48 “well-distributed” reproductive females. Subsidiary thresholds specify annual mortality rates that are deemed to be sustainable—or not.

Scientific Revelation

Given that federal bear managers dictate the terms of debate, people with an interest in grizzly bear conservation have been driven to focus on the legitimacy of parameters adopted by these managers to determine recovery. Are 500 bears enough? Are 48 reproductive females sufficient? Is a 7.5% annual female mortality rate sustainable? Some scientists say we need 2000 or even 5000 animals to guard against genetic impoverishment and provide a buffer against environmental change. Numbers of reproductive females would correspondingly need to be greater, as would the space available for bears to occupy. And so on, and so on.

One peculiar aspect of this technocratic and scientized give and take is the extent to which managers and activists bolster their arguments by intoning “science told us so,” in much the same way that Evangelicals cite Biblical authority. In fact, the purported ability of Science to provide unambiguous demarcations of acceptable or unacceptable risk—or even health and ill-health—has been deliberately promulgated by technocrats working for government bureaus…perhaps out of ignorance or, more cynically, perhaps to bolster their power. Either way, you end up with a veritable Priesthood of Technocrats that presumes to channel Scientific Revelation, and those who contest this divinity through the portal of debates over science.

But there are No Magic Numbers

All of which misses a nub point. As many have noted before, Science can inform us about the consequences of certain choices, but only as a probability accompanied by substantial bounds of uncertainty. There are cusps, thresholds, and tipping points in natural systems, but no magic numbers. And even tipping points are distilled as a range with attached probabilities. As the polls from our November elections amply demonstrated, precise estimates of anything are often illusory simply because key contingencies are not considered. With condolences to political conservatives, the world is not black and white.

What does this all mean for the recovery of species…or, more specifically, Yellowstone’s grizzly bears? There is no magic population size or any derivative thereof. Instead, there are numerous considerations: the level of risk we want to embrace with this population, and over what time frame; the uncertainties attached to any reckonings of past drivers of population change; whether the scope of our considerations are both realistic and adequately comprehensive; whether we define “recovery” in terms other than population size or genetic diversity, for example, ecosystem function; the extent of our humility in the face of ignorance about the future; and, perhaps most important, the extent of our moral universe, from which we derive a vision of our place in the world vis-à-vis other sentient beings.

Recovery as Politics

Setting authoritative benchmarks for recovery is inescapably a political process, ideally informed, but more often justified post hoc by science. Recovery thresholds for species listed under the ESA are more than anything else a codification of preferences promoted by those who are more successful than others at manipulating the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) decision-making processes to serve their own ends. Perhaps not surprisingly, these partisan participants include agency bureaucrats privileged with power and invested in advancing their own career, often by serving USFWS special interests which are, in turn, configured by political masters in Congress and the President’s Cabinet.

So whose interests are being served by current recovery standards for Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population? My experience with deliberations internal to the federal government during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when recovery standards were being solidified, offers an unambiguous answer. The numbers cooked up by the involved bureaucrats were little more than expedient. They guessed that the Yellowstone ecosystem could only support about 500 bears based largely on an assessment of political repercussions for themselves—either direct from some political Flying Monkey or filtered through the chain-of-command in the USFWS or National Park Service. More specifically, the functionaries of these federal agencies speculated on the numbers of grizzlies, in what places, politically-connected locals would tolerate, as well as the extent to which these yokels could translate their tolerances into political consequences for involved federal decision-makers. USFWS bureaucrats like to call it “social carrying capacity,” which gives a nice gloss to an otherwise crass calculus.

The Bureaucratic Imperative to Delist

And, perhaps needless to say, the political price of recovery has always been high for threatened species such as grizzly bears simply because the entailed management almost invariably contests status quo ideologies and power-wealth arrangements. Yellowstone’s grizzly bears were driven to near extirpation because of unsustainable killing, and that killing was—and still is—embedded in traditional land use, husbandry, and hunting practices, largely informed, in turn, by regressive worldviews that feature the eradication of impediments to domination and use. By this reckoning, hyper-carnivorous predators such as wolves and coyotes belong in a special realm of Hell—with depredating grizzly bears in a nearby Purgatory.

So we now find ourselves deafened by a chorus of bureaucrats from state and federal wildlife management agencies loudly trumpeting their success at “recovering” Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population to perhaps twice the size it was when given ESA protections in 1975, well in excess of 500—a mind-boggling 700 bears…or 1000, at least according to a politically-expedient but discredited methodology. More bears in more places causing more problems and inconvenience for hard-working ranchers and hunting outfitters. Apparently we now need to turn the population over to state managers so that we can disenfranchise 99% of the American public as a prelude to killing more bears, reducing the population, and, in the process, giving white guys with a masculinity problem the opportunity to collect grizzly bear heads. Such is recovery, at least according to the USFWS.

A Different Perspective

But there is a different perspective. More to the point, one that recognizes and even atones for the past devastations wrought by European colonizers and, of relevance to our current moral universe, represents a more compassionate and gracious way of living with other sentient beings…such as our much-persecuted grizzly bears.

