Delisting proposal leaves out key pieces needed to keep Yellowstone grizzly bears on the road to recovery.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) submitted for public comment a rather controversial proposal: To remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for grizzly bears living in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Since that announcement this spring, a wave of opinions have rushed in from all possible sides of the issue. The agency received more than 100,000 comments on their proposal, including a set from our own team of experts here at Defenders of Wildlife.
Normally, when a species is truly ready to be delisted (to have its ESA protections removed), it is a cause to celebrate. It means we’ve beaten extinction! We are no longer in danger of watching a species disappear, we have a plan in place to keep the same thing from happening again, and we can expect to enjoy that creature’s presence on our wild lands for generations to come. At least, that’s what it should mean. But if all the right pieces of this complicated puzzle aren’t there, a short-sighted delisting can mean serious trouble for the species in question. And in the case of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, that’s exactly what we’re afraid is happening.
A Long Road to Recovery
It doesn’t seem like long ago that this group of grizzly bears was too small to even consider delisting. In the 1970s, there were fewer than 200 grizzly bears left in the Yellowstone ecosystem. These lucky few were protected only as a result of living in the national park; the many grizzlies that once occupied the landscape for hundreds of miles around had been killed over the previous century as human settlers streamed into the region. It has taken decades and countless hours of hard work to get things back on track for these bears.
Yellowstone grizzlies were listed under the ESA in 1975, and granted the protection they so desperately needed. The FWS, along with state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, biologists, and many, many others have worked hard to restore the bears and secure their habitat, and to encourage tolerance for grizzlies in the region. And the work has paid off. Today, more than 700 grizzlies roam an ever-growing area in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Despite this progress, several troubling facts remain. Each year, we see a high number of human-related grizzly bear deaths. Many of these are bears that came too close for comfort, being tempted by human food items like livestock, fruit orchards and garbage. With bears expanding their range and more people living in bear habitat, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
These grizzlies are also still isolated. Years of protection and conservation work have created a relatively safe landscape for the bears in this region, but not necessarily beyond it. With dangerous roads and human development criss-crossing a patchwork of habitats, it will be a difficult journey for Yellowstone grizzlies to safely travel to other grizzly bear populations or for bears from other populations to get to the Yellowstone ecosystem – something Yellowstone bears need to help the species remain healthy and resilient to change.
What’s Wrong with the Delisting Proposal
While it’s clear that the number of Yellowstone grizzly bears has finally grown enough to at least have a conversation about delisting, that number is just one piece of the puzzle. There are several very important ones still missing. Habitat protection, for instance, is a serious concern. The proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect grizzly bear habitat in the face of continued development across the region.
But another issue, perhaps the biggest one, is that no one seems to have a clear plan in place for what would happen to grizzlies next. The proposal includes several documents that could address this, but they are out of sync with each other. Perhaps more alarming is that key pieces are missing altogether, including complete and adequate state plans for grizzly bear management and federal plans for how habitat on federal lands such as national forests surrounding Yellowstone will be managed to secure a place for grizzly bears into the future. If the proposal were approved today, management of grizzly bears would shift from the federal government to the states – but two of the three state plans are incomplete, and major concerns about how the states would manage bears after delisting remain unanswered.
Already, too many bears are killed each year from conflicts with humans. In 2015 alone, there were 61 bear mortalities around Yellowstone. Grizzly bears are one of the slowest reproducing mammals in North America. They cannot keep their populations strong and healthy if too many of them are killed too quickly. Eliminating ESA protections without a strong plan in place is simply not a risk we are willing to take.
What’s Next for Yellowstone Grizzlies?
With the public comment period now closed, we don’t know when the FWS will make its final decision, though they have suggested they may have a decision by the end of 2016. The agency does have to wait for the missing plans from the states and federal land management agencies, whatever form they may take. We are working to encourage state agencies to create plans that will secure a future for Yellowstone grizzlies – not put it at risk.
In the meantime, we’re certainly keeping busy. Our team is continuing the work we have done for years, confronting two of the largest threats to grizzly bears: habitat loss and grizzly bear deaths caused by humans.
We’re working with state and federal agencies, as well as private landowners, to secure grizzly bear habitat where it’s needed most. Not just around key recovery areas like Yellowstone, but corridors that would connect the isolated patches and allow grizzlies to one day travel safely back and forth. This work is especially important now, as rapid development continues throughout the region.
And as grizzlies expand into more of their historic habitat, we’re working with local communities to put tools and methods in place that keep bears out of conflict with people. This work includes solutions like cost sharing with residents on bear-resistant trash cans, or installing bear-resistant electric fencing around beehives and chicken coops – a win for everyone involved. People’s property stays safe from hungry bears, and bears move on from risky areas too close to humans. We’ve invested over a million dollars in more than 300 projects to protect bears since 1998. We strongly believe that working closely with local residents on ways that allow for both grizzly bears and people to live on the same landscape is the best way to make sure they are around for decades to come, and we’ll continue this important work no matter what FWS decides.