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for people who care about the West

Grizzly fascination


The professor’s assignment was open-ended: Get together with another graduate student and write about a current natural resource dilemma, one with lots of competing players. Both topic and partner came readily to mind: The Yellowstone grizzly bear intrigued not only me, but also my vivacious, intelligent colleague, Ann Harvey.

That was back in 1985. The other day, I found our report buried deep inside an old file cabinet. It’s not poetry, but it captures the flavor of the landscape, as well as the politics of a place that has been one of my journalistic foci for decades now. And I am still friends with Ann, who has lived in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem ever since, and who continues to be an ardent wildlife advocate.

Here’s the thing about grizzly bears: They create a human ecosystem every bit as interesting as the natural one. And that system is also populated by fierce and persistent individuals. Ann is one of many who have remained in the grizzly-shaped system for decades.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the legendary Craighead brothers — John and Frank — undertook the pioneering population studies that led to the bear’s listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, and pushed the National Park Service to close the garbage dumps that had become dangerous, all-night buffets for too many bears.

In the 1980s and 1990s, biologists Richard Knight and Chris Servheen took center stage as successive directors of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, the federal and state scientists and managers assembled to monitor and manage the grizzlies. As former HCN intern Gloria Dickie reports in our cover story, optimism for full recovery grew once the dumps were closed and the population rose from a low of some 200 animals. And new advocates emerged from both within and without the bureaucracies.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer

One insider — former interagency team biologist Dave Mattson — and one outsider — bear activist Louisa Willcox — have spent the better part of two decades fighting Servheen’s team’s push to declare the Yellowstone grizzly, which now numbers around 700, fully recovered. Removing it from the endangered species list would mean handing management from the federal government to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and possibly reinstating controversial grizzly hunting seasons.

There are good scientists and sincere grizzly lovers on both sides of the argument, as Dickie makes clear. One thing is certain, however: As the West’s wild country continues to shrink, our struggle to live with bears will only get more complex. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for the Yellowstone grizzly? I say: Look to the humans the bear has surrounded itself with. As long as we remain diverse and engaged, our most celebrated fellow omnivore should be around for a long time to come.