photo by Jim Peaco, courtesy Yellowstone National Park
In the contiguous United States, grizzly bears have only a fraction of their historical numbers. But the question of whether all individual bears deserve equal legal protection is now playing out on their home turf.
Hunting grizzly bears in the Lower 48 has been illegal for decades. That was about to change, at least in Wyoming and Idaho. In 2017 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly population from threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. (Grizzlies outside this population, including the relatively large population in and around Glacier National Park, remained protected.) Hunts were planned for this fall, with Wyoming officials allowing a take of up to 22 bears and Idaho planning a hunt for a single bear.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen effectively put both hunts on indefinite hold. Christensen ruled that Fish and Wildlife officials were “arbitrary and capricious” in removing the bears’ protection, thus restoring the bears’ status for the time being. He had previously delayed the hunts twice prior to this ruling.
In his ruling, Christensen wrote that the case was “not about the ethics of hunting.” Instead, he made two basic points. First, the Yellowstone bears, while considerably more populous than when they were first listed as threatened, are genetically isolated from other bears. Allowing hunters to target them could thus increase grizzlies’ vulnerability to the long-term consequences of inbreeding. Second, the federal agency failed to consider the potential impact of reducing the size of the Yellowstone group on other Lower 48 bear populations.
Procedurally, the ruling may have some merit. As a practical matter, however, it has none.
Much has been made of the fact that grizzlies once roamed freely across most of the continent west of the Mississippi River, and that now they exist south of Canada only in isolated pockets. The bear on the California state flag is a grizzly, but none have been present in the state since the early 20th century. Christensen himself noted that estimated 50,000 grizzly bears once inhabited the contiguous United States. In regions other than the area in and around Yellowstone National Park, populations continue to struggle.
This is true. Our world is different in many ways from that of the 1800s. There are indeed many fewer grizzlies in the western United States – but there are many more people. The U.S. population more than tripled between 1900 and 2000, and the West grew faster than any other region.
Anyone who sets foot outdoors in grizzly country is taking a risk, as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark discovered on their historic expedition. The explorers recorded 13 separate grizzly bear encounters in their journals over the course of their two-year, four-month journey. While it is unknown how many bears they sighted, they killed 43 and wounded several more. In May 1805, Lewis wrote, “these bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear.”
While there are fewer grizzlies today, they are no less dangerous. As a student journalist, I had to cover the death of a young woman who was killed in her tent while camping in Glacier National Park in 1976. And 10 days prior to Christensen’s ruling, a grizzly mother with a cub killed a hunting guide in Wyoming. In the Lower 48, all “brown” bears (as opposed to black bears) are grizzlies; deaths from wild brown bear attacks have significantly increased from just one or two per decade in the 1940s through the 1960s to almost one per year today. And this is with the grizzly still largely confined to Glacier and Yellowstone and the surrounding wilderness, at an estimated population of 1,700 or so. Hikers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts are warned to carry bear spray, firearms or both and to be ready to use them when in the bears’ country.
Grizzlies will never be able to move freely between the isolated pockets of their habitat, because we can’t afford to let them. It is simply too dangerous to have bears that can reach 1,000 pounds crossing regularly through towns, pastures and highways in the comparatively densely settled valleys of the northern Rockies, or on the farmlands of the Great Plains. (For comparison, a large black bear might weigh 250 pounds or so.) It is also hazardous to allow grizzlies to overpopulate the wildlands they already inhabit. These territories can only support so many bears. When food gets scarce due to drought or other environmental factors, hungry bears become even more dangerous.
The Endangered Species Act exists to protect species, not individual animals. There is no threat to the survival of the grizzly overall; the ample populations in Canada and Alaska ensure that. The law also protects the remnant population in the Lower 48, and I would not want to see that change. But there is no safe way to let the grizzlies migrate between the protected wilderness regions that support them. If we let natural population growth expand their territory into human-inhabited areas, we will see more killings of both humans and bears.
Nobody did or received any favors from Judge Christensen’s ruling. At some point, we must put limits on the bears’ populations for the protection of people and, for that matter, the bears, lest we all end up with the same view of them that Lewis and Clark acquired.