The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is declaring grizzlies in the Yellowstone region recovered and preparing to strip them of their Endangered Species Act protections, likely in early June. Once “delisted,” states including Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming will sell $1,000 licenses to non-resident trophy hunters. Draft hunting regulations are already on the books. The Service’s justification for delisting is simple: the agency says an increase in distribution and human-grizzly conflicts suggests there are too many grizzlies in the Yellowstone region. On its face, it’s a narrative that makes sense. But the best science reveals a more complicated situation, and one that deserves more scrutiny.
Today, grizzlies remain absent from 98 percent of their historic range in the contiguous U.S. Their numbers dropped from well over 50,000 when Lewis and Clark first explored the West to less than 1,800 today. Only a few, small remnant populations remain, including an isolated population of approximately 700 grizzlies in the Yellowstone region.
Biologists agree that grizzly recovery hinges on connecting isolated populations and distributing the genes they carry. To date, however, efforts to connect Yellowstone’s grizzlies with other populations, including those in the Northern Rockies, have failed. So, too, did the Service’s plan to restore grizzlies to parts of central Idaho to help facilitate connectivity in the region. As such, grizzlies in Yellowstone remain isolated.
The best science also tells us this isolated population–which continues to experience high rates of human-caused mortality and low reproductive rates–faces an uncertain future due to warming trends and changes to food sources. Grizzlies in Yellowstone have a unique diet focused largely on four food sources: meat from elk and bison, seeds from white bark pine trees, cutthroat trout, and army cutworm moths. Dramatic declines in white bark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, however, leave two of these food sources in serious jeopardy. Climate models also predict future shortages of army cutworm moths. In addition, biologists are observing a downward trend in elk numbers in the region and we know that increased reliance on meat is a hazard for bears. Grizzly mortalities from encounters with hunters and livestock operations are at unprecedented levels.
In sum, it’s a trying and uncertain time for the isolated grizzlies of Yellowstone, which may explain why bears are expanding their range in the region. Indeed, most of the grizzly’s range expansion has occurred to the southeast of Yellowstone into areas with more food sources (army cutworm moths and, unfortunately, livestock). Increases in distribution, therefore, may have nothing to do with high population densities–a theory promoted by the Service in support of delisting–and everything to do with hunger. In fact, during the period of increased distribution, population levels of grizzlies remained largely static (and even declined from 2014-2016). As such, increases in distribution may not equate to overcrowding in the Yellowstone region, as those promoting delisting would have us believe.
Given the level of uncertainty about the causes of increased grizzly bear distribution, the need for more dispersal and connectivity, the documented loss of major food sources, and the lag effect that exists between documenting a loss of food sources and the time that loss manifests itself at the population level, now is not the time to remove protections and declare open season on grizzlies leaving Yellowstone.
Matthew Bishop directs the Western Environmental Law Center's Northern Rockies office in his hometown of Helena. As an attorney, he uses the power of the law to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the West’s native species, including Canada lynx, wolverine, and grizzlies.