The future of grizzly bears in the Greater
Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) region is at a pivotal point.
The Yellowstone region’s grizzly bear population hasn’t grown since the early 2000s, fewer cubs are surviving to adulthood, bears have lost key foods due to climate change, and Yellowstone grizzly bears are completely isolated from other grizzly bears, which threatens their long-term survival.
Despite all this, in August, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) removed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Removal from list, commonly referred to as “delisting”, means that the bears will no longer be protected by federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations, and instead managed by state governments of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana — all states that have indicated they want to open sport hunting of the grizzly.
Yellowstone’s bears must be allowed to wander safely outside of Yellowstone National Park. As residents of Park County, Montana, who co-habitate the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem along with the grizzly, we are important advocates for America’s great bears.
The critical question: who benefits from delisting Yellowstone’s grizzly bears? The only certain outcome of delisting bears will be trophy hunts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Americans would never accept hunting of America’s bald eagle, hunting Yellowstone grizzly bears is equally unacceptable.
The fate of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear is uncertain, and we must act to protect them.
Save the Yellowstone Grizzly
PCEC is proud to support Save the Yellowstone Grizzly A star-studded coalition of scientists, authors, movie stars and conservationists who launched this media campaign and petition to convince President Barack Obama to take executive action, overruling an agency proposal to take the Yellowstone grizzly bear off the Endangered Species list.
Why advocate for continued protection of the Yellowstone grizzly bear?
Grizzly food sources are in decline. Historically, there have been four critical foods for grizzlies in Yellowstone, whitebark pine seeds obtained from raiding squirrel middens, spawning cutthroat trout, congregating cutworm moths, and meat from a variety of sources. Of these four foods, two, whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout have been dramatically reduced in the past few years. Whitebark from a combination of the 1988 fires, an introduced fungal pathogen and an unprecedented bark beetle outbreak; and spawning cutthroat trout (losses greater than 90% in many important spawning streams) followed the introduction of Lake trout into Yellowstone Lake. Cutworm moths are an unreliable source because they migrate into high- elevation talus slopes from lower elevation fields where they are an agricultural pest. New farming technologies, like GMO crops that act as pesticides, could result in dramatic reduction of this food source as well. That leaves meat as the only remaining high-quality food resource.
The “best available science” cavalierly dismisses the loss of these critical foods by noting that grizzlies are generalists with a broad range in diet, but what really is important for maintaining the population is availability of high quality food at the right time of the year. True evaluation of alternative foods replacing these four critical foods must, at the least, account for: comparative nutritional value, risk of obtaining, energetic cost of obtaining, and seasonal abundance. This true accounting has not occurred and removal of protected status should not be considered until it has.
Carrying capacity of the GYE is changing. Some interpret the expanding range of Yellowstone’s grizzlies in as an indication that grizzlies have reached a static carrying capacity, with the inference that it is futile, and perhaps counterproductive, to increase number in the ecosystem. An alternative hypothesis that is not often considered, is that carrying capacity itself has been reduced, primarily as a result of declining food resources. The alternative hypothesis of reduced carrying capacity, with the inference that increased range must be provided to provide adequate habitat for a truly recovered population. This alternative hypothesis must be fully explored to satisfy the requirement for “best science” as required by law.
Bear mortality in 2015 amounted to approximately 70 bears, or 10% of the total population for the slowest reproducing mammal in North America. These levels of mortality have occurred even with federal protection, and are not sustainable. Removing protection and placing management decisions in the hands of the states is incompatible with the concept of a sustainable population, particularly when these states are either hostile to coexistence with large carnivores and/or view them as a revenue generating commodity. Demonstrably sustainable levels of mortality must be first obtained and then maintained before the population can be considered recovered.
GYE bears are genetically isolated. Genetic viability the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is isolated from all other grizzly populations. This raises serious questions regarding loss of genetic viability through inbreeding. The delisting arguement assumes that the genetically effective size of the Yellowstone population is large enough to maintain genetic viability, but the research supporting this contention is based on incorrect assumptions. Furthermore, allowing hunting of this vulnerable population could lead to rapid directional selection leading to a less fit and viable breeding population. Evidence supporting genetic viability of the Yellowstone Grizzly population should be based on the best available science.
Climate change further threatens the grizzly. The impact of climate change on Yellowstone’s grizzlies is summarily dismissed by the statement, “Most grizzly bear biologists in the United States and Canada do not expect habitat changes predicted under climate change scenarios to directly threaten grizzly bears.” This statement is supported by citing an un-referred summary publication co-authored by Dr. Sercheen, the principle author of The Delisting Rule. There is ample evidence that climate change has already detrimentally affected Yellowstone’s grizzly population, but this evidence is dismissed with the statements like, ‘grizzly bears are adaptable, they’ll do just fine,’ with little or no supporting evidence.
Population Estimates Accurately estimating the number of bears in a large, rugged area like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a difficult task, yet such an estimate is essential for any post-delisting decisions regarding sport hunting of grizzlies by the states. The methods used by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST– the lead organization responsible for research and monitoring efforts on grizzly bears in the GYE) to estimate bear population numbers has been questioned in the peer-review, scientific literature. This inadequacy has not been resolved in the subsequent IGBST rebuttal. All data regarding grizzly numbers needs to be made available for independent scientific analysis and review.
Data used in decision making must be transparent and peer-reviewed. The IGBST has been less than transparent about making taxpayer-funded data available for scrutiny by the larger scientific community. All raw data on grizzly bears collected by government agencies should be made available to independent scientists. In view of the wide disagreement about delisting decisions, the USFWS should establish a review panel of independent, academically qualified scientists who are not involved in current grizzly bear research in the GYE.
Hunting is not an effective management tool. There is no evidence to support hunting as a management tool with respect to grizzly bears. Too many bears die each year is cases of self-defense as it is. Problem or “nuisance” bears are already managed with euthanizing and relocation. Claiming that hunting will aid that effort is myopic at best. Hunters cannot distinguish between “good” bears or “bad” bears. Hunters will target the largest, healthiest “trophy” bears. Most grizzlies are naturally wary of humans with or without a hunting rifle in hand. Conversely it could be equally surmised that teaching a bear a lesson by killing it will end up being the last thing that bear ever learns.
Forty years of protections, bear tolerance programs and education have created conceivably the greatest level of acceptance and understanding of the grizzly we’ve known. This has all been accomplished with the understanding that the grizzly is protected from hunting. It could be argued that introducing hunting could erode this acceptance and return us to the era prior to ESA protection when “the only good bear is a dead bear” mentality existed, a mentality that lead to the need to list the species to begin with.
Hunters are conservationists, but trophy hunting the grizzly is wanton killing at best. The taking of a grizzly for a rug, wall hanging or stuffed mount in a private collection plainly violates one of the seven pillars of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation – the “Non-Frivolous Use” tenant.