The best-case scenario for an endangered species is to be recovered to the point where it no longer needs Endangered Species Act protection. So why are the conservation groups lining up to fight the recent grizzly delisting decision in court?
Conservationists aren’t buying the line that stripping federal protections from grizzly bears has a scientific basis. It is certainly good news that grizzly populations around Yellowstone have increased since the 1970s, but there is a long way to go before this bear population is secure and interconnected with other grizzlies. And the bottom line is that the grizzly bear is more likely to continue recovering under the federal authority of the Endangered Species Act than it would be under state management.
Looking at the big picture, there are only two stable populations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48: Yellowstone and the Crown of the Continent area, which encompasses Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall wilderness complex. Everywhere else — the North Cascades, Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho — grizzly populations are barely hanging on.
There are great swaths of suitable habitat where the great bear remains absent. The grizzly population is now gone from the Selway-Bitterroot area of northern Idaho, a place that could have connected the Yellowstone population to the Yukon bears. Without a reliable connection to other established grizzly populations, the grizzlies of Yellowstone are isolated and more vulnerable to unpredictable natural events like disease outbreaks.
There are also real problems with Yellowstone grizzly bears’ natural food sources. Whitebark pine nuts, once critical for helping bears fatten up for hibernation in the fall, are disappearing fast thanks to outbreaks of bark beetles killing the trees that provide this food. The period of cold weather that used to keep beetle populations in check are becoming increasingly rare in our warming climate.
The big spawning runs of cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake have been wiped out by the introduction of non-native lake trout. These great runs once sustained the bears, but today few trout migrate upstream beneath the famous Fishing Bridge. Moth aggregations also sustain bears, but these concentration points occur in high-elevation talus slopes, or fields of frost-shattered rock in steep mountains, and some bears don’t eat the moths for reasons that scientists don’t understand.
Additionally, elk the the grizzlies’ hunt are threatened by the impending arrival of chronic wasting disease, a fatal and non-native brain disease approaching from the southeast. The disease has spread within 40 miles of feedgrounds where Yellowstone elk concentrate during winter. If the elk population crashes, that will be a significant decrease in food for the bear.
Bison would provide even more food for grizzlies if not for a test-and-slaughter program designed to reduce the transmission of brucellosis, a livestock disease, from bison to cattle. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences shows that none of the region’s cattle that contracted brucellosis got it from bison. Instead, all known cases have been traced back to elk. The report recommends a test-and-slaughter approach for elk as well, even though it is simply impossible to round up all the elk from their heavily timbered mountain habitats, and therefore any test-and-slaughter program would be doomed to failure from the outset.
Thus, in Yellowstone, major concerns about food supplies call the stability of today’s bear population into question. This is a two-fold problem, because reductions in natural food sources lead to more bears looking for food in human settlements, a so-called “bear-human conflict,” — a conflict in which the grizzly almost always comes out the loser.
The livestock industry is the thorniest problem of grizzly recovery. The vast majority of ranchers use cattle and sheep that have had all the toughness and intelligence bred out of them, and the livestock are pushed deep into the mountains and left unattended in prime grizzly habitat. Then, when a grizzly bear in its native habitat, minding its own business on public lands, eats a cow or sheep, the bear is either killed or relocated. And a grizzly relocated away from its home territory has greatly reduced odds of survival.
It’s like putting a candy bar on every chair in a kindergarten classroom, without any instructions, and then expelling every child who eats one.
Delisting the grizzly enables trophy hunting for bears, a political hot-potato. Many (if not most) hunters find grizzly hunting distasteful and unethical, having been taught from an early age never to shoot anything they don’t intend to eat. Animal lovers find trophy hunting horrifying, and the animal-rights movement finds in the grizzly bear a charismatic victim with which to bludgeon hunting generally. What no one can argue is that this is a new cause of mortality for Yellowstone grizzlies. While the grizzly was protected under the Endangered Species Act , “take” was prohibited, and hunters could avoid fighting this pyrrhic battle on the moral low ground.
Voters across party lines, including hunters and anglers, strongly support the Endangered Species Act, even in the most politically conservative states. But that hasn’t stopped the political posturing from the Western Governors Association and right-wing members of Congress as they seek to dismantle the endangered species protections for rare and imperiled wildlife. The grizzly is a pawn in this battle, and the politically-influenced delisting is just the first of many inappropriate decisions that conservationists expect to fight.
The West is full of sad stories about the demise of the grizzly. In the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the last grizzly was shot in 1979. Grizzlies roamed in Arizona and New Mexico until the 1930s. The last known grizzly in Oregon was killed in 1937. The grizzly appears on the state flag of California, but no longer occurs in its mountains.
Conservation groups are standing strong for the grizzly bear in Yellowstone because we don’t want history repeating itself here.
Real recovery would mean connecting grizzlies from Yellowstone to the populations to the north and west, not the current isolated and tenuous bear populations that face a number of new threats to their survival. There is no doubt whatsoever that what is best for the grizzly bear is continued protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and works as executive director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group that protects and restores western watersheds and wildlife.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.