In the 1800s, grizzlies were pushed into the higher elevations to make way for sheep and cattle. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

When Lewis and Clark were exploring the West in 1805, it’s estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 grizzly bears roamed the Great Plains. But by the late 1800s, as the West was getting settled, large animals were “cleared away” to make room for homesteading, mining and ranching. Within a hundred years, the grizzly bear’s range had been reduced by 99 percent in the Lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But since 1975, when grizzly bears were placed on the federal endangered species list, their numbers have rebounded from less than 200 to an estimated 1,400 today, 600 of which live in the Greater Yellowstone area.

Those statistics are why some are now calling for grizzlies to be delisted from their federal “threatened” status in the Yellowstone Ecosystem by early 2014. States would take over managing their grizzly bear populations—and management usually involves some form of hunting.

Since 1975, grizzly bear numbers have risen from less than 200 to an estimated 1,400 today. About 600 of them live in the Greater Yellowstone area. ©Chris Heald, flickr

But is using an animal’s increased numbers reason enough to delist it and remove some of its strongest protections?

Numerous bears moving in

When grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) were being systematically wiped out in the West, they began to move farther and farther away from humans, up into the higher elevations. Once they received federal protections, they were also boxed into designated “recovery zones,” areas of federally protected land in the northern Rockies.

For the past several decades, the grizzly population has been increasing by about 3 percent per year in northwestern Montana. Farther south, in and around Yellowstone National Park, numbers have stabilized. That means that the bears in both regions are now numerous enough that they are expanding out of the overcrowded Rocky Mountains onto flat land; they are rediscovering their natural habitats in river bottoms and breaks 250 miles east of the mountains.

Grizzlies are coming down from the rugged mountains and remote forests into riverine habitats. ©John T. Andrews

Some grizzlies are now spending their days sleeping in ravines where berries are plentiful; that also means they are coming closer to houses, livestock and crops. At night, they are sometimes feeding on those same crops and livestock. This results in more frequent bear-human encounters, such as when ranchers go looking for missing calves.

For 24 years, there had been no fatal grizzly attacks on humans in Yellowstone National Park. In the last three years, however, there have been four. Some ranchers and Wyoming officials argue that the bears are taking too heavy of a toll on livestock and are becoming too much of a threat to humans living near the park. They say that delisting the bears will provide states with a means to manage their grizzly populations for the welfare of their residents. In fact, Wyoming has already indicated its desire to allow hunting, citing problems with “nuisance bears.”

Numbers are only part of the story

But while grizzlies’ numbers are climbing, conservationists say that with civilization encroaching on their habitat and climate change shrinking their food supplies, the bears are still very vulnerable. Grizzlies are low-reproducers, and rising numbers can turn into another decline very quickly.

Civilization is encroaching on grizzly bear habitat, and climate change is shrinking the bears’ available food. They remain very vulnerable. ©Jeremy Covert

If grizzly bear management is turned over to the states that border Yellowstone—Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—these conservationists worry that history will repeat itself; that we will hunt the bears back down to near extinction. They also point out that concerns about bear attacks are overblown; according to the National Park Service, the chances of being injured by a bear at Yellowstone are approximately one in 2.1 million.

Too, removing grizzly bears will not just result in a decrease of their numbers. The big picture is much more complicated. Grizzlies are good for the land and for preserving biodiversity. For example, after a grizzly bear consumes the fruit of a fleshy plant, the seeds are excreted and dispersed in a germinal condition. Some studies have shown that germination success is substantially increased as a result of seeds being deposited along with nutrients in feces. This makes grizzly bears important seed distributors in their habitats. And while foraging for tree roots, plant bulbs or ground squirrels, grizzly bears stir up the soil. Soil disturbance causes nitrogen to be dug up from lower soil layers, making it more readily available in the environment. An area that contains both bear digs and undisturbed land has greater plant diversity than an area that contains just undisturbed land. And by regulating prey populations, grizzlies help prevent overgrazing in forests.

Chris Servheen, the federal grizzly bear recovery coordinator, counters that delisting won’t mean that all protections for the bears will be removed. States would still have to maintain healthy populations. If they don’t, they would lose control of managing the bears in their states.

When digging for food, bears stir up the soil, helping to preserve plant biodiversity. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

While hunting has proven to be an effective means of managing wild populations, do you think that federally delisting grizzly bears now, based on their increasing numbers, could be premature?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,