Are Grizzlies Losing Federal Protections Too Soon?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 23, 2013 19

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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,



  1. Sean Anderson May 1, 2013 at 10:32 am - Reply

    While delisting critters should be everyone’s goal, I am worried about this apparent pattern a forming (wolves, several plants here is California, etc.) a judgement about a particular species which seems premature. This is particularly of concern with exploited species. Assuming most of the recovery targets/population size estimates are right (and I have some concern about those), there seems to be no understanding that “everything is okay because we have X individuals” doesn’t work if folks are lining up to kill them the following season. Very few recovery plans I have read assume that the species will immediately become heavily exploited post delisting.

  2. Marcia S. Wertenberger, Esq. April 29, 2013 at 7:14 am - Reply

    This is exactly the problem with “recovery units” – They are a fictional mega-zoo as you say. Additionally, there units actually encourage genetic selection amongst the species creating new sub-species that also have to managed. So what is the answer? You’re right it is a book.

  3. Dr. Anthony (Tony) Povilitis April 29, 2013 at 7:13 am - Reply

    Hi Marcia – 600 Yellowstone grizzlies that are virtually disconnected from other grizzly populations cannot be considered “recovered” unless with a mega-zoo mentality (i.e., Oh, it would be OK to artificially transplant a grizzly now and then from outside Yellowstone and see if it stays as a resident), and a “wing and a prayer” (e.g. with no demographic bad luck and no detrimental climate change).

    As for you point about inconsistencies among species and states when it comes to recovery standards, well, there’s enough there for book-length treatment…

  4. Marcia S. Wertenberger, Esq. April 29, 2013 at 7:12 am - Reply

    I am actually curious who it is that came up with this arbitrary standard that this minuscule increase in the bear population indicates “recovery” to the point of delisting the species as threatened? It appears that the USFWS has completely different standards for different species which seems to be somewhat related to how difficult they are to actually count. My experience with California and desert tortoise in particular, is that it is not so much the number that count it is the amount of critical habitat designated that takes priority. Additionally, California DFG could really care less about desert tortoise recovery as most of the habitat is on federal lands. SO if tortoises ever recover to the point where they wander over onto some State property will DFG say “hey, it is ok now for everyone who sees one on a road to pick it up and take it home as there are obviously now so many tortoises they have gone beyond the reaches of the recovery units” – right? I know each species is different but so is each State – where will be the oversight of what will occur to species that roam through various states? What will be the standard then. Which states management controls will take precedence? This needs to remain a nationally regulated system (unless wildlife and plants can start recognizing and reading maps}.

  5. Thomas Nesler April 29, 2013 at 5:46 am - Reply

    Thanks Tony. You’ve provided a position to work with concerning both abundance, habitat or range and connectivity. Sounds like a sensible proposal with perhaps the blanket perspective on human conflict considerations. I do agree that humans need to accept responsibility and understanding of what it means to live in proximity to grizzlies. One must accept the implicit dangers to their personal health and well-being, as well as that pof their families when living in grizzly country. The difficulty to me comes in killing bears to protect ones life and where that trigger occurs. Certainly not when a bear is merely observed nearby. Not living in such an environment makes me an armchair critic on this particular topic. Society and affected landowners also need to accept shared responsibility for working together in vital grizzly habitat areas, occupied or potential, and find solutions wherein the bears are not killed and humans are not financially ruined.
    By Thomas Nesler

  6. Dr. Anthony (Tony) Povilitis April 29, 2013 at 5:44 am - Reply

    Tom, very good thoughts: In my view, an isolated population of 600 Yellowstone grizzlies should not be considered sufficient for recovery, and delisting would further shrink that number as the bears would be hunted outside the Park. Where would that leave us in terms of population viability?

    Yellowstone grizzlies COULD be considered recovered if that population were securely connected by safe corridors to the Northern Continental Divide population and to a much needed third population in central Idaho. Interconnected populations of least several thousand grizzly bears would be the goal. (What we have now are ~1500 grizzlies in mostly isolated population fragments).

    Grizzly bear recovery in the American West should mean a meta-population that includes the three populations I mentioned in the Northern Rockies connected west to the Cascades (through the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks) and perhaps parts of California, and south to the Southern Rockies and hopefully the central mountains of Arizona and New Mexico.

    Meta-population recovery with bioregional representation is what is need to give the grizzly bear a meaningful ecological and evolutionary future in North America. My apologies to those that would say this would mean too much conflict with humans. My response is “learn to live with large carnivores” just as we are asking many Africans to do. The fact that we are not moving in this direction, as stated earlier, “reflects just how backward we have become in the U.S.”

  7. Thomas Nesler April 29, 2013 at 5:43 am - Reply

    For the sake of discussion and perhaps debate, what would be appropriate recovery goals in terms of number of adult animals and or habitat, taking into account that conflict with humans will figure significantly into the amount of habitat suitable for supporting these large, wide ranging carnivores? Decrying the existing goals as too low or otherwise inadequate, what basis are any of you making to determine that inadequacy and what parameters are necessary to estimate a more effective recovery goal(s).

