Grizzly Bear, © John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk / National Geographic Stock

The Future for Grizzlies

Erin Edge, Rocky Mountain Regional Associate

What’s in store for grizzlies in the lower 48? After more than 30 years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, there are an estimated 1600-1700 grizzly bears south of the Canadian border. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other land and wildlife management agencies have made significant progress restoring grizzly bears to a portion of their historic range. But much remains to be accomplished to assure our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy and appreciate this noble symbol of America’s natural heritage.

Grizzly Bear Recovery Areas

Map of grizzly bear recovery areas, courtesy of USFWS.

Currently, the majority of grizzly bears can be found in just two major ecosystems with the rest scattered across much smaller subpopulations. Here’s a quick breakdown of all grizzly bear populations found in the lower 48:

  • The 9,600-square mile Northern Continental Divide ecosystem (NCDE) in Montana includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and is home to an estimated 900-1,000 grizzly bears. This population is relatively stable and has continued to increase slightly each year.
  • The 9,200-square mile greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE) includes Yellowstone National Park and an estimated 600 to 700 grizzly bears. This population appears to have stabilized at current levels.
  • The 2,200-square mile Selkirk ecosystem in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and southern Canada has fewer than 100 grizzly bears with a slight increase each year.
  • The 2,600-square mile Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwestern Montana and northern Idaho has fewer than 50 grizzly bears. This population continues to decline slightly each year, but the decline appears to be tapering off.
  • The 9,500-square mile North Cascades ecosystem in Washington has fewer than 20 grizzly bears and very little is known about them. In order to recover this population, grizzly bears will likely need to be added to the area from other populations.
  • The 5,600-square mile Bitterroot ecosystem that straddles western Montana and central Idaho is currently void of grizzly bears but has been identified as containing excellent bear habitat and is key to connecting the GYE and NCDE populations.

The long-term survival of any species depends on the number and size of individual sub-populations, survival rates of each and connectivity between populations – the larger and more connected, the better the bears can withstand natural disasters, disease or extreme food shortages. For example, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem is currently  disconnected from the larger and more robust NCDE population. That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies are moving bears from the NCDE to the Cabinet-Yaak in an effort to save this population. This is desperately needed for the isolated North Cascades population as well, but politics has delayed grizzly bear augmentations here.

Grizzly BearSecuring quality habitat, improving human tolerance and minimizing conflicts between grizzly bears and people, particularly on private lands within or between identified recovery areas, will continue to be an ongoing challenge. But by working together, we can make sure that grizzly bears have safe passage to move across the landscape, thereby improving genetic diversity and boosting bear populations in more vulnerable ecosystems.

To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released its draft Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy. The strategy is intended to guide the management of grizzly bears and habitat protections on public lands after federal Endangered Species Act protections are removed. Among other things, the strategy would create a Primary Conservation Area, three additional management zones, and two Demographic Connectivity Areas. This geographic arrangement is designed to maintain a stable core population while providing varying degrees of protection in key linkage areas to encourage bears to disperse.

The Service has also proposed revisions to the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Plan that may change future population estimates. The GYE is the most isolated population in the lower 48 and has been hovering close to federal recovery objectives for several years. It is critical that bears in this population are able to expand into secure habitats that will once again link them with the more genetically diverse NCDE population and/or other grizzly bear populations.

As we close out Bear Awareness Week, we would like to celebrate the significant efforts put into grizzly bear recovery. It was humans that drove bears from an estimated 50,000 animals to fewer than 1,000 bears over approximately 170 years. And it is humans that must bring them back. Grizzly bears are the second slowest reproducing land mammal in North America, so recovery will not happen overnight. However, multiple conservation groups, local communities and agencies are dedicating efforts to ensure a place for grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.

The future of grizzly bears remains uncertain, but as Abraham Lincoln said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” Together with our partners, we will continue to work one day at a time to minimize grizzly bear deaths and improve social tolerance through continued outreach and on-the-ground coexistence projects.

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