Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?


Photo: National Park Service.

A few weeks ago, I offered my perspective on threats to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) under the Trump administration and our current Congress. The ESA is critically important, and the reason why we still have a number of species and populations that would otherwise be extinct or gravely imperiled, including grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies.

There is consensus across the political and ideological spectrum that federal and state efforts under auspices of the ESA have benefited grizzly bears enormously. No matter where the debate over status of Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystem grizzlies leads, their story is an ESA success.

The grizzly bear was listed as threatened throughout the lower-48 states in 1975 as a result of concerns about population status and habitat loss. This decision was driven in large measure by what was then happening in Yellowstone Park. Park Service managers had thrown pioneering grizzly bear researchers John and Frank Craighead out of Yellowstone in 1970 after a series of disagreements over management. The agency was determined to abruptly close open pit dumps in the Park, which is what they did as soon as the Craigheads left.

The results were tragic and predictable. Managers killed bears in droves when they sought food in campgrounds and communities. Experts feared that extinction of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears was imminent.

But Yellowstone’s grizzlies survived and even flourished. Under the ESA, grizzly bear numbers in the Yellowstone region have probably doubled, from about 350 to 700 individuals, while Glacier grizzlies have probably increased by 50%, from roughly 680 to 900-1000. (link). Without ESA protections, grizzly bears would likely have been relegated to just a few animals hanging on in or near national parks.

Under the ESA, managers were given the resources and incentives to tackle measures that would have otherwise been politically impossible, including stopping state-sponsored sport hunting, improving sanitation and other coexistence measures, eliminating domestic sheep on grazing allotments, and closing roads on public lands. These efforts would not have succeeded without the blood, sweat and tears of duly motivated public servants, prodded occasionally by watchdog environmentalists.

A Better Approach to Recovery

The ESA requires federal agencies to use the best available science in managing listed species and to avoid harm to protected plants and animals. Importantly, the ESA also provides citizens with recourse to litigation if managers are neglecting or distorting the ESA’s mandates. This provision has allowed for major court-enforced improvements in how the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), US Forest Service, and National Park Service have interpreted and implemented the ESA, especially in the case of grizzly bears.

One benchmark case brought by conservationists challenged the lack of habitat-based recovery standards in the FWS’s 1992 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. Federal Judge Paul Friedman concluded that it was not enough to define recovery on the sole basis of population numbers, especially since concerns about habitat loss had contributed to listing of all grizzlies left in lower-48 states. In other words, you can’t have bears if they have nowhere to live.

The FWS was subsequently directed to develop a Conservation Strategies (CS) that would ensure there was adequate habitat for grizzlies. A first iteration of Yellowstone’s Strategy was finalized in 2003, and then revised again last year. Under this CS, an area the size of Yellowstone Lake has been restored to wilder conditions. The CS for Glacier-area grizzlies is currently being formulated.

Although neither plan is as strong as conservationists hoped, they have improved—or promise to improve—habitat protection. In the meantime, both populations remain listed under the ESA – and the debate over their protections is far from over.

Climate change has emerged as a central issue in these deliberations. In fact, the climate-driven collapse of a native bear food, whitebark pine, was a major reason that several courts reversed an earlier 2007 attempt by the FWS to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. The involved judges admonished the government to undertake a more thorough analysis of how losing whitebark pine had affected Yellowstone’s bear population. Even so, a decade of ensuing much-criticized research by government scientists has not settled the debate.

A Road Runs Through It

Conservationists used litigation under the ESA’s mandate to move an otherwise immovable Forest Service to adopt better standards for managing roads. A series of successful legal challenges brought against the Flathead, Targhee and Gallatin National Forests reduced the mileage of logging roads and restored extensive areas of previously degraded habitat in both the Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems.

These cases leveraged irrefutable scientific evidence showing that roads were harmful to bears. On top of this, logging had been declining precipitously on the Targhee Forest because most of the timber killed by bark beetles—the putative driver of unsustainable cutting—had already been harvested, which reduced the economic impact of road closures.

For the most part, these road-related lawsuits were friendly in nature, meaning that many agency biologists welcomed pressure from outside the government to make needed changes otherwise thwarted by politicians in thrall to the logging industry.

The positive effects have been perhaps most clearly documented on the Targhee Forest, where, by the early 1990s, reproducing female grizzly bears had been extirpated in the wake of a massive clearcutting and roadbuilding program. Today, female grizzly bears are once again surviving and producing offspring on the Targhee. They have also been recolonizing habitat in the Centennial Range, an important landscape for reconnecting the long-isolated Yellowstone population to more robust populations to the west and north.

Fortunately, efforts to improve on-the-ground coexistence between grizzly bears and people have been far less contentious, often involving collaboration between state and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Better husbandry practices, the use of electric fence, and livestock guardian dogs have helped reduce livestock-related conflicts. And, numerous communities have reduced the availability of garbage and human-related foods that attract bears.

