Interactive timeline: Fish & Wildlife Service proposes to delist Yellowstone grizzly

Decision marks the second time the grizzly has faced loss of federal protection.


Cindy Wehling and Kate Schimel contributed to the production of this timeline.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving forward with a proposal to delist the 700-some grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the Endangered Species Act. 

The decision follows a 2013 recommendation from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that the Yellowstone grizzly population, deemed recovered, should lose federal protection as a threatened species — a status it’s held off and on since 1975. The decision came March 3, 2016. The federal agency called the new release a "draft supplement to the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan and a draft conservation strategy."  A final delisting rule won’t be released until early 2017, following a public comment period. If and when the Yellowstone population is delisted, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming will take over management, and the 1993 plan guiding the bear’s recovery will be replaced by a state conservation strategy. Under the strategy, the grizzly can be managed as a game animal and hunted, and depredation permits could be more plentiful, though minimum population numbers must be maintained.

The Yellowstone grizzly’s road to recovery has been a long one. And many environmentalists argue it’s a milestone not yet reached, despite agency claims. The bruins were first listed in 1975, when fewer than 312 remained in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; they slowly rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s. But by the early 2000s, growth had slowed. Agency biologists and members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team took this to mean the grizzly had reached carrying capacity. After all, bears had expanded into regions they hadn’t roamed in decades. Others had a different interpretation. Two of the bears’ key food sources, whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, were in rapid decline. Blister rust, an exotic fungus, and bark beetles plagued the trees, while invasive lake trout multiplied in Yellowstone Lake, forcing out the plentiful, stream-spawning cutthroat trout bears feasted on. Ranges weren’t changing because the bears were recovered, advocacy groups argued; rather, they were roaming more widely to find food.

In 2007, the Fish & Wildlife opted to remove the bear’s protections, and conservation groups filed suit. By 2011, litigation was over and the bear was back on the list. The courts ruled the federal agency hadn’t fully considered the impact of the loss of whitebark pine on the region’s grizzlies.

Today, Fish & Wildlife believes the matter of whitebark pine has been resolved. Scientists found that in years when whitebark pine nuts failed, bears turned to other, animal-based sources of food like elk and army cutworm moths, which live in high alpine meadows. “In a nutshell, we documented a tremendous resiliency, both at the individual and population level,” says Frank van Manen, leader of the grizzly study team, of research on the loss of whitebark pine.

But it’s this switch to meat-eating that worries biologists like David Mattson. From 1983 through 1993, Mattson was in charge of field investigations for the study team. After a series of disagreements over data sharing and the science behind delisting, Mattson departed the team, and now lives in Livingston, Montana. He’s one of the leaders of the opposition, taking it upon himself to conduct external reviews of the study team’s science.

“Eating meat is a hazardous endeavor,” explains Mattson. The pursuit of ungulates and livestock brings bears closer to humans, wolves and other large male bears. Since 2006 there has been a sharp upturn of hunter-bear encounters in the Yellowstone ecosystem, which has resulted in the death of an unprecedented number of bears. Such run-ins, Mattson says, are correlated to the loss of whitebark pine. Mothers and cubs, who relied on the nuts the most, have been forced into the path of hunters, aggressive adult male bears and cub-killing wolves in their quest to eat more meat.

Last year alone, 59 grizzlies died in the region, several due to hunter and agricultural conflicts. And cub and yearling mortality is on the rise, too, likely due to run-ins with aggressive adult male bears. At a meeting in Teton Village last November, the interagency study team revealed the bear’s numbers were down to 714 from 757 in 2014 (although that’s still well in excess of the recovery minimum of 500 bears).

The sudden drop heightened fears about future lag effects. This drop could be the start of a steep decline due to negative impacts in the mid-2000s. Grizzly bears are the second slowest reproducing mammal in North America, and it can take a decade before trends in population become evident.

If the grizzly was truly recovered, Mattson wonders, why the rush? Why not wait just a bit longer to be safe?

This time around, the only chance of litigation likely rests on a decision made by a Washington, D.C. federal judge in the case of Great Lakes gray wolves last December. In a 110-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled that “FWS may not reclassify members of an already listed species as a distinct population segment for the purpose of delisting.” Put plainly, while distinct populations may be listed individually, entire species cannot be divided into different groups and delisted after the fact. This argument is at the core of what FWS is attempting to do with grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. When the species was listed in 1975, that included all grizzlies in the lower 48 states collectively — not separated into individual populations.

“The law is not designed to piecemeal delisting of species,” says Kelly Nokes, a lawyer and Carnivore Campaign Leader with WildEarth Guardians. Given the ruling, the separation of Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies from populations in the Bitterroot, Selkirk/Cabinet Yaak, North Cascades, and Northern Continental Divide wouldn’t be lawful, and it’s highly likely the group would move to sue once a final delisting rule is imposed next year, she says. 

The gray wolves case is currently facing an appeal in the District of Columbia. "If the appeal fails, the precedent could ultimately keep the Yellowstone grizzly listed for the foreseeable future."

As for the Yellowstone grizzly: “The recovery... represents a historic success for partnership-driven wildlife conservation under the Endangered Species Act,” Dan Ashe, director of the USFWS, said in a statement. “Our proposal today underscores and celebrates more than 30 years of collaboration with our trusted federal, state and tribal partners to address the unique habitat challenges of grizzlies. The final post-delisting management plans by these partners will ensure healthy grizzly populations persist across the Yellowstone ecosystem long into the future.”

Gloria Dickie is a former editorial intern for High Country News

Photo by Tim Rains/National Park Service.