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Know the West

Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: Not out of the woods yet


Yellowstone: Grizzly bears and geysers. People have been coming from around the world to see the national park’s main attractions for decades. But the grizzly’s future is by no means assured: The Bush administration wants to remove the Yellowstone grizzly from the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Such delisting is premature. We need more bears, more habitat for bears, and we need to start truly protecting them from killing and development, before we can safely remove them from the list.

First and foremost, grizzly bears need protection from unnecessary killing. Most of the bears that die in the Yellowstone area are killed by humans. Last year, game hunters killed 10 grizzly bears; bear managers killed seven more for crimes such as eating improperly stored human foods or attacking livestock. Yet another grizzly was run over by a car. All told, 26 grizzly bears died in the Yellowstone area last year, one of the highest annual totals for grizzly deaths in recent memory.

Without the Endangered Species Act’s protection, the number of bears killed will only increase. Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have all announced plans to hunt Yellowstone’s grizzlies on public lands outside Yellowstone Park as soon as the bear is delisted. Four Wyoming counties that currently host grizzlies have already passed county ordinances to kill bears on sight.

Delisting proponents contend that there are plenty of bears in the Yellowstone area, and that we can afford to lose a lot of them. But their assurances that bears have met recovery goals are cold comfort. Bears are not meeting recovery goals. Last year, female grizzly bears were killed at a rate that is unsustainable even by the government’s own standards. And the recovery targets are themselves deficient: In 1995, a federal judge rejected the grizzly recovery plan as inadequate to ensure a recovered bear population. That plan has never been fixed. Meeting a flawed plan’s arbitrary recovery targets is passing the wrong test.

If we really have enough bears, why is the government planning to truck in an outside grizzly every 10 years to prevent genetic inbreeding in the park? Does this sound like success? The truth is we need to increase the size of Yellowstone’s bear population to reach true recovery.

That means protecting habitat, which is the real sticking point for the Bush administration. Yellowstone’s grizzlies need more than just Yellowstone National Park, they need the surrounding national forest lands as well. The picture for grizzly bears does not look good if the Endangered Species Act is no longer a roadblock to the aggressive oil and gas drilling, logging, road-building, and mining championed by the Bush administration.

Are we willing to make room for the grizzlies, or do we expect the bears to learn to read imaginary lines on a map? A third of the habitat currently used by Yellowstone’s grizzlies gets no protection under the government’s delisting plan. The government says it wants to maintain Yellowstone’s current bear numbers. But it has no plans to protect the more than 2 million acres of national forest lands where grizzlies are currently living, let alone the additional national forest lands where bears could roam if we were willing to hold back the coming sea of development.

And how do we know that the government will deliver on its half-measure promises to protect habitat outside the national parks? Delisting proponents claim that we can protect the bear’s habitat through Forest Service plans — the same forest plans that the Bush administration says are "aspirational," not binding.

This is not the time to take more habitat away from bears that are already contending with declining food sources. Yellowstone’s grizzlies rely heavily on the seed cones of whitebark pine. In good years, whitebark pines produce 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 pines are under attack from a variety of fronts: 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.

We’ve come too far in protecting Yellowstone’s bears to give up the game now. It’s not time to call it quits — it’s time to save the grizzlies’ last remaining habitat while we still can. Let’s build on our progress, not reverse it.

Doug Honnold is the managing attorney of the Earthjustice office in Bozeman, Montana, and has been working to protect grizzly bears for more than 20 years.