The Special Case of the Selkirks, Cabinet Yaak and North Cascades Grizzlies

The ESA has been, and continues to be, vital for sustaining the few grizzly bears managing to hang on in Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains, northern Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, and Washington’s North Cascades. The Selkirk grizzly bear population numbers about 50 animals, the Cabinet-Yaak about 42, and the North Cascades, just a handful. The numbers are so small that some experts have dubbed these populations “the walking dead.”

The FWS has done little other than the bare necessities for grizzly bears in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems, and instead has chosen to focus on removing ESA protections for the larger Yellowstone and Glacier populations in an ill-conceived effort to appease regressive politicians in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Still, without the ESA, there would be little hope for the future of these tiny populations.

But, grizzlies in the North Cascades may soon get a needed boost. The FWS recently released an Environmental Impact Statement in which they evaluated options for augmenting the grizzly bear population in this ecosystem, which is as large in size as Greater Yellowstone. Unlike in the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak, public support for recovery of grizzlies in the North Cascades is enthusiastic. Even so, don’t be shy about submitting comments in support of aggressive conservation measures, which will be accepted by the FWS as part of its formal comment process through April 28.

Recovery of the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak populations is hampered by their small size and by high levels of habitat fragmentation caused by past logging and related road-building. Poaching is also rampant, reflecting the local anti-government, anti-carnivore, redneck cultures.

Testimony to the potential benefits of population augmentation, grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem would have likely gone extinct but for the importation of 17 grizzly bears from the Glacier ecosystem by wildlife managers. Even with the addition of these bears, there is evidence that only two produced offspring, the majority of which were by one alone.

The handful of grizzlies in the Cabinet Mountains also owe their survival to litigation that has delayed construction of a proposed hard rock mine that would literally undermine the heart of the Cabinet Wilderness. Unfortunately, efforts to curb excessive road building on National Forests in the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak have been unsuccessful, despite the fact that road densities are far higher here than in the larger Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems.

There is no doubt that these populations deserve the more stringent protections offered by an “endangered” rather than “threatened” designation, which is their current status. Yet the FWS strenuously argues that such an “uplisting,” while warranted scientifically, is “precluded” by “other agency priorities.”

A legal battle is underway over a recent FWS finding that the Cabinet-Yaak population no longer warrants the “precluded” endangered status, despite little change in population numbers and mounting threats. A few weeks ago, a federal court in Missoula heard oral arguments on the matter. In a brief filed on behalf of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, attorney Rebecca Smith wrote: “The agency’s conduct…indicates that the agency has no intention to recover or provide critical habitat for the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear, but instead intends to play administrative keep-away with the necessary protections for the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear for as long as possible, possibly until the population simply goes extinct.”

Much remains to be done for the small grizzly bear populations along our border with Canada, including constant vigilance by environmentalists empowered by provisions of the ESA.

The Threat of Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Delisting, and the Problem of State Management

Even our two largest grizzly bear populations in the Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems are at risk from craven politics. State wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies have long wanted to renew a grizzly bear trophy hunt, which can only happen if grizzly bears lose ESA protections. Although the Glacier grizzly bear population is substantially larger, the FWS has moved first to delist Yellowstone grizzlies, in large measure because of pressure from politicians in Wyoming. A final decision is expected in the summer of 2017.

The ESA is still needed to curb the excesses of state wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies. The unreformed political institutions in these and other western states continue to be organized around an ethos of domination and death that led to the initial widespread extirpation of grizzly bears in the lower-48 states during the 1800s and early 1900s (link and link). Such an ethos promises to spawn more of the same.

Management of grizzly bears after delisting is likely to resemble that of wolves in Montana and Idaho after they were delisted. State-sponsored hunting and other killing has destabilized wolf packs outside National Parks. The killing of alpha wolves has resulted in younger and smaller packs, including less experienced hunters. This has contributed to increased depredation on livestock. Scientists anticipate that killing older, well established male bears after delisting will similarly open a niche for younger males with a greater propensity to kill livestock.

The nub problem of wildlife management by state agencies is an archaic but lethal central premise that nature needs to be controlled and large carnivores killed 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. 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 little evidence showing that carnivores harm big game populations — and plenty of evidence showing that excessive hunting, climate change, and drought do have major negative impacts.

Sport hunting will also likely prevent viable connections among grizzly bear populations in the northern Rockies, which most credible scientists believe is essential for long term recovery. This is especially true for grizzly bears given how difficult it is for them to colonize new habitats, primarily because females tend 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. The first bears to be killed will be those on the periphery 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.

But state wildlife management does not have to be this way. States such as Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, and California, have reformed their wildlife management systems–broadening their financial base beyond hunting and fishing license fees and expanding their constituencies to include more people who appreciate wildlife primarily or even solely for intrinsic reasons.

Until and unless management of wildlife by the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho is reformed, ESA protections for grizzly bears in Yellowstone and Glacier will continue to be vital. This holds doubly so for grizzlies in the Selkirks, Cabinet-Yaak, and North Cascades.

That means that the Act itself must be spared the attacks of corporations, conservative ideologues, and their lackeys. That means too that the public who care about endangered species, parks and public lands persist in demanding that government officials exercise caution and restraint, so that future generations may thrill at the sight of a grizzly in the wild.

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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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