  8. Harald Renner April 26, 2013 at 6:46 am - Reply

    the question is why will they do this…are the different populations so secure that they can survive a 100 year interval without strongest protection? I don’t think so.

  9. Kristin Dzimitrowicz April 25, 2013 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I agree with your concern and hope something can be done about that… But would it take longer to process that than it would for them to be removed from Federal Protection?!

  10. Chabier González Esteban April 25, 2013 at 9:15 am - Reply

    I think full protection can be worse than some controlled hunting, when dealing with big predators as bears or wolves. Full protection elicits a feeling of defenceless in people that can suffer by the presence of predators, as farmers, then, at least here, in our Mediterranean countries, farmers tend to use very dangerous practices as snaring or poisoning, the effect is far more noxious for these and other species than regulated hunting.

  11. Dr. Anthony (Tony) Povilitis April 25, 2013 at 9:14 am - Reply

    If they are delisted, Yellowstone Park grizzlies will be shot as they move across park boundaries, encountering the same fate as many of Yellowstone’s wolves. Yellowstone needs a biologically-based buffer zone around it to protect it’s wolves and eventually it’s grizzlies. That is politically doable if park advocates, ecotourists, and the environmental community in general get behind the idea and launch a national campaign. Perhaps readers of this blog could create a core of individuals to trigger just that!

    The “delisting” debate about Yellowstone grizzlies reflects just how backward we have become in the U.S. in terms of wildlife conservation. It’s way too narrow. The debate should be more about restoring grizzlies to areas that might still support them elsewhere in the American West, rather than about removing ESA protection for 600 still-vulnerable bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

  12. Bob Johnston April 25, 2013 at 9:13 am - Reply

    My initial response is…No Way. I love that some species are rebounding in population. But I fear we have not yet learned to be fully responsible when a specie moves from the protection of the endangered list directly to a hunting lottery (like the sandhill crane). That saddens me deeply…

  13. Leigh Bennett April 25, 2013 at 9:12 am - Reply

    So sad to hear of this… man is killing everything, along with our beloved wolves and wild mustangs… not one human wolf attack ever recorded in US history and yet they are being brutally exterminated once again to extinction!

  14. Janet Bartie April 25, 2013 at 9:11 am - Reply

    No we need to watch carefully as the Grizzly has always been a hunted animal as mankind lives in fear of the Grizzly but forgetting that we in fact in most cases have invaded their territory, they are only protecting what they know as their home…The protection in my opinion should be lifted slowly.

  15. Philip Nichols April 25, 2013 at 9:10 am - Reply

    Dear Suresh,
    Just a few grizzly – hunter encounters may cause bears to run away from humans rather than look for a handout or meal. Hunting could be managed without endangering the base population. There is no hunting in Yellowstone, and there never will be. So, some other conditioning strategy that is effective needs to be found.

    ps – would rather use the word “extinction.”

  16. Corey Schutzman April 25, 2013 at 9:09 am - Reply

    I guess we would have to hope that take limits are applied and enforced by the states if grizzlies are removed from federal protection. The points you make regarding to their contribution to the ecosystem are more than valid and I would be apt to believe that the instances of bear attacks are blow a little out of proportion (I don’t have all the facts about those, so I am not calling anyone a liar but my experiences with black bear issues in NJ and wolf re-introduction would lead me to believe the reports to be not entirely true to fact). What metrics are usually considered when looking at successful re-population leading to removal from threatened or endangered status? Bald eagles have continued to do very well following their removal from the endangered species list, the few states that I have lived in with decent populations of the eagle have take and capture limits in place and strictly enforced.

  17. Lisa English April 24, 2013 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Yes I believe studies need to be done to consider whether the animal’s population has grown in numbers or plants. Not enough studies have been implemented. There are projects for planning to increase jobs. These can not happen is some instances when an environmental impact report is done and there are a number of endangered species on the list in an area be it land, riparian zone or river. Some water supplies are depending on a population of fish (delta smelt) to increase so that farmers and others needing water from northern CA can have water for their crops and drinking water supply.

  18. ROBERT PARKIN April 24, 2013 at 10:30 am - Reply

    “Is using an animal’s increased numbers reason enough to de-list it from the endangered species list”? NO.
    “Remove some of its strongest protections” Has the grizzly ever been truly protected?. Especially in a nation where hunting and gun ownership is encouraged. The US has a record that runs between lousy and pathetic where animal protection and landscape management is needed. The national parks are badly run and top to bottom management is terrible. The federal government lacks direction and shouts loud for effect.

  19. suresh chandra sharma April 24, 2013 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Loosing grizzly bears would be a real holocaust. Therefore a cautious approach of removing only identified animals and keeping them in captivity in zoos across the globe would be a better strategy.

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