The Threats to the Grizzly’s Fragile Recovery are Expanding

Photo: Frank van Mane /USGS.

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

It’s too soon. Despite the truth of more bears, some lingering trends have potential to put their still-tentative recovery in reverse. 

For example, increasing recreational and residential development are underway at the same time. Each can block a variety of critters from freely moving around to meet the demands of life, and thus set brakes on the bear’s recovery

Likewise, recovery seems likely to be slowed by a combination of population crash of insect pollinators and intensity of western US drought.  Each alone raises questions about the future of the food supply so basic to animal life and livelihood. 

The pollinator crash is as good a place to start as any. This trend alone has inspired headlines about threats to the human food supply. One headline declared that “Poor Pollination Led To More Than 400,000 Excess Deaths Due To Lower Crop Yields.”

But the risk is widely shared. The National Wildlife Federation points out that pollinators  “… allow wild plants to reproduce and produce the berries, fruits, seeds, and other plant foods that form the base of the natural food web.”

Grizzly recovery to date has been supported by this natural, pollinated  set of foods. 

Huckleberries are an example among others offering support so far. It turns out that western bumblebees pollinate huckleberry flowers.

It also turns out that their numbers are falling, and for more reasons than one. The level of risk for these arguably important pollinators has led the US Fish and Wildlife Service to considering whether they’re a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

This brings the connection from pollinator 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?

Interestingly then, there isn’t even one passing mention of pollinators in  the US Fish and Wildlife Service January 2021 Special Status Report on Gtizzly Bears in the lower 48 states.

Then there’s drought

Important as they have been in supporting the grizzly’s recovery to date, pollinators aren’t enough.

Plants need water. Drought pulls down the supply. Drought is capable of killing even the biggest trees, and it does no favor to the crops supporting today’s human population.

So it seems pretty reasonable to ask what happens to plant foods if they face both a shortage of water and a shortage of pollinating insects? 

Could this pair of shortages add up together as a big deal? And what might that mean for the likes of ground squirrel, grouse, and grizzly? For that matter, what would it mean for bison, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope?

Animals need water every bit as much as they need food. Drought draws down the supply of both. 

It’s not rocket science.

Alas, same as with pollinators, there is not even a passing reference to drought in the US Fish and Wildlife Service January 2021 Special Status Report on Grizzly Bears in the lower 48 states. How did that happen?

Combined water and pollinator loss not the only rising threat to recovery.

Coming on top of rising threat from the combined drought and a pollinator declines, there’s another risky combination taking shape — an increasing demand for both expansion  of recreational and residential development. 

Either recreational or residential expansion alone can make life that much harder for many a species  to move around in meeting life’s demands. They add up to a bigger story when, as now, 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 the recreation and residential risks, because it’s been done. “It’s out there,” he said, already available.

He couldn’t be more right. For example, one piece of scientific sleuthing found evidence that “Housing growth in and near United States protected areas limits their conservation value.” They report that “Our study shows that housing growth in and near US protected areas has been strong for 6 decades, and that lands near protected areas are attractive for development. If development continues unabated, it will further limit the conservation value of protected areas, and biodiversity will be impoverished.”

The evidence shows up in agencies’’ own documentation. For example, the December 2017 Flathead National Forest Biological Assessment includes this reference ;“Schwartz and others (2010) found that grizzly bear survival in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem declined as road density, number of homes, and site developments increased.”

For an example from the sleuthing on the effects of the recreational side, a recent survey of wildlife response to people just walking along trails in Glacier National Park found that, “the dual mandates of national parks and protected areas to conserve biodiversity and promote recreation have potential to be in conflict, even for presumably innocuous recreational activities.” With people hiking on the trails, and grizzlies among the animals preferring to avoid us, grizzlies gave up use of the nearby food web during the daylight hours.

Grizzly recovery is not a numbers game

For sure, there are more grizzlies around now than in, say, 1900 or even 1950. That much can be legitimately be chalked up as success, but animal numbers have 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 people now than in 1900, or even 1905. While there’s some truth in Montana officials’ remark that people can expect grizzlies just about anywhere nowadays, it’s just as true that ground squirrel, grouse, and grizzly are seeing more of us. 

The growth of both populations hangs especially heavy over the grizzlies, now becoming as if fugitives in their homeland, with a recovery at risk  of being slowed down on four fronts.

Enter, critical slowing down

Over the years, an argument that there are more bears has become an argument that there are too many, and, interestingly, the de-listing proposal now coincides with calls for slowing and halting the bear’s recovery.

16 years ago, I happened to come across this take on a slowing of recovery : “    recovery rates decrease as a catastrophic regime shift is approached, a phenomenon known in physics as “critical slowing down.” The article had shown up in  The American Naturalist June 2007, under the title, Slow Recovery from Perturbations as a Generic Indicator of a Nearby Catastrophic Shift.

Because grizzly recovery was already as much a front and center issue for many of us in 2007 as it is for many today, that article took hold with me. 

I had no idea then how often the risk of potential for catastrophic shift would be confirmed, again and again, almost every year. 

As early as 2009, Reinette Biggs and teammates found evidence that if the drivers of shift “… can only be manipulated gradually management action is needed substantially before a regime shift to avert it; if drivers can be rapidly altered aversive action may be delayed until a shift is underway. Large increases in the indicators only occur once a regime shift is initiated, often too late for management to avert a shift. ” <<>>

Subsequent studies have revealed much the same story. I can’t help but remember them as I pick through the studies on more drought, fewer pollinators, expanding recreation, and expanding housing sprawl.

For sure, we can plainly still look around, and see no dire catastrophe in grizzly numbers yet, no certain evidence of a slowing recovery. What we can see, and maybe just maybe need to see more clearly, is an early warning.