It’s Too Soon to Remove the Grizzly From the Endangered Species List

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

As the number of grizzly bears has grown, so has interest in removing them from protection of the Endangered Species Act. It’d be premature.

There’s some disagreement on my stance, but I see the grizzly’s attempted recovery at plausible risk of being slowed, halted and reversed by loss of plant foods caused by a combination of drought, and the ongoing crash of insect pollinators — it’s become increasingly evident that a wide range of pollinating insects are in trouble — and CO2-driven loss of plant life’s nutritional support.

Alongside that combined risk to the grizzly’s tentative recovery, add the combination of increasing recreation demand and residential sprawl has its own potentials for slowing, halting and reversing a potentially fragile recovery.

The pollinator crash is as good a place to start as any. After all, it’s become increasingly evident that a wide range of pollinating insects are in trouble.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service January 2020 Special Status Report on Grizzly Bears in the lower 48 states makes no mention of pollinators. Nor does it even once mention heat, which brings drought to the world of bears and pollinators.

It turns out that western bumblebees pollinate huckleberry flowers, and that their numbers are falling, and for more reasons than one. The risk for these arguably important pollinators has led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to considering whether these bees are a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

This brings the connection from pollination to berry to bear into sharp focus.

It would be good to know how many other insect pollinators have been supporting the foods that supported the bear’s recovery so far. And it would be good to know how those others are doing. Have bear biologists had opportunity to identify which of them help feed the grizzly, and how many of those are doing fine or dying off?

Then there’s drought or water shortage. We all know that plants need water. What happens to the neighborhood’s plant foods if they face both a shortage of water and a shortage of pollinating insects? And what might that mean for the likes of ground squirrel, grouse and grizzly?

Coming on top of risk arising from drought and a pollinator declines, there’s another informative combination taking shape — an increasing demand for recreation and residential development. Each alone can make life a bit harder for many a species in the grizzly’s neighborhood. They add up to a bigger story when they come down at the same time.

As Chris Servheen correctly told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, there is no further need for research on these risks, because it’s been done. It’s out there, already available.

For sure, there are more grizzlies around now than in, say, 1900 or even 1950. An argument that there are more bears can quickly become an explicit argument for slowing and halting the bear’s recovery. And the stage is thus set for reversing it.

Animal population numbers certainty matter, but animal numbers have likely never been the only kid on the block. It’s worth keeping in mind that, if there’s security in population numbers, the passenger pigeon couldn’t have gone extinct.

It’s well worth stressing that there’s also more of us in Montana now than in 1900 or 1950. The growth of both populations hangs especially heavy over the grizzlies, now becoming fugitive in their homeland.