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Yellowstone’s grizzlies have made an incredible recovery. Now we have to learn to live with them.

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Meriwether Lewis wasn't used to bears chasing him.

On the clear morning in April 1805 when Lewis encountered his first North American grizzly bear in Montana, he shot at the animal when it approached him menacingly. It fought back, and continued to pursue him despite its wounds. "It was a most tremendous looking animal, and extremely hard to kill," Lewis recalled.

Lewis is credited with making the first scientific description of the grizzly. Back then, as many as 50,000 of these bears were scattered from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean.

For Lewis and the settlers that followed, the answer of what to do with grizzlies was simple: Kill them. And they were wildly successful at that. By 1975, hunting and human development had essentially wiped out the bears, leaving just a few hundred in the US.

One of the hardest hit populations was the one that roamed around Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding ecosystem. The Yellowstone grizzlies were down to 135 in the '70s, and declining so quickly the US Fish and Wildlife Service placed them on the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

With the help of federal protections, the grizzly has become a wildlife conservation success story. Today, there are around 700 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (pictured below), a swath of land that expands beyond the national park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. And there's now a proposal to take this regional population off the threatened list.

But that rebound — and the bears' increasingly wide ramblings outside the ecosystem — has revived a familiar tension between humans and grizzlies. We humans aren't actually that comfortable living around them (and for decent reason — they're one of the most ferocious predators in North America.)

Some conservationists fear that by lifting federal protections, the bears will be at greater risk of conflict.

1975, there were only about 1,000 grizzlies nationwide, confined to just a few habitats (as you can see on the map above). In addition to being cut off from their historical turf, these populations have become genetically isolated from one another.
Western Wildlife Outreach

Why there's renewed conflict between bears and humans

In recent years, the growing population of grizzlies has been expanding its range, coming in closer contact with human communities in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

In the 1970s, around 2 percent of the Yellowstone grizzlies range was in private, non-park lands, the journal Yellowstone Science explains. Today, that figure is more than 16 percent.

The bears have greatly expanded their range in the last few decades.
Yellowstone Science

This is partly the result of the bears' remarkable recovery from the edge of becoming endangered. But increased range means the bears are venturing further from the wilderness, and closer to human habitats. Though bears are sufficiently ferocious, when humans get into conflicts with them, the humans win. Bear deaths at the hands of humans are increasing as the animals wander onto farms and eye livestock for food. A record 59 grizzlies were killed by humans in 2015.

At the same time, they've come into greater conflict with humans.
Yellowstone Science

What "delisting" does

The US government now believes the Yellowstone ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for grizzlies — which is one reason why they've been wandering into human communities. And it wants to take this regional population off the threatened list, which would lift federal protections of bears that live outside the park's boundaries and give states more power to control bear populations.

(The US Fish and Wildlife Service actually delisted the animals back in the 2000s, but several conservation organizations filed legal action, and a court reversed the decision.)

The delisting opens the door to hunting, though with some safeguards. The delisting proposal mandates that if the bear populations ever fall beneath 600, all hunting or "discretionary mortalities" would have to cease. And for the change to be finalized, all the states have to agree to a continued protection framework.

(It's also important to note the delisting won't change the way the National Park Service protects the grizzlies within their borders.)

Many environmentalists are pessimistic about delisting the grizzly

Despite safeguards, environmental groups like the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and others all disapprove of the delisting proposal.

Pacific Standard attended an April public hearing on the delisting in Montana, and summarized the environmentalists' concerns:

  • Yellowstone Grizzlies are still geographically isolated from other bears in the Rocky Mountains and in Canada. Genetic isolation is a long-term risk for any species.
  • Climate change is going to continue to impact their ecosystem, and perhaps make food more scarce.
  • Too many grizzlies die at the hand of humans as it is. Introducing hunting could drop numbers even further. And grizzlies have a slow reproductive rate. (Data on hunting grizzlies in Canada shows that state-sanctioned hunts don't necessarily reduce the bear deaths that come from bears wandering onto human property.)

The Center for Biological Diversity, a wildlife advocacy group, points out that states will have a competing interest in making revenue off of sporting hunting licenses, and that as good as the grizzly gains have been, it's still difficult to estimate the total size of the grizzly population. Hunting could bring numbers down to below 600 and it would be hard to immediately know.

The grizzlies will always be "threatened." With humans around, all animals are.

Four grizzly bear cubs spotted in Yellowstone in 2010.
Pat Gaines / Flickr

The bears will never regain their historic numbers in the American West. And science can only help so much in deciding what level of bear population is best for both bears and humans.

Here's where the people who want the delisting to go through and those who do not are clashing.

One one hand, there's the fact that if the delisting proves to be a mistake, the bear population may be set back for decades. They have a notoriously slow birth rate, and can take decades to recover. The groups arguing for continued listing see the need for an abundance of caution.

Kyle Artelle, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation studying grizzlies in British Columbia, says it's important to remember that when it comes to studying wildlife, there's always going to be some doubt about exact population numbers, and even more doubt about what causes changes in wild animal behavior. (For instance, are the bears expanding their range because they're running out of food within Yellowstone itself? That question has been near the heart of the delisting debate and is very hard to answer.)

On the other hand, "a certain realism has to be in play," Mark Haroldson, a wildlife biologist for the Interagency Grizzly Bears Study Team, a group whose research has informed the delisting proceedings, tells me. "It's undeniable that the bears have expanded — a lot — and they haven't abandoned the core of the ecosystem. The science supports the notion the population has recovered. A lot of this other stuff gets to values and opinions."

The bears are "never going to occupy their historic ranges within the lower 48, it just won't happen," he says. "People are there." Those people, Haroldson noted, can indeed get better at living alongside bears, namely by managing garbage and other bear attractants more strictly.

Artelle mentions the Nuxalk first nation community in British Columbia as being particularly adept at living alongside bear populations.

There, grizzlies often sneak onto properties to take salmon from humans. But authorities and homeowners "don't shoot the bear" when they do, Artelle says. "Instead they'll remove the attractants, they'll sit down with the homeowner and talk about how to redesign the backyard so it is less attractive, they'll put up an electric fence, they'll put a radio in the backyard so it sounds like someone is home, and they'll replace the salmon that was stolen, which gets at the human side of it, compensating for loss." Artelle says with the homes that received this treatment, the bears don't come back.

(There are echoes of this philosophy in each of the states proposals for continued grizzly management.)

What does it mean for an animal to be "safe" in America? To some extent, a changing climate and an ever-increasing human population mean all animals face some risks. No matter what assurances the federal government can make, the bears will face some danger. It's hard to imagine any scenario where the bears long-term survival is assured.

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