Once over 50,000 strong in the lower 48 states, grizzlies were reduced to less than 1,000 bears. Grizzly bears were eliminated from Texas by 1890, California by 1922, Utah by 1923, Oregon by 1931, New Mexico by 1933, and Arizona by 1935.
Thus, in a historical blink of an eye, from the 1800s to the early 1900s, humans decimated grizzly populations and reduced their range to less than 2% of their former range south of Canada, limiting the bear to a few isolated populations in fragmented wildlands. One of these remnants is found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Yet, last October the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Pinedale District issued a decision to continue livestock grazing on some 267 square miles of National Forests in the Upper Green River and Gros Ventre River drainages near the southern end of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The Biological Opinion, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projected that extending these grazing allotments will result in the deaths of an estimated 72 grizzly bears over the 10 years.
We have tens of millions of cattle in America but we only have about 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — which is why the Alliance, Yellowstone-to-Unitas Connection and Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit on March 31 and are taking the Trump administration's U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to overturn this disastrous decision.
Federal district courts have already ruled twice that grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem still need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act — and did so for very good reasons. Chief among them is the Yellowstone grizzlies’ isolation from other grizzly populations that may cause irreversible inbreeding and lead to the extinction of the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly population.
Adding to the Yellowstone grizzlies’ many challenges, the illegal introduction of lake trout in Yellowstone National Park has already significantly reduced populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a traditional high-value grizzly food source. And due to global warming, the drastic die-off of whitebark pines have decimated the production of their seeds, another high nutrition traditional food source, forcing grizzly bears into less secure habitat where they are often shot and killed.
Grizzly's natural characteristics make it particularly vulnerable due to its late age at first reproduction, small litter sizes, and the long interval between litters — all of which lead to one of the slowest reproductive rates of North American mammals. A female grizzly can replace herself with one breeding age female in the first decade of her life. One — and only if she survives to breed and doesn’t get shot by a rancher or poacher or Wildlife Service gunner first.
While there is little or no scientific evidence supporting killing numerous grizzly bears every year to resolve cattle-related conflicts, there is scientific evidence that non-lethal measures can reduce levels of cattle depredation by grizzlies for sustained periods of time. These include guard dogs, selective deployment of electric fences, closer monitoring of cattle by ranchers, relocation of cattle pastures during key periods of livestock susceptibility, and removal of cattle carcasses so they don’t become a food source for grizzlies. The solution is to better manage cattle grazing operations instead of trying to manage grizzly bears by killing every grizzly a rancher sees.
It’s unfortunate but if we must turn to the courts to force the Trump administration to follow the law and recover, not decimate, the Yellowstone grizzly population as required under the Endangered Species Act, that’s exactly what we’ll do.
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.