Everything You Need to Know About Delisting Grizzlies

May 10, 2016 | Hunt

It’s been over 150 years since grizzly bears ruled the West and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), bear numbers have been the highest since they were first federally protected in in 1975. Fish and Wildlife officials believe the numbers are so strong that, for the second time in ten years, they have recommended delisting the bears from the Endangered Species List.

The History

The bears were delisted in 2007, however a lawsuit filed against U.S. Fish and Wildlife had the bears back on the list by 2009. U.S District Court Judge Donald Molloy cited declining white-bark pine tree production as a major factor in grizzly survival and didn’t feel Fish and Wildlife Services addressed the problem. The white-bark pine nuts are a staple in grizzly diets, but unchecked beetle numbers, along with invasive fungus have decimated the trees, leaving less nuts. Since the delisting, however, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, consisting of members from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, determined that the bears’ success at adapting to other food sources make the nuts not as imperative to the bears’ diets as once thought. The bears have adopted a diet subsisting more of meat, including insects, in the absence of the nuts.

Prime grizzly bear habitat

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials declared intent to delist the bears again earlier this March and the decision was again met with heavy criticism. Critics still cite the loss of white pines, as well as further habitat and food loss due to human encroachment and any effects from climate change. Jennifer Fortin of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Grizzly Bear Recovery Team, said there has been no declaration of intent by any groups to file a lawsuit yet, but one is still expected. “It always happens,” Fortin said.

The Yellowstone ecosystem is not the only recovering ecosystem either. According to Fortin, The Northern Continental Divide (NCD) ecosystem, consisting of the largest wilderness complex in the lower 48, also has a biologically recovered population of bears. Fortin said, because of the difference in ecosystems, the NCD requires a different management plan than that of Greater Yellowstone. A draft strategy for the NCD was released for public comment in 2013, however.

Expansion and Issues

Since the bears were listed as threatened in 1975, the population in the GYE has grown from around 136 animals to over 700 according to estimations. The number of individuals in 1975 represented 2 percent of the bears’ historical range south of Canada. Bear numbers grew steadily through the 90s, but began to plateau in the 2000s. According to the National Park Service, biologists believe this was due to the species reaching the carrying capacity of their environment, which later caused an outward expansion. According to a Fish and WIldlife press release, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team found the bears have doubled their range since 1975 and now occupy more than 22,500 square miles within the ecosystem.

The expansion of the bears into territories they haven’t occupied in decades may have also led to increased encounters with humans, the number one cause of bear mortality. Twenty four bears were euthanized within the boundaries of Yellowstone last year due to livestock predation and becoming habituated to human food sources. In an interview with the Billings Gazette, large carnivore section specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Daniel Thompson, said the livestock predation is not due to an increase in cattle or sheep herds, but instead the outward expansion of grizzlies. In August of 2015 a sow grizzly attacked and ate a solo hiker, stashing the body for further feeding. The bear was euthanized for fear it would become habituated to eating people.

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The Goals

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will each be responsible for finding habit to help continue grizzly bear growth. The recovery goals will be based upon numbers of female bears with cubs. A minimum of 15 grizzly sows, with cubs, must occupy the ecosystem. Over the past six years the average number of of sows with cubs was 40. The sows and cubs must also inhabit 16 of the 18 designated recovery zones within the ecosystem. If females with cubs are absent from any two adjacent zones in a recorded six year period the recovery goals will not be met. In four of the last six years, however, sows and cubs have inhabited all 18 zones.

Grizzly bear in Denali National Park

Management Plan

In accordance with Fish and Wildlife Service requirements, each of the three states involved were required to draft management plans for grizzlies once Federal protection is removed. All three states collaborated on a framework model, which is based on a population of over 600 individuals for the ecosystem. If at anytime the population dips beneath the required number, all killing of bears, aside from self-defense, will stop.

Concerns

After declaring the intent to delist grizzlies and drafting a management plan, Fish and Wildlife officials sought public comment regarding the decision. Critics of the proposed de-listing, such as the Sierra Club, cite the bears’ inability to link to other populations like in Canada, or the NCD system. Populations in GYE are genetically isolated and, without linking to other populations, won’t be able to become genetically diverse enough for future populations. The Sierra Club’s own wish list for properly delisting grizzlies would include protections in corridors that connect different populations, as well as no hunting of grizzlies whatsoever.

Grizzly bear foraging for food in meadow

Regardless of the critics, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and state agencies are dedicated to the delisting of the iconic Western species and see the act as a major victory for the Endangered Species Act. In a press release, Fish and Wildlife Service Director, Dan Ashe, promised that even though the state would take control of managing the species, they would not be alone in preserving them for future generations.

“Even with this proposed delisting, the Service remains committed to the conservation of the Yellowstone grizzly bear, and will stay engaged to ensure that this incredible species remains recovered,” Ashe said. “We will continue to be part of a strong monitoring program, implementation of the conservation strategy, and partnership with our state and federal partners. We are look forward to hearing from the public about the proposal and consulting with Native American tribes.”

Updated August, 2018