Another chapter in the saga to remove grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act protection is underway in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Currently there are several efforts to delist two grizzly bear population segments that some experts believe are healthy enough to be considered recovered: the Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have recently created a Memorandum of Agreement to help delist the GYE grizzly bear population, and in Dec. 2021, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte announced that the state is petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the NCDE population from the ESA and expand the zone’s designation further east into Montana. Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale also introduced legislation in the U.S. House to delist both populations.
State biologists and conservation groups like the Western Bear Foundation agree that the GYE population, estimated to be over 1,100 bears, is well above management goals. However, opponents of delisting say those estimates are high and the population goals for removal from the list are much too low for a sustainable population. Some animal rights activists and groups say the threshold should be bumped to 2,000 bears–a number many biologists feel is beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.
Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the people and communities impacted by these sometimes dangerous and destructive animals need the tools to handle them: “Right now, the state doesn’t have any way to proactively manage those bears and to control that expansion. Essentially, it’s very much a reactive response that we have under federal management.”
Each of the three states' wildlife departments and governors are in agreement, stating similar concerns that the states and the citizens within them who interact with these animals regularly do not have a way to adequately manage the animals.
Opponents to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem delisting petition cite similar concerns and raise issues with several recently-passed pieces of legislation that could impact delisted grizzlies. Montana Senate Bill 337 prohibits Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks from relocating grizzly bears outside of established recovery zones, which would slow bears’ expansion into new areas. Senate Bill 98 allows ranchers to shoot grizzlies that are “threatening livestock,” a term that opponents feel is not properly defined. Hunting black bears with hounds also became legal in Montana this year, which some feel could lead to potential run-ins with grizzlies.
In recent history, GYE grizzlies have been delisted and relisted twice, once in 2007 and again in 2017. In the most recent attempt, the GYE grizzly was delisted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which said the original recovery goal of 500 bears had long been reached. Idaho and Wyoming planned modest hunting seasons soon after. Hunters were limited to 22 bears in Wyoming and merely one in Idaho. Despite the small number of available tags, the hunt caused national outrage, leading some environmental groups and even famed chimpanzee biologist Jane Goodall to apply for tags so they would go unused.
Other forms of opposition come from environmental groups, animal rights organizations, and even some Native American Tribes, some of which came together to challenge the delisting in a lawsuit filed by the Crow Indian Tribe in 2018. The plaintiffs felt that the population estimates were inflated and that a lack of genetic exchange between the two relatively isolated population segments needed to be addressed. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula sided with the plaintiffs, stating, “the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] service’s analysis of the threats faced by the Greater Yellowstone grizzly segment was…both illogical and inconsistent with the cautious approach demanded by the ESA.” The decision to delist was appealed then upheld in July 2020.
But even after all this back and forth, proponents of delisting remain strong in their convictions that these two populations are ready.
“What’s important is that the states are coming forward now to say they’ve done the work, and now it’s time to move on from this and get these bears delisted and celebrate the success of the recovery,” Joe Kondelis, president of the Western Bear Foundation, told MeatEater. “Hunting was such a big focus last time, which I think swayed everyone heavily. Now, we’re focusing instead on the facts and on why these two population segments are recovered.”
Kondelis and others argue that animal activism groups will continue to change the parameters in order to keep the grizzly, one of their main fundraising animals, listed as a threatened species indefinitely. But many hunters, ranchers, and locals who deal with these dangerous animals regularly feel they are not being heard.
“We need to create hunter advocates for the grizzly bear,” Kondelis said. “There are hunter advocates for a lot of species like deer, elk, and wild sheep. Any species that have hunter advocates are thriving.”
While some opponents say hunting would be a great threat to populations, MeatEater’s Ryan Callaghan says the over-development of land in grizzly country is a much larger threat.
“The landscape is constantly changing,” Callaghan said. “There’s a far greater amount of development in grizzly bear country in our current timeframe than there has been in the past. And the bottom line is, state agencies are mandated to make sure the health of these animals for the long term is considered. That’s the number one priority. So, I firmly believe and have faith in the fact that the state agencies are more than capable at considering this.”
The opponents of delisting have lately been drawing parallels between potential state management of grizzlies and recent high-profile, highly-scrutinized hunting seasons for gray wolves—which were delisted in parts of the Lower 48 beginning in 2009. Montana, Wisconsin and Idaho all came under fire this last year for their wolf management procedures. Critics loudly worry the same would happen with grizzlies—ignoring the highly limited tag quotas proposed by states. It's also worth noting that Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, where the bulk of both populations live, would be entirely off-limits to hunting.
At the end of the day, not many animals come off the Endangered Species list. The grizzly bear, which Aldo Leopold called “the outstanding achievement of the pageant of evolution,” could be viewed as a success story for the landmark act, some conservationists insist. Whatever happens next, it’s likely the large omnivores will continue to thrive and spread across their historic range.