Yellowstone Park grizzly bear population recovers slowly, but remains unstable

The Yellowstone grizzly bear population seems to be recovering somewhat from a previous state of despair. Unfortunately, grizzly recovery has incited extractive industries and some state and federal agencies to favor delisting the Yellowstone grizzly’s Endangered Species Act status from endangered to threatened. Delisting would greatly augment the obstacles that the grizzlies have been battling in their struggle to thrive.

There is a certain magic in grizzly country. As John Murray, an environmental writer and activist, claims, “The presence of even one grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it.”

Due to the grizzlies’ habitat needs of large, unfragmented tracts of wild land to forage and roam, grizzlies serve as an umbrella species; that is, indicators of the health of the ecosystem. If grizzlies are present in an area, the ecosystem’s other organisms, many of which belong to threatened, less-visible populations, will also be present. The last remaining harlequin ducks, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, lynx, pine martens, wolverines, mountain caribou, great gray owls, and gray wolves often exist within grizzly range. Grizzly range overlaps with 40 percent of Montana’s vascular plant species of extinction concern.

Some biologists consider the grizzly to be a keystone species, an influential species whose effects are disproportionately large relative to its abundance. Grizzlies serve as predators as well as scavengers, releasing the nutrients stored in animal carcasses. They spread seeds that travel through their digestive track. Grizzlies also influence the ecosystem by transporting soil. Murray suggests that “when a bear dies, something sacred in every living thing interconnected with that realm. . .also dies.”

The grizzly population of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is one of only five remaining populations in the lower 48 states. Nationally, the less than 1000 remaining grizzlies represent approximately one percent of the original population. The Yellowstone grizzlies were granted endangered status under the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s. At that time only 30 breeding females were among the 200 to 300 existing Yellowstone grizzlies, which were reduced to two percent of their former range.

Although the endangered declaration appears to have assisted recovery, the degree of recovery is uncertain. Chris Servheen, a biologist with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which is pursuing delisting, believes that the present Yellowstone grizzly population consists of 600 to 900 bears and is exhibiting five percent population growth. Other biologists believe that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem hosts only between 260 and 500 bears. Most biologists consider 500 grizzlies to be the critical minimum population for long term survival.

Regardless of the exact population numbers, the grizzly bear population is not secure enough to warrant delisting. The small size and isolation of the population threatens its long-term viability. Increases in grizzly bear populations are severely hindered. Due to habitat fragmentation, the Yellowstone habitat is only marginal and may currently be supporting its maximum possible grizzly population. An immensity of oil and gas exploration as well as timber harvest within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is threatening the integrity of the habitat. In the course of the grizzlies’ pre-denning ramblings over hundreds of square miles in search of food, it is difficult for grizzlies to avoid the perils of encountering humans or logging roads.

Delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies’ status from endangered to threatened would incite habitat destruction by increasing extractive and recreation pressures. Delisting is supported by extractive industries that desire easier access to Yellowstone as well as federal agencies that are eager to declare the success of grizzly recovery. The states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which would be able to independently and less stringently manage grizzly populations, also support delisting. The Endangered Species Act requires that the impact of activities affecting the habitat of endangered species must be assessed and that such activities must be prevented if detrimental. These evaluations would no longer be required following delisting. Delisting would also remove the current prohibitions against killing grizzlies.

We must protect the grizzlies and, by doing so, all other species in the ecosystem including humans. Grizzlies will best be protected by maintaining their endangered ESA classification. Rather than concerning ourselves with legislative titles, we must concern ourselves with protecting the dwindling grizzly habitat. We must preserve existing roadless tracks of land from fragmentation. We must link habitat fragments together with wildlife corridors.

Maintaining the endangered species status will help to ensure that the growl of the Yellowstone grizzly bears will remain an integral part of the symphony of the wild. Whenever the grizzlies’ growl is present, it will be accompanied by the voices of all other creatures, large and small, providing a harmony that ultimately ensures that the song of the wildlands continues to thrive.

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