The Future of the Grizzly

The federal government seems convinced that the grizzly bear is no longer an endangered species. The hulking mammal’s population has quadrupled since 1975, to about 1,200 bruins in the lower 48 states, and plans are now underway to remove the bear from the Endangered Species List—which has scientists and conservationists concerned.

“We are at a crucial juncture for the future of the threatened grizzly,” says Louisa Willcox, director of the Wild Bears Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Bears should not be delisted before adequate habitat is protected.” Willcox says that grizzly bears face pressure from people, commercial development, and rural sprawl.

While conservation groups seek more habitat protection, ranchers agree with the government that the time has come to end Endangered Species protection of Ursus arctos horribilis. In Wyoming alone, the grizzly bear’s appetite cost the livestock industry $57,000 in fiscal 2003. Bears ordinarily eat berries and vegetation; but when close to humans, they often expand their menu accordingly.

Montana Senator Conrad Burns wants grizzlies delisted. Of Montana land, Burns says, “We have human beings that want to exist there, we have stockmen who have to put up with losses with that bear, and we can’t manage our forests as long as
that bear is on the Endangered Species Act list.”

“Delisting is really about taking chances,” Willcox counters. “We believe delisting is premature unless and until habitat’s protected so bears can be established as a connected population between Yellowstone and Canada.”

The 500 bears isolated in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem “are feeling the effects of inbreeding much the same as people would,” says grizzly expert Lance Craighead. These bears, he says, must be able to roam to maintain genetic diversity and sustain healthy

The road to recovery for grizzlies is a rough one. The Forest Service projects that the bear’s primary food source, whitebark pine nuts, will decline 39% in upcoming years. Under state control, the bear that Lewis and Clark discovered in the 1800s may literally come under the gun if delisted—Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming could allow hunting the mighty grizzly, the animal that Meriwether Lewis described as “a most tremendious looking anamal, and extremely hard to kill.”