A Danger to Grizzly Bears

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The grizzly bears that live in and around Yellowstone make up almost half the population in the lower 48 states, and now those bears are at risk. In 2015 their numbers in the Yellowstone area declined by 40, to an estimated 717 from 757 — a 6 percent drop that represents the highest one-year mortality since grizzlies were given federal protection in 1975. Despite this decline, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is currently preparing to strip the animals of their Endangered Species Act protection.

The agency is under pressure from the states around Yellowstone — Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — to allow hunting of bears that roam outside the parks’ boundaries. Now, the proposal to call the bears recovered and remove their protection is imminent. If the rule is finalized, it’s likely to allow states to reduce bear numbers by more than 100 practically overnight. But the bears are already struggling, threatened by declines in important foods like white-bark pine and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, as well as by their isolation from other grizzly populations.

Historically, grizzlies ranged from Alaska to Mexico, with at least 50,000 bears living in the western half of the contiguous United States. With European colonization, the bears were shot, poisoned and trapped to the brink of extinction. Today only about 1,500 to 1,700 grizzlies survive outside Alaska, in five isolated populations in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. Numbers in the Greater Yellowstone area have increased since the animals were first given federal protection, when only 136 bears were left, but they continue to be threatened by climate change and food shortages. Over all, grizzly bears still occupy only 2 to 4 percent of their ancient range in the lower 48 states.

Grizzlies run fast, at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, and in Yellowstone — where they’re far smaller than their Alaskan cousins — weigh up to 700 pounds. They’re inextricably connected to our notion of the American wild and deeply sacred to numerous American Indian tribes, including the Blackfeet, Hopi, Shoshone and Sioux. They play vital roles in traditional culture and ceremony and loom large in many creation myths.

The Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, has been advocating for years, with other conservation groups, for an ambitious recovery strategy for these majestic predators. In June 2014 we filed a “recovery plan petition” asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to recover grizzlies in more of their historic range, including parts of Colorado and Utah; in December we further petitioned to reintroduce bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. The Endangered Species Act requires that a species be protected in each “significant portion of its range” — the law’s intent being not only to temporarily stave off extinction, but also to recover species so they can persist into the future. But the service has been systemically ignoring, indeed actively working to redefine and thus dismantle, this “significant portion of its range” requirement under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Dozens of native tribes have also been fighting to stop federal removal of protection, asserting it would violate the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Tribal advocates for grizzlies feel disrespected or disenfranchised by the government’s delisting plan.

A new draft agreement among the three Yellowstone-area states, recently leaked to the press, outlines the states’ proposed authority to kill or allow the killing of bears that wander outside the park. Bears that wander even farther, past a “demographic monitoring area” to be set up by the states and the federal agency — and of course, invisible to both bears and people — would not count toward the total and could therefore be shot without penalty.

Yet these roaming bears, who may disperse hundreds of miles to mate, are precisely the animals that are needed to convey genetic diversity among populations. If dispersing bears are shot without restraint, chances of the species’ survival will be sharply lowered. Keeping federal protections in place is the best way to keep these great beasts alive.

When federal protection was stripped from some states’ populations of gray wolves, and wolf management was left to those states, wolves there became instant targets, resulting in more than 3,500 wolf killings between 2011 and January 2015.

It would be tragic to repeat the same mistake with grizzlies.

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