The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bears, removing them from the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). And state wildlife agencies in Wyoming and Montana are anxious to start sport hunting the bears.
If you follow environmental politics, it is very clear why industries like the oil and gas industry, livestock industry and timber industry and the politicians they elect to represent their interests are anxious to see the bear delisted. Without ESA listing, environmentally destructive practices will have fewer restrictions, hence greater profits at the expense of the bear and its habitat.
Delisting is opposed by a number of environmental groups, including Center for Biodiversity, Western Watersheds, WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for Wild Rockies, Humane Society, as well as more than 100 tribal people. Conspicuously absent from the list of organizations opposing delisting is the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Proponents of delisting, including the FWS, argue that with as many as 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, thus ensuring the bears are now safe from extinction. Seven hundred bears may sound like a big number. But this figure lacks context. Consider that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is nearly 28 million acres in total area. That is nearly the same acreage as the state of New York. Now ask yourself if 700 bears spread over an area the size of New York sounds like a lot of bears?
Many population ecologists believe 700 bears is far too small a number of animals to ensure long-term population viability. Rather than hundreds, we need several thousand bears.
Keep in mind that the Yellowstone Grizzlies went through a genetic bottleneck when their population was reduced to an estimated 136 animals. Indeed, the Yellowstone grizzlies have the lowest genetic diversity of any bear population.
This lack of diversity is exacerbated because dominant male grizzlies tend to breed with multiple female partners, further reducing the genetic diversity in the population.
Add to this biological limitation is the changing food structure for the bear. Major food resources from elk to whitebark pine to spawning trout in Yellowstone have all declined, challenging bears to find new food resources.
Plus, state wildlife management agencies are generally hostile to predators, seeing them hindering production of elk, deer, moose, and other animals desired by hunters. Since state agencies
Without the protection of the ESA, and the loosening of restrictions on the killing of bears, more grizzlies will be killed for livestock depredations, as well as potentially by trophy hunters. Most predator biologists recognize that killing dominant animals, whether it is bears, wolves or cougars disrupts the social ecology of these animals, leading to more livestock depredation.
In ecology, there is the “precautionary principle” which admonishes all of us to err on the side of caution. Instead of using the minimum estimates of what constitutes a “recovered” we should be careful and not rush to eliminate protections for an animal whose biological potential is low and is slow to recover from any declines.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including several dealing with wildfire ecology. He divides his time between Bend, Oregon, and Livingston, Montana.