Of Grizzly Bears and Bureaucrats: The Quest for Survival

Photo by Scott Calleja | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Scott Calleja | CC BY 2.0


I’ve always been attracted to grizzly country, or in other words, I’ve always been drawn to wilderness. Perhaps there’s no way around it, having grown up in Montana it’s likely a key strain of my DNA. We don’t call it real wilderness in Big Sky Country unless the place is inhabited by grizzlies, or at least what few still remain.

Arguably America’s greatest apex predator, no animal symbolizes the “wild” more than the grizzly bear, which thrives if given a roaming range of 70-300 square miles for females and up to 500 for males. Of course, humans (read colonial settlers) being attracted to the land of the grizzly is exactly what’s put this majestic wandering creature on the verge of extinction today.

Take the case of the Southern California grizzly (Ursus horribilis), which up until the late 1800s dominated the state’s southern coastline, where for centuries the great bears scavenged along the region’s rivers and wetlands hoping to snag the once abundant salmon and trout. As Mike Davis writes in Ecology of Fear, during a “national orgy” of killing between 1865-1890, upwards of 95% of California’s “wild game” was slaughtered. California grizzlies all but vanished during this short span of 25 years, likely the largest wildlife kill-off in history. That’s right, before orange groves and fruit orchards began to dominate the dry California landscape, there were grizzlies. Tens of thousands since the Pleistocene age, supported by an abundant, healthy ecosystem.

In this canyon were seen whole troops of bears; they have the ground all plowed up from digging it to find their sustenance in the roots, which the land produces,” Pedro Fages, a Spanish soldier and explorer wrote in his diary in 1769. “They are ferocious brutes, hard to hunt … They do not give up.”

The last known grizzly in So Cal was shot in 1916 by Cornelius Birket Johnson, an industrious farmer living at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in north Los Angeles. The hungry bear trampled the man’s newly planted vineyard, chomping on his young grapes for three straight nights. Ol’ Johnson wasn’t about to let the pesky bear get away with such thievery and destruction, so one night he lured the grizzly with a slab of beef and snagged him in a trap, but like all feisty grizzlies, this young guy wouldn’t go down easy. Johnson later shot the bear dead after finding it gravely injured, exhausted, bloodied and suffering, having dragged the metal trap far from where it was originally set. Thus, at the hands of Johnson, the extinction of the So Cal grizzly was complete.

It’s the same sad story virtually everywhere one looks across the West. Between the mid-1800s up until the 1920s, grizzlies were killed off in 95% of their native habitat by European settlers in the Lower-48. The only bears that survived this period lived in remote, mountainous regions like the Montana wilderness. As David J. Mattson and colleagues write for the National Biological Service, “Unregulated killing of bears continued through the 1950s and resulted in a further 52% decline in their range between 1920 and 1970. Altogether, grizzly bears were eliminated from 98% of their original range in the contiguous United States during a 100-year period.”

The numbers are startling. Scientists estimate there were at least 50,000 grizzlies living in the contiguous United States in the mid-1800s. Today that number has dropped to a measly 1,100. Certainly, it’s a miracle any grizzlies are alive today at all, and the ones that are continue to live under constant assault. While over-hunting and obscene Western expansionism has worked in tandem to annihilate the grizzly, which was listed as threatened in 1975 by the federal governmentclimate change is just one of the latest obstacles the bear faces in its quest for survival, despite the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) doesn’t believe so.

“[We] conclude that the effects of climate change do not constitute a threat to the [Yellowstone grizzly bear population] now, nor are they anticipated to in the future,” the FWS declared in the Federal Register in March, after concluding another “study” on the health of the grizzly in Yellowstone.

Leave it to the paper-pushers at FWS to deny the fact that grizzlies are impacted by our warming climate. Indeed that’s exactly what they are doing when it comes to Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. Over 10 years ago the grizzly’s most important high-energy food source in Yellowstone, the whitebark pine nut (Pinus albicaulis), ceased to exist as winter temperatures rose. Warmer winters, a solid 2 degree rise since the 1970s, allowed pine beetle larva to survive the winter months and mature as summer approached. And we all know the devastation the pine beetle has wrought on Western forestsnow these important high-altitude trees are essentially non-functioning and no longer a food source for hungry grizzlies that dig up and munch on these pine cones prior to hibernation. In total, more than 60 million acres of forest from Northern Mexico through British Columbia have been killed by the pine beetle. Indeed, the death of the whitebark pine is just one indicator that climate change is forever altering the fragile Yellowstone ecosystem and the species that depend on it.

