Range Writing: Endangering Success

Range Writing: Endangering Success

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem achieved biological recovery goals nearly two decades ago, but the animals remain under federal protection – after more than 40 years of such protection.

This threatened-species success story is due to the extraordinary efforts and tolerance of the human communities that share the landscape with the great bear in this region, including affected individuals, businesses and local governments, federal and state bear managers, and local conservation organizations. No credit should go to groups whose only action is to file lawsuits that prolong federal protection for wild animal populations that are no longer in jeopardy. One such group has its Trump Lawsuit Tracker (currently at “122 and counting”) displayed prominently on the homepage of its website.

When a federal judge reinstated federal protection for the Yellowstone-region’s grizzly bear population of at least 700 bears last fall, the judge ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had “erred in delisting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear without further consideration of the impact on other members of the lower-48 grizzly designation.”

Federal officials had argued that delisting the Yellowstone region’s grizzly bear population would leave any other grizzly bears located in the lower 48 states with full protection as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But the court ruled that argument wasn’t enough “because decreased protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem necessarily translate to decreased chances for interbreeding” with grizzlies in other populations such as the 1,000-bear Northern Continental Divide population in north-central Montana. The court faulted FWS for its lack of recognition that the long-term health of the grizzly population depends on the introduction of new genetic material (as in genetic interchange between grizzly populations).

While the Yellowstone grizzly decision makes its way through the appeals process, bear advocates continue to pretend that this grizzly bear population is in jeopardy. It’s not.

From the original goal of 15 breeding female grizzlies in a 9,200-square mile recovery zone, the population has increased to at least 58 sows with cubs occupying more than 25,000 square miles. Scientists tell us that the ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for the big bruins – more than 60 percent of occupied grizzly bear range occurs outside the original bear recovery zone, in a more human-dominated landscape.

We’ve learned to coexist with grizzlies, but it’s a somewhat uneasy coexistence. With grizzly bears under federal protection for four decades, they no longer have a fear of humans. Thanks to bear-jams in our national parks, some grizzlies become habituated to the presence of humans, and human-habituated grizzlies can be a problem when those bears are located outside the national parks. 

It’s no longer unusual to have grizzlies show up in western Wyoming communities like Dubois, Cody, and Thermopolis. Farmers encounter grizzlies in their corn and bean fields miles from mountain ranges; campers no longer use soft-sided tents; skiers now carry bear spray; hikers, fishermen, hunters, and picnickers no longer use traditional recreational areas because of the risk of encountering grizzly bears – far outside of the grizzly bear recovery zone.

We have more bear-human conflicts in the ecosystem because we have more bears in areas with humans. We have more livestock conflicts because we have more bears sharing the range with livestock. It’s not because of a human failure to adjust to the presence of bears; it’s because we all share the same range. And lest anyone forget, the grizzly bear is a top-of-the-food-chain predator. People are injured in conflicts with grizzlies every year. Some shoot and kill grizzlies in self-defense. Beloved human beings have been killed in tragic encounters with grizzly bears.

The Endangered Species Act is meant to serve as a safety net to ensure the survival of species teetering on the brink of extinction – a worthy goal endorsed by most Americans. By insisting on continued protection of recovered animal populations, animal advocates wield the ESA as a weapon to hinder management of recovered species, and to limit human activities for which they disapprove.

The FWS’s job is to protect threatened and endangered species. It is not the agency’s job to push for ever-higher populations of recovered species as some bear advocates desire. That would be a waste of limited federal resources that should be freed for use with species that are truly threatened or endangered. To insist on continued federal protection for animals that are no longer threatened only succeeds in eroding support for the Endangered Species Act.

Cat Urbigkit is the author of the book “Return of the Grizzly: Sharing the Range with Yellowstone’s Top Predator.” Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

5 Comments

  1. Cat Urbigkit, for the record, explain to your readers the official position(s) you and your ag friends have held on Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the grizzly and wolf over the past 40 years. Please don’t misrepresent your position(s) held during this period of time. Do you not consistently support wolf hunting the minute ESA protections are lifted?

    If not for environmental groups fighting tooth and nails to protect Wyoming’s predators, the grizzly, wolves, mountain lions and wolverine, these ecologically essential species would have been extirpated long ago. The well-documented history of the wolf serves to inform the public regarding the in-bred anti-predator positions the ag community, at large, has held ever since ag was introduced to the Mountain West.

    You enjoy near unanimous support in a targeted publication such as this. The truth is, this cozy little ag bubble you live in is, in historical terms, about to pop.

  2. This is an incomplete story.

    You state “The court faulted FWS for its lack of recognition that the long-term health of the grizzly population depends on the introduction of new genetic material “.

    The judge faulted the Service on the basis of the Service’s own stated goals when the bear was initially listed, which was to have several repopulated areas in the Rocky Mountain Ecosystem and the GYE in order to create a corridor for exchange. The judge was just holding the Service to its own stated word. On that note, the Selkirk-Bitterroots still have zero grizzlies. The Yaak has less than 50 bears which are continuously poached. More work needs to be done first to ensure genetic diversity in our GYE bears. Otherwise, if they are being shot and hunted around the edges–the easy kills and the ones trying to connect–there will never be connectivity. Connectivity for our island GYE population is its lifeblood for existence into the future and insurance relative to climate change.

    In addition, the bear population has remained fairly flat for over 10 years which correlates with the loss of White Bark Pine nuts. There is still a lot of scientific argument whether bears are moving out because their main fall food sources are lost, or if there really are more bears?

    Human tolerance in the GYE is commendable and has allowed the bear population to grow. But I’m not ready to applaud us humans yet. Grizzly bears are the tolerant ones, having given up 99% of their habitat to humans. If we cannot allow them to live in just 1-2% of their native range in the lower U.S., it is us humans that have failed.

  3. You talk about people being injured in human-bear conflicts but invariably bears are killed. In most conflicts, the bears involved pay the ultimate price death.

    In addition, most independent scientists will tell you that the GYE population is not increasing but is actually flat since around the early 2000s. More bears are being seen, however, because bears are being forced to range further in search of food as climate change decimates their traditional food sources like white pine bark. This does not fit the delisting narrative of course but it is the sad truth.

    Finally, even if it were true, which it is not, these bears only occupy 2% or so of their historic range and lose more of it daily to development and encroachment. Humans should tolerate grizzly bears as they encroach in their territory. We are not the only species on the planet and it is time that we stopped acting like it.

  4. “…bears share the range with livestock…” How about livestock has usurped the bears from their range.

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