As Montanans contemplate the future of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 States, many are looking back at their past experience with wolf recovery.
This week saw both the completion of comprehensive recommendations for state management of grizzlies in Montana and congressional review of a bill to delist the keystone predator from the Endangered Species Act protection and hasten that handover to the states. In both cases, participants wondered if bears might be treated the same as wolves, with hunting seasons.
That could be unlikely both legally and biologically. As Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director and Grizzly Bear Advisory Committee member Nick Gevock put it, “the only similarity between bears and wolves is they both have big teeth.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted gray wolves in Montana and Idaho in 2009. The move went through two years of court challenges before Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson inserted a two-sentence amendment into a must-pass defense appropriations bill in 2011. It ordered the Secretary of Interior to reissue the 2009 wolf delisting rule and blocked further judicial review.
The wolf challenge went all the way to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2012, a three-judge panel ruled Tester’s and Simpson’s move didn’t violate the Separation of Powers doctrine because it didn’t force judges to make a specific finding and didn’t repeal any part of the Endangered Species Act. The panel also noted the Supreme Court had ruled Congress did have the power to switch existing legal standards with new ones.
In 2011, Montana and Idaho hunters killed a combined 519 wolves. That was out of an estimated population of 1,700 wolves in those two states and Wyoming. And that marks a significant difference between wolves and grizzly bears, according to Sierra Club Northern Rockies Senior Campaign Representative Bonnie Rice.
“It takes a grizzly bear 10 years to replace herself in the population,” Rice said. “That’s very different biologically than how wolves reproduce. Bears don’t run in packs.”
Wolves also reached that population in just over a decade after 31 were transplanted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 and 1996 in and around Yellowstone National Park. In comparison, grizzly bears are approaching 1,700 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming after 45 years on the Endangered Species List.
“Wolves are a very elastic species,” said Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “They can take a very aggressive hunt. Kill 40 percent of the wolf population and it comes back. Grizzly bears are the second-slowest reproducing mammal in North America. There is room for a scientifically managed grizzly hunt down the road, but it’s not going to look anything like the wolf hunt.”
Gray wolves and grizzly bears both received Endangered Species Act protection shortly after the law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1973. Both had been nearly or completely eliminated from the Rocky Mountain states by then, with wolves extirpated and just a few hundred grizzlies left around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Despite their status as a threatened species, Montana continued to allow hunting of grizzlies by special permit until 1991.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee designated six recovery areas for grizzlies as part of its conservation strategy. Today, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Montana holds an estimated 1,000 grizzlies between Glacier National Park and Missoula. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem covering the intersection of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming has about 750 grizzlies. The Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in northwest Montana and the Selkirk Ecosystem in northern Idaho each have around 50 grizzlies. And the North Cascades and Bitterroot ecosystems in Washington and the Montana-Idaho border respectively have no known resident grizzlies.
In Tuesday’s U.S. Senate hearing, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman and Wyoming Republican Sen. Jim Barrasso declared grizzly bears fully recovered: “End of story.” Vice Chairman Sen. Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware, said he had ongoing concerns about grizzlies’ ability to survive under state management. But the witnesses they listened to focused more on the state of the court system than the status of the bears.
“We’ve had a stunning and amazing recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear, but significant failures with regard to judicial review,” Pat Crank, a member of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and former state attorney general, told the committee. “There’s significant erosion of public support when a species has been recovered and the courts block the removal of that species from the Endangered Species Act.”
Crank didn’t offer proof of that erosion claim during his testimony. A 2018 nationwide study found four out of five Americans support the Endangered Species Act, including 74 percent of conservatives and 90 percent of liberals.
“It’s a pretty popular statute, unless you’re among industry or certain states that have those industries as primary economic driver,” said University of Montana law professor Sandra Zellmer, who specializes in environmental law. “The general public by and large appreciates all the success stories the ESA has given us.”
Zellmer said efforts under former President Barack Obama to increase ESA protections for species threatened by climate change may have triggered a backlash of attempts to rewrite the 47-year-old law. But those attempts may be more procedural than legislative.
“Those who would do away with the ESA have shifted their focus onto agencies in the Trump Administration,” Zellmer said. “You can do much of what you want through regulations. That takes pressure off the statute itself, less of a push to gut the entire act.”
But unlike wolves, which have a centuries-long legacy as a villain in human culture, bears hold a more complicated place. Alston Chase in his book “Playing God In Yellowstone" recounted how in the early days of Yellowstone National Park, government hunters actively killed off the wolf population but deliberately placed garbage out to attract grizzlies to come near hotels for tourist amusement. Or as one lawyer quipped during the 2018 court proceedings that restored grizzlies to ESA protection, “it’s the difference between the Big Bad Wolf and Teddy Bear.”