The status of grizzly bear protection has been up in the air over the past few years. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Yellowstone grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act. Just one year later, a federal judge restored their protections after lawsuits were filed by conservation groups and Native tribes. This led to grizzlies ultimately returning to threatened status through the Endangered Species Act. A new recommendation by the FWS says they should stay there.
In late March, the agency said after completing a five-year status review, they determined that there should be no change to the threatened status of the grizzly bear in the lower 48. The FWS explained that the species is listed as a whole, so though some areas like the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems are biologically recovered, the species’ status throughout the country must be considered. As they explain, the bears collectively continue to face threats.
The FWS’ grizzly status assessment says, “The primary factors affecting grizzly bears at both the individual and ecosystem levels are excessive human-caused mortality and human activity that reduces the quality and quantity of habitats, which increases the potential for human-caused mortality, both directly and indirectly. Human activities are the primary factor impacting habitat security and the ability of bears to find and access foods, mates, cover, and den sites. Regulating human-caused mortality through habitat management and conflict prevention are effective approaches.”
The study explains that these measures have worked well in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Of the other four ecosystems included in the grizzly recovery plan, only two – the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk – currently contain grizzly populations. The other two – the North Cascades and Bitterroots – do not have any confirmed grizzlies, but their habitat is suitable for them.
In order to determine the state of the grizzly population in the lower 48, the peer-reviewed species status assessment investigated current needs, conditions, threats, and future scenarios. Scientific experts and federal, state, and tribal agencies were all involved in the review. The work shared a variety of hurdles the species needs to cross to fully rebound.
A news release from the agency explains, “Considerable challenges remain to fully recover the grizzly bear in the lower-48 states, resulting in the recommendation to continue listing it as threatened. These remaining challenges include limited habitat connectivity, management of access by motorized vehicles, human-caused mortality and uncertainty surrounding future conservation efforts in some ecosystems.”
The report outlined five future conservation scenarios, ranging from a significant decrease in conservation efforts to a significant increase in them. Each scenario’s impact on grizzlies was discussed. They say a significant decrease in conservation would lead to lower resiliency of the bears in all ecosystems, even among the relatively robust Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide populations.
Efforts to Delist
Among those pushing for the delisting of the species are many ranchers in Montana, who say they’ve seen an increase in depredation on their livestock. They argue that they have limited options to address livestock loss if the species continues to be protected. However, other producers in the state say there are options that don’t involve killing bears, like electrical fencing, carcass composting, and better educational outreach on these alternative methods.
The conservation group Blackfoot Challenge is one organization advocating for nonlethal measures. Executive Director Seth Wilson says the nonprofit has been helping ranchers pay for electrical fences, and it’s led to a sizable decrease in bear versus livestock conflicts.
He told the Great Falls Tribune, “We documented a 75% reduction from 2003 to 2012. Last year we had a bump-up of conflicts and bears continue to show us where we need to do more work, and we’ll continue to face that sort of challenge.”
Ranchers who have taken this route hope it will catch on more so that there isn’t such a push to delist the bears and reduce their numbers.
Grizzly Conservation Efforts
Grizzly bears, which can live for more than 25 years in the wild, are currently found in the lower 48 in portions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. Once more widespread, they currently cover 6% of their historical territory in this region.
The FWS assessment says, “An estimated 50,000 grizzly bears were distributed in one large contiguous area throughout all or portions of 18 western States (i.e., Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas). Populations declined in the late 1800s with the arrival of European settlers, government-funded bounty programs, and the conversion of habitats to agricultural uses.”
In fact, the agency says by the time grizzlies were listed in 1975, they covered less than 2% of their historical territory in the lower 48. There were also only 700 to 800 left. Their recovery in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been the most pronounced, increasing from 136 in 1975 to about 728 in 2019. As for the Northern Continental Divide, their population is estimated at about 1,000.
There are many groups pushing for healthy populations in the ecosystems with either few or no documented grizzly residents, as well. That includes the Center for Biological Diversity. They’re committed to seeing the bears thrive again in the North Cascades. This led them to file a lawsuit in December after the Trump administration decided to pull the plug on a restoration effort in that region.
Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said at the time, “Grizzly bears once thrived in the North Cascades and they could again… Abandonment of efforts to restore bears to this area would ensure the local extinction of grizzlies in Washington. We’re not going to let that happen.”
The organization says the area could support about 280 grizzlies.
To understand more about the current state of the grizzly bear in the lower 48, you can read the FWS’s species assessment here.Whizzco