Return of the Yellowstone Grizzly
Officially Back from the Brink—Critics Not Satisfied
By Pat Hill
Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area have now officially joined the American alligator, grey whale, and peregrine falcon as a “recovered species” according to the par-ameters of the Endangered Species Act (legislation meant to ensure viability of the nation’s wild plants and animals).
“The grizzly's remarkable comeback is the result of years of intensive cooper-ative recovery efforts between federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and individuals,” said Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett when announcing the delisting decision on March 22. “There is simply no way to overstate what an amazing accomplishment this is.” In official lingo, the USFWS declared that “the Yellowstone Distinct Population Segment of grizzly bears is a recovered population no longer meeting the Endangered Species Act’s definition of threatened or endangered…This population has been increasing between four and seven percent annually…The range of this population also has increased dramatically… Therefore, based on the best scientific and commercial information available, we are finalizing the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.”
The largest environmental group in the U.S., the National Wildlife Federation, seems to agree with the USFWS’s decision. The Missoulian reported that Tom France, director and counsel for the federation's Northern Rockies office in Missoula, said, “The [grizzly] bear’s rebound is a magnificent wildlife recovery story, proving once again the Endangered Species Act's success as the nation's safety net rescuing species from extinction.” Even critics of the USFWS decision, such as the Sierra Club and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, agree with Scarlett’s assertion that the Yellowstone grizzly comeback is “an amazing accomplishment.”
Since first being listed as an endan-gered species in 1975, the Yellowstone grizzly population has grown from an estimated range of 136-312 bears to 500-600 grizzlies at last count. The Yellowstone grizzlies also gained the distinction of becoming the most intensely studied bear population in the world during that time. But opponents of grizzly delisting, including around 250 scientists and researchers, sent a letter to the government protesting the delisting in March. They questioned whether the Yellowstone grizzly population is sustainable without endangered species protection, because the research numbers used in making the delisting decision include grizzly habitat outside Park boundaries: around 40 percent of the territory Yellowstone grizzlies roam is beyond the “designated recovery area.” Bears counted outside that recovery area are included in the delisting decision, and opponents claim that no plans have been made to ensure the grizzly bear’s survival as a viable species in those areas after delisting. Worries about pressures on the bear’s habitat include the effects of timber harvesting, mining, and residential development. Inbreeding within a confined Yellowstone grizzly population and even the possible effect of global warming on bear habitat are other concerns.
Although the decision to delist grizzlies was based on criteria in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, a Natural Resources Defense Council press release called the government’s delisting plan “deeply flawed” and said it will “pursue every avenue possible, including a lawsuit and Congressional action, to protect the bears from being hunted and their habitat from being exploited for large-scale real estate and energy development.”
“The government is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Louisa Willcox, director of NRDC’s Wild Bears Project. “When you consider that they were nearly extinct 30 years ago, Yellowstone’s grizzlies have made a remarkable recovery. But they’ve survived only because of the Endangered Species Act, and they’re not out of the woods yet. The bears face grave threats that will be even more daunting if they’re stripped of protected status.”
“The grizzly is a large predator that requires a great deal of space, and conserving such animals is a challenge in today's world,” admitted Deputy Interior Secretary Scarlett.
But the USFWS asserts that “[federal government] commitment coupled with state wildlife agencies' approved grizzly bear management plans ensure that adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place and that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population will not become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.”
“At long last,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., according to the Associated Press. “Decades passed. The bears increased in number. The federal government stood immobile. Today that is finally changing. Grizzly management will shift to the state where it should be.” Montana even has plans for an annual grizzly bear hunt (with a total limit of one bear per year). According to the USFWS, federal and state agencies will continue to work together to manage the bears and their habitat, and spending is expected to increase by more than $1 million per year over the next two years to a total of $3.7 million annually. But not everyone is convinced.
“We cannot take a risk with the nation's premier wild land species,” said Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, according to the AP. Doug Honnold, an attorney for the Earthjustice organization, said in a March 21 press release, “We’re disappointed that federal wildlife managers have abdicated their responsibility to protect this magnificent animal, and we will continue to fight for their survival.”
Grizzly bears need lots of room in order to survive. They are larger and heavier than other bears in the lower 48 states: average grizzly weights range from 400-600 pounds for males and 250-350 pounds for females. Average lifespan for a grizzly is 25 years (though at least one grizzly studied lived to 35). They are distinguished from the black bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem by their distinctive humped shoulders, long curved claws, and a concave-looking face. Grizzly colors range from light brown to nearly black, and the bear’s coat has long “guard” hairs over densely matted underfur, with tips that can be silver or gold in color, leading to the bear’s name: grizzly.
The big bears once roamed the Rocky Mountain area from the mountains to the plains and astonished the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s with their ferocity and fearlessness, as the Corps of Discovery moved up the Missouri River through territory that would one day become Montana. In his journal, Lewis described a grizzly he and another member of the party had killed as “a most tremendious looking anamal, and extreemly hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died;[he] made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.”
“These bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all,” Lewis recorded. “I must confess I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one [grizzly] bear.”
Grizzlies will eat almost anything, and in the wild that includes living or dead animals and fish, grasses, roots, bulbs, tubers and fungi. That voracious appetite and a human fascination with bears probably helped speed the downfall of the Yellowstone grizzly population in the 1960s. Tourists began feeding both black and grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park in the late 19th Century, and feeding the bears became a mainstay of the Park’s tourist appeal. By the ‘60s, people would gather nightly during summer to watch bears feed on meat brought by Park rangers. Nightly bear forays into the dumpsters at West Yellowstone also drew rapt attention from tourists.
To the detriment of the grizzlies, these easy pickings accustomed the animals to people, and the smell of food at Park campsites attracted the bears, putting man and beast within uneasy reach of one another. Members of Yellowstone work-crews often found themselves face to face with grizzlies. Park bears also regularly approached vehicles for an easy hand out given through a rolled-down window. But in the ‘60s, after several dangerous and deadly encounters, the “Yogi Bear” days came to an end, as Park rangers began killing both grizzlies and black bears looking for easy treats offered by people. Park dumps were shut down and dumpsters locked. By the mid-70s, Yellowstone’s people-friendly bears were a thing of the past, and it was no longer a sure bet that if you visited Yellowstone you would see grizzlies.
“I never thought we would be there in Yellowstone,” USFWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Seryheen told the Missoulian of the bear’s comeback. “I'm somewhat amazed that they've done as well as they have.”
The USFWS estimates that today, 1,100-1,200 grizzlies live in the lower 48 states among five separate populations in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. According to the USFWS, biologists believe there is no evidence of interaction between the Yellowstone area grizzly population and other remaining grizzly bears in the lower 48 states or Canada. In addition to the Yellowstone area, those grizzly populations occur in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem (400-500 bears), the Selkirk ecosystem (40-50 bears), the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem (30-40 bears), and in the Northern Cascade ecosystem, which supports about five grizzlies.