First, though, consider the semantics of “recovery,” an aspiration suited for the resuscitation of the near-dead. Yes, recovery is a first step, but consider the more generous implications of “restoration”: the returning of something to its former condition or rightful place. Such as restoring grizzly bears to something akin to robust health, wide distribution, and near full manifestation of lost biodiversity, whether reckoned genetically, behaviorally, or relationally. Such a vision would logically translate into well-distributed, well-connected meta-populations of grizzly bears occupying as much of the lost diversity of niches and habitats as possible; perhaps contiguous populations in the Northern Rockies, including central Idaho, as well as populations in unique environments of the central and southern Rockies, the Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada. For example.

In Context of History

These more generous aspirations gain credence and weight when considered in context of historical losses. I recently undertook perhaps the most rigorous assessment ever done of the historical abundance and distribution of grizzly bears in the contiguous United States, employing a plentitude of historical sources and the most detailed map of potential habitat yet constructed (see Figure 1, below). According to my calculations, somewhere between 46,500 and 72,200 grizzly bears once occupied roughly 763,700 square miles of the western US, with the largest populations in what are now Montana (c. 9,300), California (6,900), Wyoming (5,400), and Colorado (5,300). This for the benchmark year of 1800.

Figure 1. A detailed reconstruction of distribution and habitat circa 1800 along with point estimates of grizzly bear population sizes for US states. The dark red-brown represents core range and the lighter burnt orange, peripheral range. White denotes areas that supported few if any grizzlies.

My distillation of primary historical sources suggests that as early as 1850 we had already lost most of the grizzly bears on the Great Plains, roughly 18% of the west-wide distribution and 12% of the west-wide population (see the time-series of maps in Figure 2). A short 60 years later, around 1910, we had killed 93% of the bears in 92% of the places they lived—this according to an authoritative contemporary estimate published in 1922 by C. Hart Merriam. Fifty years after that, around 1960, our losses were 97-98% of the total. It’s hard to know how many grizzly bears we had when grizzly bears were given ESA protections, but it was probably in the neighborhood of 1,600 bears distributed as they are now, mostly in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems. Remarkably enough, we still had a few grizzlies in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the last of which was apparently killed in 1979.

Figure 2. West-wide grizzly bear population sizes and distributions at four time intervals, from 1800 farthest left to 1960 farthest right. Green corresponds with grizzly bear distribution at each time step and yellow with areas where grizzlies had been extirpated. The numbers in the center of each map are estimated total population sizes. The black numbers inset below are estimates of total population and distribution loss at each time step. Dark gray represents desert areas intrinsically inhospitable to grizzly bears.

We Europeans managed to slaughter over 58,000 grizzly bears, most during a brief 60-year period, and in the process extirpated this species from over 740,800 square miles of their former distribution. There are few charitable ways to describe such a holocaust. Ecological genocide? Possibly. Stewardship of the natural bounty with which we were gifted by God? Probably not.

And Now?

And where are we now? The most recent credible estimates of grizzly bear numbers in all of our extant populations—including Yellowstone (700), the Crown of the Continent (900), the Cabinet-Yaak (45), the Selkirks (50), and the few bears in the North Cascades (6?)—amount to little more than 1,800 bears distributed over a total area of roughly 37,200 square miles. Which means what? We have perhaps 50% more grizzly bears now compared to when they were listed in 1975, or roughly 3% of the numbers we had in 1800, occupying roughly 5% of their former distribution (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Trends in distribution and numbers of grizzly bears between 1960 (left) and 2010 (right). The colors and numbers in these maps have the same meaning as in Figure 2.

Consider these facts in context of the current debate over “recovery” of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. Deflating the currently inflated bureaucratic rhetoric, our grizzly bear managers are essentially telling us that a totally-isolated population of grizzly bears comprising only 1% of former west-wide numbers, occupying roughly 1.5% of historic distributions…constitutes “recovery.” And, next on the chopping block, the Crown of the Continent grizzly bear population, constituting roughly 1.5% of former numbers, is purportedly ready for transfer to the Lords of Yesteryear. For agency bureaucrats and their political masters, ”recovery” apparently means enshrining losses amounting to 97% of what we once had, including irreplaceable ecological relations, and reinstituting the regressive management regimes that drove grizzly bears to the brink of extirpation.

3% is Not Enough

My response? 3% is not enough. Satisfaction with such a pittance can only be spawned by an impoverished spirit, a lack of remorse for past atrocities, and a pathetic vision of possibilities. We can have many more grizzly bears, restored to many more places (see page 8 of this newsletter). Countries such as Romania, where bears and people live cheek-by-jowl, have shown us what’s possible. Much of the potential resides in synaptically-fueled narratives that we each carry in our heads—that in turn shape our attitudes and behaviors. Grizzly bears are not remorseless flesh-rending savage beasts. They are intelligent and emotional sentient beings, much like us, with whom there is the potential to negotiate co-existence. They deserve more than arrogance and bestiality from us.

More articles by:

David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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