Today greater Yellowstone, which comprises of 31,000 square miles, sustains an estimated 600 grizzly bears. That’s 1 bear per 52 square miles. FWS actually believes this is a healthy number and is working hard to delist the bear, which they’ve attempted to do for the past two decades. FWS’s own staff initially believed only 16 percent of Yellowstone’s whitebark pines were infected by the pine beetle. Therefore, the FWS claimed, the little beetle served no real impediment to the survival of the grizzly. This estimate was later shattered by Dr. Jesse Logan, a decorated entomologist who is the former head of the FWS’s bark beetle research team. Logan’s own independent study suggested that nearly 95 percent of Yellowstone’s whitebark pine tree population was impacted. Following Logan’s analysis, FWS subsequently altered their estimate to 74 percent.

“The whitebark pine is both a foundation and a keystone species,” Jesse Logan tells Scientific America. “The health of the whitebark pine is very closely related to the health of the entire ecosystem.”

When the whitebark pines die off, so does a vital food source for bears. And when grizzlies go for good, there is no returning. Perhaps that’s FWS’s intention, despite their claims to have the best interest of the grizzly at heart. If they did actually give a shit, they’d learn from their own past mistakes. In 2007 FWS delisted the Yellowstone grizzly and the move had devastating impacts. In 2008, 54 Yellowstone grizzlies died37 of which were killed by hunters. It was likely the highest mortality rate of the Yellowstone grizzly in over 40 years.

“‘Known’ mortality is, as a rule of thumb, generally about half of actual grizzly bears dead. A hundred dead bears per year, no matter if the total number in the ecosystem is 200 or 600, means the [Yellowstone grizzly] population is crashing downhill,” writes author and bear advocate Doug Peacock. “This is especially true for the grizzly, one of the world’s slowest-reproducing mammals.”

Fortunately, in 2009 U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that Yellowstone’s grizzlies were not fully recovered, and cited the whitebark pine die-off as the reason the bears deserved to be protected by the Endangered Species Act once again. One major problem, noted Molloy, was there were no regulatory protections in place if the population began to decline, which clearly was happening.

“Even if the monitoring were enforceable, the monitoring itself does nothing to protect the grizzly bear population,” Molloy wrote. “Instead, there is only a promise of future, unenforceable actions. Promises of future, speculative action are not existing regulatory mechanisms.”

Now, FWS argues that it’s again time to strip these bears of their frail legal protection. No matter that the whitebark pine epidemic is far worse than it was ten years ago. No matter that the bear population is essentially the same size as it was in 2007. The delisting a decade ago shows us that the government does not have the capability to manage the delicate balance of grizzlies and their diminishing habitat. In fact, as climate change continues to kill off one of these bear’s main food sources, grizzlies will need more land to survive, not less.

Of course bears have no idea humans have drawn arbitrary lines around their habitat, dictating where they are allowed to roam and live. Whitebark pine trees are nearly gone in Yellowstone National Park and won’t be returning in our lifetimes. Sure grizzlies are highly intelligent, and will work hard to survive under adverse conditions. But if delisted, FWS will be setting up a major impediment that will forever devastate the grizzly as they face the bloodlust of trophy hunters near the park’s boundaries when they leave Yellowstone in search of food and new mates.

By denying that Yellowstone grizzlies are threatened by climate change (or greedy sport hunters for that matter), FWS is turning its back on science. It’s also turning its back on common sense. Delisting the grizzly serves no decent purpose whatsoever. There is no question that history will repeat itself if these short-sighted bureaucrats can pull it offin this case a history of avoidable extinction.

When we lose grizzlies, we lose wilderness, and when we lose wilderness we lose a piece of ourselves that can’t ever be replaced.

This piece first appeared in CounterPunch Magazine.

JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.