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Yellowstone and the Fate of the Grizzly

Federal Judge Dana Christensen threw out the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear and returned the bear to Endangered Species Act protection. The decision effectively precluded (for now) the hunting of the bear in Idaho and Wyoming.

The judge agreed with plaintiffs that the FWS had failed to consider how delisting would affect grizzly bear survival across the Northern Rockies. He wrote that Fish and Wildlife Service also acted arbitrarily and capriciously in analyzing threats to the Yellowstone bears.

What the FWS failed to do is sufficiently consider the basic ecology of the grizzly bear. It is one of the slowest reproducing species in our region, with females typically breeding at age 5 or older.

In addition, there are genetic concerns. Dominant male grizzlies do the majority of breeding so that in effect, the genetic diversity of the population is significantly reduced. This loss of genetic diversity is aggravated by the fact, that Yellowstone grizzly populations suffered a “genetic” bottleneck in the 1970s when their numbers may have been as low as several hundred bears.

Most population biologists believe that a minimum of 2,000 grizzlies is necessary to guarantee long-term genetic viability as well as connections between various sub-populations like the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies and those in the Yellowstone area.

Compounding these problems for the Yellowstone grizzly is that some of its major food sources including spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout have declined due to the introduction of lake trout that consume the cutthroats in Yellowstone Lake, as well as the loss of a grizzly bear stable, whitebark whose nutritious seeds were an important fall food.

While bear distribution has increased throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, some bear biologist suggest this is partially due to the need to search more widely for additional food sources.

Christensen noted that the FWS effectively pandered to the state wildlife agencies that were ready to begin trophy hunting of the bear. He wrote the FWS had “illegally negotiated away its obligation to apply the best available science in order to reach an accommodation with the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.”

And it relied on two studies supporting the Yellowstone bears’ genetic independence when both studies concluded the bears actually needed more genetic interchange from other populations.

One of the justifications used for delisting by proponents of hunting is that grizzly depredation of livestock has increased. Indeed, the killing of grizzlies for livestock depredation is the leading source of human mortality for Yellowstone grizzlies.

For instance, more than 40 grizzlies have been removed from the Upper Green River grazing allotment area of Wyoming to appease ranchers using our public lands for their private profit.

Similar conflicts between bears and livestock exist in Montana where bears have been killed after preying on domestic sheep in the Centennial and Gravelly Ranges.

These are all the result of “problem livestock.” In other words, putting livestock on public land allotments with a minimum of human oversight is effectively leaving four-legged picnic baskets out for grizzly bears to consume.

It must be remembered that grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right, and any private use of public resources should only be permitted if they do not compromise the public’s use and enjoyment of these lands, which includes ensuring the long-term survival of wild grizzlies.

One effective way to alleviate these conflicts is to terminate livestock grazing through grazing permit buyouts. There are private funds available from generous donors who believe that the voluntary removal of livestock is the best way to move forward.

We can grow cows in many parts of the United States, but there are only a few places like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where grizzly bears can thrive. It’s time to recognize our obligation to provide the bear with a safe and secure future.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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