Grizzly bears, © Todd Mintz

Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – It’s Complicated

There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently on Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Historically, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears inhabited the lower 48 states between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River. However, the species was virtually wiped out in the lower 48 states in the 1800s as western settlers began killing them in large numbers. In 1975, with only a few hundred grizzly bears remaining, the bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), giving it federal protections and requiring that federal agencies work toward its recovery. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population – one of five small populations that remain in the lower 48 – has increased from around 150-200 when bears were put on the ESA list in 1975, to around 700 bears today.

Bear and cub, © James Yule

A grizzly mama and cub trudge through the snow in Greater Yellowstone.

Due to this dramatic population increase around Yellowstone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been planning to “delist” these bears, removing them from the list of threatened species. This would return management to the three states in the region: Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The Service recently announced it is taking additional time to conduct a thorough assessment of threats facing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bear population before issuing a draft delisting proposal. Initially expected this spring or summer, we likely will not see a delisting proposal for Yellowstone bears until the end of this year, after the Service has had time to conduct this analysis.

Defenders is carefully following this “delisting” process and will review all new research and policy documents regarding the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population. We believe the Service must carefully consider all threats facing long-term sustainable grizzly bear recovery before making a decision on delisting. Here are some of our top concerns for Yellowstone’s grizzly population that we feel must be addressed when considering removing the bears from the Endangered Species Act:

Human-caused bear deaths
Aside from loss of habitat, human-related grizzly bear deaths are the largest threat facing grizzly bears. Bears die when they get into trouble with people’s garbage, kill livestock, are hit by cars and trains or are illegally killed. But human-related deaths are also some of the most preventable. Bears that find livestock, birdseed, backyard chickens or other items on people’s property are often killed out of concern for human safety. Grizzly bears are also shot and killed in surprise encounters where using bear spray might have allowed the person to protect themselves while also giving the bear another chance. There are a number of tools and techniques that people can use while living, working and recreating in bear country that make it safer for both bears and people. Bear-resistant electric fence around chicken coops and fruit trees can stop grizzly bears from accessing those foods, and food storage orders on public lands have been highly effective in preventing food-conditioned bears in campgrounds. Using such tools has in turn reduced the number of bears that are killed or relocated as a result of such conflicts. Any delisting proposal will need to address human-caused bear mortality and ensure that these deaths remain at biologically sustainable limits, and do not significantly increase in a post-delisting environment under state management. It is also vital that measures are in place to ensure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will quickly address concerning changes such as a declining population trend in a timely manner.

Secure Habitat and Connectivity
The closer grizzlies live to an open road or human development, the higher the rate of bear deaths, and the more likely the bears from one population are to become separated or fragmented. Grizzly bears deserve much-needed protections provided by securing what remains of their habitat.

Grizzly poster, © Defenders of Wildlife

Erin Edge spreading awareness of Defenders electric fencing incentive program. The fences are a great tool to aid in coexistence efforts.

Yellowstone grizzly bears are currently isolated from other grizzly bear populations to the north, which gives researchers some concerns about the overall genetic health of this population. It also begs the question about how resilient an isolated population of Yellowstone grizzlies will be in adjusting to future habitat, climate or other detrimental changes to their environment. Right now, researchers still need a better understanding of how and where male and female grizzly bears can safely move between the Yellowstone ecosystem and other recovery areas like the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to the north. Any delisting proposal will require significant efforts to secure or conserve habitat within and between these zones, and widespread use of tools that reduce conflict between bears and people.

State Management Post-Delisting
Here at Defenders, we believe science – not politics – should guide the decision on whether or not to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears. Currently some of Defenders’ greatest partners are the state and tribal agencies’ bear management specialists who work tirelessly on conflict prevention and implementation of tools that prevent the unnecessary deaths of grizzly bears. We are concerned that anti-predator politics in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho could influence state management of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears in a post-delisting world. Defenders will continue to work with the states, fight anti-grizzly bear legislation if it arises and closely review any change in state policy to ensure that science – not politics – drives future state management of grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears face many of these threats whether they are listed under the ESA or delisted. Either way, we need grizzly bears and grizzly bears need people to help them on their way to recovery. By protecting their habitat, understanding how to avoid conflicts and through the knowledge and widespread use of tools like bear spray, bear-resistant garbage cans and bear-resistant electric fences we can both call this place home. This will take a concerted effort on our part but we are up for the challenge. Are you? Find out more about our coexistence efforts and what you can do to help grizzly bears here.

Erin Edge, Rockies & Plains Representative

© Defenders of Wildlife

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