Yellowstone grizzlies aren’t out of the woods yet

 

Grizzlies and Yellowstone — bears and geysers. People have been coming from around the world to see the national park’s main attractions for decades. Now, the Bush administration wants to remove the Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act. I think delisting is premature, because we need more bears, more habitat and true habitat protection to do the job right.

Yellowstone’s grizzlies need more than Yellowstone Park; they also need millions of acres of surrounding national forest. This land has seen some oil and gas development as well as logging and road-building through the years, but the big question is what will happen in the future.

The grizzly by nature will eat almost anything, has a long memory and is mighty inquisitive. This is fine, except that almost all Yellowstone grizzlies die because humans kill them. Once a bear develops a taste for a picnic basket or unprotected human garbage, that bear has a bullet with its name on it.

"A fed bear is a dead bear" is how biologists put it. We have made some progress in cleaning up our act in grizzly country, but too many bears still meet their death because humans do something foolish.

Then there’s the problem of the bears’ slow reproduction. It takes a female grizzly two to three years after producing a litter to even think about mating again. Which means that once a grizzly bear population suffers a lot of deaths, it takes a long time for the population to rebound.

But the issue always comes down to habitat. Are we willing to make room for the grizzlies, or do we have a plan that asks bears to read road signs and imaginary lines on a map? More than a third of the habitat currently used by Yellowstone’s grizzlies gets not a jot of protection under the government’s delisting plan. The government wants to maintain Yellowstone’s current bear numbers, but it won’t try to protect the more than 2 million acres beyond the park.

How do we even know that the government will deliver on its current, inadequate promise to protect some of the bear’s habitat? The government claims it can do that through Forest Service land-management plans — the same forest plans that the Bush administration has said contain hopeful goals, not binding commitments.

Even the habitat the federal government assures us it will protect is unraveling. Yellowstone’s grizzlies rely heavily on one key food source, the seed cones of whitebark pine. In good years, whitebark pine produces lots of seed cones, feeding the bears and keeping them in the high country away from trouble. In years when the whitebark pine cone production falters, grizzlies produce fewer cubs, have many more conflicts with humans, and are killed by humans at an unsustainable level.

Unfortunately, whitebark pine is under attack from a foreign disease called blister rust, mountain pine beetles and a warming climate. That orange hue increasingly seen in Yellowstone’s forests is not a good sign for bears. The upshot? More dead bears every year. The agencies’ response? We’ll monitor the decline of whitebark and figure out what to do when the crash occurs.

Then there’s the small population size of Yellowstone’s bears. Over and over again, we’ve seen wildlife populations isolated by a sea of development. Essentially, that means near family members begin to breed with each other, which is never good for the long-term health of the population. The number of grizzlies in Yellowstone is still so small, at a loose estimate of 400 to 600 bears, that the government plans to truck in a grizzly every 10 years to deal with genetic inbreeding. Does this sound like success?

Did I mention hunting? Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have all announced plans to hunt Yellowstone’s grizzlies, which could get under way as soon as the bear is delisted. This would add intentional mortalities to an already imperiled population.

Instead of federal law protecting the grizzlies, after delisting they will get all the protection Wyoming will give them. That’s right — the same state that has declared war on wolves, sued to eliminate the Clinton Roadless Rule, and pushed to pollute Yellowstone Park with unlimited snowmobiles. Not to be outdone, four Wyoming counties that currently host grizzlies have passed county ordinances that say bears and wolves can be killed on sight. You can put away that "Welcome" sign for grizzlies in Wyoming.

We’ve made progress in protecting Yellowstone’s bears, but improvement doesn’t equal success. Now is the time to save the grizzlies’ last remaining habitat, while we still can.

Doug Honnold is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the managing attorney of the Earthjustice office in Bozeman, Montana, and has been working to protect grizzly bears for more than 20 years.