Yellowstone's Grizzlies: A success story

  • Tom France


The federal government’s proposal to take grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem off the Endangered Species Act’s threatened species list represents a tremendous achievement. It also demonstrates America’s enduring commitment to wildlife conservation.

The National Wildlife Federation — one of the nation’s largest conservation groups at 4 million members and supporters — has decided to support this proposal only after a thorough review of the facts and documents on which the proposal was based.

Two major reasons led us to our decision: First is the success on the ground. Because of the Endangered Species Act’s protections and the focused management efforts it has stimulated, the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem has been growing at a rate of 4 percent to 7 percent a year for at least the last 15 years. There are now more than 600 bears in the population. All of the goals set in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Recovery Plan have been exceeded, in terms of the numbers of male and female bears, their age ranges and their geographic distribution.

Second, according to the Endangered Species Act, once a species meets the goals set for its recovery, federal protection as a listed species must cease as long as other state and federal regulations prevent the species from declining again. To assure such protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the state fish and wildlife agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have developed a comprehensive strategy to safeguard the grizzly population and habitat following delisting. After a careful review of this strategy, we have concluded it represents a good deal for grizzly bears.

Central to the strategy is the identification of a 5.9 million-acre Primary Conservation Area, where grizzly bears will be the top priority of land managers. Ninety-eight percent of this landscape is federally owned, and no development will be permitted beyond 1998 levels unless it’s compensated for by reducing human activity elsewhere.

Based on the amount of secure habitat and the bear population it can support, leading researchers have estimated that there is a 99.2 percent probability that the Greater Yellowstone bear population will persist for 100 years, and a 96 percent probability of persistence for 500 years.

Bear management plans adopted by Montana, Idaho and Wyoming establish goals for expanding the grizzly range far beyond the intensively protected core area. Through these state plans, and a Forest Service commitment to adhere to them, an additional 6 million acres of publicly owned habitat, with different levels of protection, are available for Yellowstone’s growing grizzly population.

Many other initiatives are under way that will benefit both bears and the people that live with them. Some examples include:

    • The Gallatin National Forest, for example, with support from the National Forest Foundation, is bear-proofing campgrounds outside the core, to avoid human-bear conflicts even as the bear population grows.
    • Defenders of Wildlife continues to offer financial assistance to landowners who propose projects that reduce bear conflicts.
    • The Predator Conservation Alliance and the Natural Resource Conservation Service are preventing bear attacks on livestock by providing ranchers with herders and range-riders.
    • The Sierra Club is working with resorts such as Big Sky in Montana on better sanitation and educational outreach.

None of these programs depend on listing under the Endangered Species Act, and all will continue after grizzlies are delisted.

But bears across the Northern Rockies may benefit most from the reordering of agency priorities that will occur following delisting. The state fish and wildlife agencies will take over the management lead in Yellowstone, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will then be free to focus on other grizzly bear populations that are still listed under the Endangered Species Act. These populations are in the Cabinet-Yaak, the Selkirks, the North Cascades, and, most importantly, the Selway-Bitterroots. Conservation efforts in these areas have long lagged far behind those in Yellowstone.

The success in Yellowstone stands as a sharp rebuttal to those who claim that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t work. America’s largest carnivore, a species that requires millions of acres of high-quality habitat, has been recovered in one key area through the hard work of many people, organizations and agencies. The National Wildlife Federation believes this success can and should inspire further success, for both grizzly bears and other imperiled wildlife.

Tom France is an attorney who has worked for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Montana, for 24 years.

High Country News Classifieds