By Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club
There is nothing like seeing a grizzly bear in the wild, in its native habitat. Like most people, I remember well each time that I’ve seen a grizzly: the heightened awareness, the awe, the appreciation. The knowledge that my reaction in the next few moments makes all the difference.
After fighting premature removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies for the past several years, June 22 was a hard day. That was the day that – despite overwhelming opposition from the public and tribal nations – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final delisting rule removing the very protections that have allowed grizzly bears in the region to avoid extinction. The rule turned management over to the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – states with a long history of hostility toward large carnivores.
Now is not the time to take chances with grizzly bear recovery in the Yellowstone region, and that’s why Sierra Club is filing a lawsuit today to reinstate endangered species protections.
Grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone have lost two of their most important food sources, whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, due to changing environmental conditions driven in part by a warming climate. In the wake of these changes, scientists have documented the bears’ transition to a more meat-based diet, one that leads to a greater potential for conflict as bears seeking meat come into contact with hunters and ranchers. In the last two years, over 100 grizzly bears have died. The vast majority of those deaths were caused by people. Federal agencies acknowledge that the growth of the Yellowstone grizzly population has flattened since the early 2000s, and the government’s own estimate of how many grizzly bears live in Greater Yellowstone has declined from 757 in 2014 to 695 in 2016.
A little-known fact about grizzlies is that it can take a female bear ten years or more to replace herself. Grizzlies are one of the slowest animals to reproduce, as they only start having cubs at around five years of age, generally have only 1-2 cubs per litter, and only half of those survive to adulthood. It can take a decade or more to determine impacts to grizzly bear populations, known as the “lag effect.” We need more time to understand the implications of this major shift in the bears’ diet.
There are also significant questions about the mortality limits in the delisting rule; some studies show that these limits could cause a significant decline in the population, and that such a decline may go undetected under current monitoring methods.
Under the delisting rule, while states will be required to maintain a stable population, the delisting rule defines “stable” as anything within the range of 600-747 bears in the politically-derived Demographic Monitoring Area. That means nearly 100 grizzly bears could be killed before any discretionary mortality would be curtailed (trophy hunting or intentional agency killing of bears for livestock depredation, for example). Additionally, grizzlies currently living outside of this line on a map are viewed as “extra” bears and can be completely eliminated. If allowed to stand, this delisting rule will result in fewer bears, on a smaller landscape than they currently occupy.
Additionally, grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region remain completely isolated from all other grizzly populations, as they have been for 100 years. There are no commitments or enforceable measures in the delisting rule to help Yellowstone bears connect to bears in northern Montana. Once the states begin allowing trophy hunting of grizzly bears, it will become even less likely that bears on the periphery will ever connect with bears in other areas.
And, importantly, courts have recently ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot “carve out” one subpopulation of a listed species and delist it, without addressing the broader recovery of the species as it was originally listed under the Endangered Species Act, as the agency is attempting to do with Yellowstone grizzly bears.
These are just some of the reasons that Sierra Club believes it is too soon to remove the protections that allowed grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region to make a comeback. They are still vulnerable, face many threats, and the population’s decline in recent years is very worrisome. Grizzly bears need more time to achieve full recovery — a thriving, connected, well-distributed population of several thousand bears.
Now is not the time to gamble with forty years of grizzly bear recovery efforts, and allow political pressure to short circuit science-based recovery.
“Humility is born in wildness. We are not protecting grizzlies from extinction; they are protecting us from the extinction of experience as we engage with a world beyond ourselves. The very presence of a grizzly returns us to an ecology of awe. We tremble at what appears to be a dream yet stands before us on two legs and roars.” – Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land