A nightmare may become reality for Yellowstone’s famed grizzly bears, if our federal and state bear managers have their way.
Once numbering in the thousands across the West, 99 percent of the Lower 48’s grizzly bears were exterminated from 98 percent of their range by the 1960s. Although these remarkable bears are striving to make a comeback from their brush with extinction — numbering 717 in the Yellowstone region at last count — some would misguidedly prefer they called it quits.
After four decades of devoting resources to welcome grizzly bears home to the West, those responsible for looking out for the bears’ best interests on behalf of all Americans are deciding to shut the door. In a rash claim of victory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee want to bring an end to federal safeguards for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, which are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act. But upon closer examination of science and the law, removing vital protections is clearly premature.
If the Service and states get their way, Yellowstone’s grizzly population could be reduced by over 100 to a federally mandated minimum of just 600 bears. Bears number 601 and up would be subject to “discretionary mortality,” a.k.a., a firing line of trophy hunters paying a pretty penny to the very agencies charged with grizzly conservation under the new management regime (overseen by the states). The states have already grimly fought over who gets to be the most murderous, announcing Wyoming will get 58 percent of the dead bear share, while Montana will take 34 percent and Idaho gets to kill 8 percent. This is plainly out of line with science and our nation’s fundamental notions of species conservation.
One need only look at the mortality rates in 2015 to gain a clear view of how Yellowstone’s grizzlies are actually faring, contrary to bear managers’ avowals of success. At 59 documented mortalities, 2015 represents a record-breaking year for grizzly bear deaths in the Yellowstone region. The population experienced a 6 percent decline. And 2015 is not an anomaly. Increasing mortality rates is a concerning trend (e.g., in 2008 there were 48 deaths; 2011 saw 44; and in 2012 there were 55 dead bears). Perhaps most shocking though, is the silence from bear managers regarding this building course of lethality. Nineteen of last year’s deaths are “under investigation,” with no likely prosecution in sight for what may well be the result of illegal poaching.
The grizzly’s primary food sources are in sharp decline (e.g., whitebark pine and cutthroat trout), and the impacts of climate change are already taking a toll on bears’ most suitable habitats. Now is not the time to allow measures that would further drive this population down.
Moreover, by carving out the Yellowstone subpopulation for removal of federal protections, the government is undermining the intent of the Endangered Species Act and the recovery of the species as a whole. Yellowstone’s grizzlies have been genetically isolated for over 100 years. Connecting these unique bears to neighboring populations is key to the species’ eventual recovery success across its range, an objective the law mandates the Service achieve.
The conservation community shares the same goal as bear managers: we all want to see the iconic grizzly bear recovered across the western landscape. But until science and the law clearly conclude that goal is met, efforts to strip Yellowstone’s grizzlies of federal protections are simply premature. Our federal bear managers must ask what kind of landscape they will welcome Yellowstone’s bears into as they emerge from their dens when the snows begins to melt: an impending firing line, or the room these great bears need to roam.