Come 2014, grizzly bears in a few western states may once again sit in the crosshairs of a hunting rifle, news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) revealed in a grizzly bear management proposal released for public review last Friday.
The document comes at a time when grizzly populations in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are booming, and have been, for nearly two decades. A little-known fact is that grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were delisted back in 2007, when their numbers reached 571. But shortly thereafter, several environmental groups sued the federal government to put them back on the Endangered Species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appealed the ruling and won on every point except one: that they hadn't adequately assessed the impact of a decline in whitebark pine, a main food source for grizzlies. Whitebarks produce cones full of seeds, which yield high levels of fat and protein. But thanks to recent drought and massive pine-beetle infestations, the whitebarks are dying. Before the feds would consider upholding the delisting of grizzlies, Yellowstone biologists had to examine how whitebark impacted the bears’ health and survival. So in 2009, by court order, grizzlies were relisted as endangered.
The USFWS appealed that decision in 2011, but it was upheld again pending further research. Between 2009 and now, Yellowstone Park bear-management program leader Kerry Gunther, along with several other interagency biologists, have been studying grizzlies and whitebark. And what they’ve found is that despite the death of the trees, grizzlies are still thriving. In some cases, bears are finding pockets of whitebark that haven’t been affected. But in other areas, says Gunther, they have simply turned to different food sources.
This ability, he adds, is an advantage grizzlies have over other big predators, such as lynx, whose survival depends on one type of prey: snowshoe hares. Grizzlies, instead, are known as “omnivore generalists.” That’s why in the early 1990s, during a serious die-off of cutthroat trout, grizzlies in the Yellowstone Lake area could simply turn to elk calves for dinner. Similarly, despite the severe whitebark die-off in Glacier National Park, the grizzlies there are thriving. And in a study that compares Yellowstone’s grizzly body fat composition before and after the whitebark die-off, researchers found no significant change in body fat.
In fact, Yellowstone Park bears are doing so well right now that according to Gunther, they’re growing at about one percent per year. Although bears outside the park, in the region known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, are growing at twice that rate, this is about as stable as the park population can get—not so many that Yellowstone is overrun by grizzlies and they threaten humans, but plenty enough for the iconic predator to be far from threatened or endangered.
“The end goal of the Endangered Species Act is to restore populations of endangered species and then treat them like they are any other wildlife,” Gunther says. Which is to say, delisting grizzlies will have the consequence of giving some hunters the legal right to kill them.
In the Great Falls Tribune, Chris Servheen, grizzly bear coordinator for the USFWS, said that delisting wouldn’t mean “we go back to business as usual [with grizzlies.] Recovery means we institutionalize careful management that got us to recovery status.” But it will, in some regions, allow “sustainable grizzly bear hunting,” which would be “managed to promote social tolerance of grizzlies.”
Servheen also stated that hunting regulations in Montana would be set by the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission, and that the USFWS proposal just makes general recommendations on hunting that would support bear conservation but offers no specifics. The proposal is not a document asking to remove the bears from the endangered list, an issue that will be decided by courts, but a document, created by several state and federal wildlife agencies, which will help them manage the grizzlies if and when they become delisted.
A story on the issue from outdoor publication Field & Stream asks, “If approved, would a lower 48 grizzly hunt quickly become the most coveted [hunting] tag in North America?” Well, if it doesn’t become the most coveted tag, then it will certainly be the most controversial.