Premature Move is Recipe for Extinction, Would Allow Open Season on Habitat

July 7, 2005 -- This month, federal officials in Washington are expected to unveil plans revoking the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections responsible for saving the grizzly bears that now live in and around Yellowstone National Park after they were driven nearly to extinction. The plan would leave the bears -- icons of the American West, and one of our great conservation success stories -- vulnerable to hunters' bullets, while throwing open protected habitat to real estate and energy development.

The issue brief was prepared by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) to help you stay ahead of the story, and to understand its ramifications for the bears, the park and its neighboring communities, and for species conservation overall.

The Bear That Almost Wasn't
When Yellowstone grizzlies received ESA protection in 1975, their numbers had dwindled to about 200. That represented less than 1 percent of the estimated grizzly population that originally inhabited the lower 48 states when Europeans first explored the continent. Gone were most of the approximately 100,000 bears that had ranged from the Great Plains to California and from Alaska to Mexico. By 1975, the few remaining bears were hanging by a thread in the Northern Rocky Mountains and facing major threats to what was left of their habitat.

Why Care About Grizzlies?
Grizzlies are perhaps the greatest living icon of the American West. They are part of the natural heritage that is shared by all Americans. The landscape and animals that inhabit it have a special place in our nation's history and in the hearts and minds of millions of people. Protecting the bears means protecting this landscape.

Yellowstone is our nation's oldest national park, founded in 1872. About 3 million people visit the park every year, making it one of the country's most heavily visited. The biggest draws for visitors are the world-renowned geyser Old Faithful and the opportunity to see bears in the wild. If Yellowstone's grizzlies die out, it would be like Old Faithful running dry. Moreover, healthy bear populations mean that the land is healthy. It means that remaining pieces of wilderness will be here for our children and our grandchildren.

A (Near) Success Story: Bears are (Barely) Back
If not for the Endangered Species Act, Yellowstone's grizzlies would almost surely be extinct. The ESA prohibits the intentional killing or capturing of endangered and threatened species and requires federal agencies to develop individual species recovery plans. The ESA also requires the designation and protection of critical habitat that is essential to a species' survival. Thanks to these protections, about 500 grizzlies now live in Yellowstone National Park and a recovery zone in surrounding parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

This is a remarkable success story considering that the bears nearly went extinct, but their long term survival is still at risk. Scientific studies on the extinction of mammals suggest that a goal of 2,000 to 3,000 grizzlies -- living in connected ecosystems -- must be reached to ensure a recovered population. This goal is achievable if Yellowstone grizzlies receive continued ESA protection and if habitat connecting them to other populations in Glacier National Park and Canada is not lost to development.

Endangered Species Act or Not: Yellowstone Grizzlies Are Still in Trouble
Last year, the death rate of Yellowstone grizzlies hit a 15-year high. The 19 dead bears were among 50 killed in the lower 48 states. According to the Los Angeles Times, 2004 was the worst year for grizzly mortality since 1975. Most grizzlies die because of conflict with humans. According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, 274 bears are known to have died from human causes since the bears were put on the Endangered Species List.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that for every known grizzly killed, at least one more bear was killed illegally. Therefore, the total number of human-killed bears since 1975 may be closer to 550. Most bears are killed outside national park boundaries near areas of growing human population. Bears are killed primarily because of conflicts with hunters or because they become nuisance bears habituated to human food and garbage and must be exterminated to protect life and property.

Even with Endangered Species Act protection, the threats to bears are growing. These threats include:

  • Oil and gas drilling -- Approximately 2 million acres of prime grizzly bear habitat on national forest lands are available for oil and gas development. If these wildlands are developed, grizzlies will be extirpated from the area. Under the Bush administration's energy policy, pristine lands in prime bear habitat have become a principal target.

  • Sprawl -- Private lands comprising crucial grizzly bear habitat are being developed at a runaway pace in the counties surrounding Yellowstone Park. The few scraps of land that grizzlies depend on for their survival are shrinking every year as vacation homes, ranchettes and residential subdivisions sprout up. As more humans move into grizzly territory, the risk of human-bear conflicts increases. The bears are usually the losers, since problem bears must be killed.

  • Logging and Roadbuilding -- Resource exploitation and motorized access degrades important grizzly habitat every year. Today, logging and roadbuilding threaten old-growth forest in Idaho's Centennial Mountains, which is occupied bear habitat and a vital wildlife migration corridor.

  • Threats to Key Grizzly Bear Foods -- Disease and non-native species are threatening key foods such as whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, which are vital to keeping grizzly bears alive. Projected trends in global warming will greatly exacerbate these problems.

Delisting Grizzlies Means More Dead Bears
Grizzlies don't read maps. About one third (approximately 175) of the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies live outside the park and a surrounding area known as the grizzly "Recovery Zone." If the species is delisted, any bears that wander outside this area will be at increased risk of death.

One of the most obvious threats is hunting. The states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all have plans to allow grizzly hunting if and when the bears are delisted. Bears wandering out of the park will be fair game. As it is, many bears already are killed by poachers. Legal hunting will only make matters worse. Fremont, Park, Sublette and Lincoln counties in Wyoming have all passed laws prohibiting grizzlies within their borders. A possible consequence could be county-sanctioned killing of bears that enter those counties.

Delisting bears also will loosen restrictions on development and resource exploitation, further eroding grizzly habitat. Less land means less grizzlies. Any increase in bear mortality lessens the species' chance of survival. Scientists project that a population decline of as little as 3 percent per year could make Yellowstone grizzlies functionally extinct within a few decades.