Growing up in Bozeman and now living here again, the grizzly bear has always been a cornerstone to my experience of the wilderness that surrounds this town. Whenever I go hiking in the Greater Yellowstone (GYE), with friends and alone, the griz lurks in my imagination. Will we surprise a sow and her cubs? Will this can of bear spray really protect me if I run into a griz feasting upon a carcass?
Every year we read horror stories in the Daily Chronicle about people dying at the claws of this 500 pound predator. And although grizzlies scare the shit out of me, I couldn't imagine the GYE without them. I wouldn't want to. They are in some ways emblematic to wilderness: beautiful, terrible, self-willed. The fact that I could die in the jaws of another predator reminds me that I, too am a creature of the wild.
So it's no surprise that removing grizzlies from its current protection under the Endangered Species Act stirs so much controversy. When I heard about the proposed delisting, I wasn't sure what to think. I like to assume that our public officials know best, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employs sounds science in its decision making. But then on my Facebook feed I'm seeing all sorts of articles resisting the delisting. Montana author and environmental advocate Rick Bass, in an op-ed piece for the L.A. Times, declares the "terrible idea" to be "motivated more by politics than science."
Rick is far from alone in his protest against the delisting. The resistance even has its own hashtag: #dontdelistgrizzlies. So what's all the uproar about? Isn't it a good thing that the griz populations in the GYE have more than quadrupled (by some estimates) since being listed in 1975: from about 136 bears to roughly 700 today, (maybe even 1,200)? Feeling muddled, I set out to understand both sides of the argument. Here's what I've found out:
- The FWP emphasizes that delisting doesn't mean loss of protection. Their plan for continued protection includes six million acres of "grizzlies' needs first" land, called the Primary Conservation Area, mostly found in the GYE. Resource development within this area will be "severely restricted." The federal organization states they have met their rehabilitation goals for population recovery (at least 15 sows with cubs - now around 40), distribution (female bears in all 18 bear units in the Primary Conservation Area), and mortality (less than four percent a year).
- Meeting these rehabilitation goals may speak to the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act. As the director of Montana Wildlife Conservation Federation, Nick Gevock wrote in an op-ed piece for High Country News, "This is a huge conservation success story, and it shows that the law works when it is fully funded."
- Grizzly bears venturing outside of the park pose threats to people and livestock. Delisting would permit ranchers more flexibility in protecting their livelihood.
- "Higher numbers of bears -- as impressive as they may seem -- don't tell the whole story," reads Yellowstone Park's page on delisting. The page was written in 2008, but many of the arguments presented then are the same ones cited today as cause not to delist the griz. The future of the bears' food sources, for one, remains ambiguous. Whitebark pine tree populations decline with beetlekill, and the trees' nuts serve as a large source of fat and protein for bears. Will the bears have enough food to go around in five, ten, fifty years? If we delist them, and hunger takes its toll, how long will it take to bring them back into the ESA's safety folds?
- Allowing hunters to purchase grizzly "trophy" tags violates the cultural and spiritual import the bears have to Blackfeet and Shoshone-Bannock people, among other tribes. Over 50 tribes have signed a treaty opposing the delisting.
- Hunting bears allows humans to play out our superpredator tendencies, killing the larger, healthier, older males for a rug or wall mount. "Younger populations are more fragile," Bass writes. "young bears disperse widely, leading to more negative human-bear interactions."
- Which leads me to the crux issue at hand: grizzly bears need lots of space. Depending on food and water, the average male bear needs 300-500 square miles, while the female's range size is somewhere around 70 square miles. If food declines in the GYE, the bears will venture out in search of new sources. And with the bears' population growth, grizzlies are bound to seek out new territory. Whether it's a search for food or land of his own, the grizzly will venture out into the world beyond the GYE. Delisting the bear doesn't take into account the needs of future growth and the habitat loss and fragmentation caused by resource and home development in the GYE and neighboring areas.
What now? Should we delist, or shouldn't we?
Although this decision is monumental for obvious reasons, I found myself concerned less with whether or not grizzlies should remain listed, and more with a dilemma woven into both sides of the argument.
Gevock writes in his op-ed piece, "...grizzlies continue to expand farther out from the park... These larger habitat areas are home to livestock, communities, roads and other signs of civilization in both mountains and valleys. Yet it’s important that we restore populations in these areas: If grizzly bears expand outward from Yellowstone, they could recolonize the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem and also connect with relatives in the Northern Continental Divide. Both of these are crucial to long-term, region-wide species recovery."
He's a proponent for delisting, and he's recognizing the continued work grizzly bear management will involve. Yes, GYE griz populations are larger than they were four decades ago. But where does this growth go now? How can we make space for more griz to roam? Can we connect the populations here in the GYE with those in Canada, creating a stronger genetic pool?
It seems that the big-picture issue here is making sure the grizzlies and other wildlife have space, especially if climate change continues to stress food sources. The FWP claims that "each state has identified potential habitat to accommodate continued grizzly population growth and expansion." Honestly, that wording-potential habitat-doesn't inspire much confidence. Is there space left to conserve? And if so, are we willing to give up the land to wildness, rather than development?
Not everyone will want the griz as a neighbor. We did, after all, systematically eliminate them for decades before they were listed because they are competition and they are dangerous. Grizzlies attack the occasional livestock, and although ranchers can put in electrical fences and remove carcasses before they attract the bears, these precautions can be costly in time and money.
The grizzly delisting issue comes back to the same old tensions the wolf reintroduction program created. How do we co-exist with predators? It also reiterates the need for more habitat if the grizzly, as well as other animals in need of space, are to continue to flourish alongside humans.
Personally, I'm all for more habitat. As I said, the grizzly reminds me that I am a creature of the wild, and this knowledge is sacred to me. She may terrify me, and I sometimes don't go hiking alone because of this fear, but I'm okay with walking on the city trails when that's the case. As a human, I know I am blessed with space to explore, hundreds of places to feel free. But the grizzly? She'll need some help from us to experience the same liberties.
Feel the same? Here's some ways to help with habitat conservation. Mainly these groups need money, but there are occasional volunteer opportunities as well.
The National Wildlife Federation works on creating corridors for all wildlife across and understand interstates. Roads are one of the largest deterrents to migration patterns and habitat expansion.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition works with federal agencies, private land owners, transportation departments, and other key players in creating habitat connectivity.
Paintings by yours truly. Watercolor + pen.