Yellowstone's Grizzlies Aren't Out of the Woods Yet

The park's threatened bears are on the road to recovery. But without continued federal protection, they'll be back on the path to extinction.

A sign in Yellowstone National Park

The Endangered Species Act is one of the most important tools in the fight to protect threatened wildlife populations and the increasingly vulnerable habitats that these animals call home. Needless to say, the decision to add a species to the list of those deserving federal protection, by classifying the animals as either threatened or endangered, is never taken lightly.

But neither should the decision to remove an animal from the list. Only the best available science—not politics or optics or public relations—should be the foundation for such action. Unfortunately, some people, including many who should know better, have allowed factors other than solid science to influence their contention that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear has fully recovered and should now be delisted. That would strip the bears of federal protection and leave them to fend for themselves despite critical challenges. Having fought hard to get Yellowstone's grizzlies re-listed after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, removed them back in 2007, NRDC—along with other wildlife advocates and experts—opposes the delisting campaign now for the same reason as then: The long-term future of the species is still uncertain.

Make no mistake: Saving the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the 1970s to today is a tremendous wildlife success story. The population has rebounded from fewer than 150 bears in 1975 to potentially around 700 today. Grizzly bears once flourished across a wide swath of the western United States in a range that stretched from Canada to Mexico. By the beginning of the 20th century, these animals, which had numbered more than 100,000 only a century earlier, had all but disappeared from the Lower 48, mainly due to an aggressive killing campaign. The small band of survivors in and around Yellowstone managed to hang on, but their extreme geographical isolation from other grizzly populations greatly inhibited their genetic diversity, which any biologist can tell you is essential to a species' ability to adapt and survive.

One recent study found that a solid majority of grizzly experts in academia, wildlife-management agencies, and environmental organizations believe delisting is the wrong choice, given what we know about the many threats these animals still face. Those threats haven't really changed since 2007: Habitat loss, genetic isolation, and food scarcity are still among the biggest.

If anything, the juggernaut of climate change has made those difficulties even more of a challenge than they were before. One of the grizzly's primary food sources, the seeds from whitebark pine trees, is becoming much harder to find. Moreover, as hungry bears descend from the park's higher elevations in search of alternative foods in late summer and early fall, and as more and more people move into and recreate in grizzly country, encounters with humans will likely become more common. And these encounters often end badly for the bears.

Nevertheless, the campaign to delist the bears continues. Once again, the USFWS, which oversees the list along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, just proposed to do so. Meanwhile, NRDC is convinced that given the uncertainty facing the future of the population, delisting Yellowstone's grizzlies at this time is premature.

Why are we even having this debate? The sad and predictable answer is politics. "The USFWS is responding to political pressure from the states, which want local control over bear management, including greater flexibility for addressing conflicts and the option of hunting," says NRDC senior scientist and wildlife specialist Sylvia Fallon. Additionally, she notes, "Opponents of the Endangered Species Act claim that it's failing because while many species go on the list, few come off. But it actually takes decades to recover species that have been pushed to the brink of extinction."

Yellowstone's grizzlies are no exception. "It has taken 40 years for this slowly reproducing species to meaningfully increase its population size," Fallon says. "A premature delisting could very well mean losing the gains that this population has already made. The recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly is an incredible success story, but the final chapter has yet to be written, and continued Endangered Species Act protections would help ensure full recovery is achieved."

At some point in the future, we hope Yellowstone's grizzly population will recover to the point that delisting is merited. But today, there are too many questions, and we're not there yet. And until we get there, Fallon and other bear experts will continue to argue that abandoning these animals before they've made their way down the path to full recovery is shortsighted and a step backward.

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