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Yellowstone’s grizzlies are off the endangered species list. They’re not safe from mankind.

The grizzly delisting, explained.

James Hager / robertharding / getty
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.

The grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will no longer be protected by the federal government, the Department of the Interior announced Thursday.

The long-anticipated move removes the bears from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, and hands over their management to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, the states where they live. It also opens the door to hunting them in areas outside Yellowstone National Park.

Grizzlies once numbered in the thousands, but dwindled to just 150 individuals by the middle of the last century. Thanks to conservation efforts, they rebounded, and there are now more than 700 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (the park and its surrounding wilderness).

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the bears don’t need special protection anymore. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes,” he said in a statement, “the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners.”

He’s not wrong: The revival of the Yellowstone grizzly is a huge conservation win. But some activists and tribal leaders are still worried that it’s too soon to declare victory, especially because of the uncertainties of climate change.

What "delisting" does

Michael Russell / Getty

This move is a culmination of actions that long predates the Trump administration.

The US Fish and Wildlife Agency first proposed delisting the bears in 2003, but conservationists pushed back. Then the bears were actually delisted in 2007, but it was overturned in court (which concluded that the US Fish & Wildlife Service didn’t conduct the proper studies to make sure the bears’ main source of food in the park was stable). Delisting was proposed again in 2013, and then an extensive public review was kicked off in 2016 after a big study of the bears and the ecosystem was published. (High Country News has an excellent timeline of this story, which you should check out here.)

That public review process lasted 15 months, during which the Interior Department reviewed 650,000 public comments, the Associated Press reports. And the agency’s final reasoning on delisting was this: “multiple factors indicate [the population] is healthy and will be sustained into the future.”

In other words, the US government now believes the Yellowstone ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for grizzlies. This is what delisting means:

  • This delisting does not remove protections of all the grizzlies in the US. There’s another regional population of the bears — the ones that live in Glacier National Park — which are still protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • This delisting is specific to the grizzlies that live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (which is larger than the park itself), and it means the protection and jurisdiction over the bears now falls to the states.
  • The delisting opens the door for states to allow to hunting the bear outside the park, though with some safeguards. If the bear populations ever fall below 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.
  • Delisting won't change the way the National Park Service protects the grizzlies within their borders. Yellowstone grizzlies inside Yellowstone National Park will still be federally protected.
  • Each of the states has to have a grizzly management plan in place. You can read those here, here, and here.

The Great Falls Tribune reports that jurisdiction over the bears will be handed over to the states in July. DOI is expected to publish the final ruling within the next few days, and it would become law 30 days thereafter.

The arguments against delisting

Several conservation groups — and representatives of Native American tribes — dissent the decision, and will likely sue, the New York Times reports. They think the delisting is happening too soon.

“The Endangered Species Act protections kept Yellowstone’s grizzlies from extinction, but this iconic symbol of America’s Wild West is still at risk,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement Thursday.

Specifically, opponents of delisting are worried about a few key issues:

  • 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 — because genetic diversity helps populations of animals adapt and be resilient to rapid changes in the environment.
  • Climate change will continue to impact their ecosystem, and perhaps make food more scarce. In recent years, scientists have noticed declines in the whitebark pine, a key source of grizzly food. They’re worried the delisting doesn’t take into account the uncertainties climate change will bring to this food source.
  • Lifting federal protections could put the bears at greater risk of conflict with humans. Already, it’s happened: The growing population of grizzlies has been expanding its range, coming into closer contact with human communities in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Though grizzly bears are sufficiently ferocious, humans almost always 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.

Yellowstone Science
  • Without the endangered species designation, grizzlies outside the national park could be over-hunted again under state-sanctioned hunting seasons. (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.)
  • Bears have a notoriously slow birth rate, and can take decades to recover if their population declines. The groups arguing for continued listing see the need for an abundance of caution.

Native American tribes are also angry because they feel they weren’t properly consulted in the delisting process. National Geographic reports that last year, 125 tribes signed a treaty demanding “that the U.S. government — meaning the Fish and Wildlife Service — consult fully with the tribes before issuing a decision about the fate of the grizzly.”

“Delisting the grizzly ignores the objections of scientists and tribal leaders who have raised concerns over the irreparable harm to Tribal sovereignty and self-determination throughout the delisting process,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

The Yellowstone grizzly recovery is indeed a success story

Don Grall / Getty

The story of the decline of the grizzly population starts with Meriwether Lewis.

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 who 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 that the US Fish and Wildlife Service placed them on the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

One of the biggest fixes was somewhat simple: Trash became much more restricted in Yellowstone National Park. The park service got rid of a garbage dump inside the park that was a popular bear feeding ground. Visitors now had to keep food in bear-proof bins. If the bears were going to recover, they had to do so without relying on human sources of food.

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).

In the 1970s, around 2 percent of the Yellowstone grizzlies’ range was in private, non-park lands, the journal Yellowstone Science explains. Recent estimate are closer to 16 percent.

Yellowstone Science

It’s a remarkable recovery. A triumph of conservation.

But humans aren't actually that comfortable living around them (and for decent reason — they're one of the most ferocious predators in North America).

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.

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 grizzlies’ long-term survival is assured.

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, said in an interview last year. “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.”