Yellowstone’s grizzlies are back. Although they’ve been on the endangered species list since 1975—when just over 200 of them remained—biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that the population of Ursus arctos horribilis in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has since more than tripled to roughly 780. There are nearly 3,600 square miles of carefully cultivated wilderness in the park and another 9,200 square miles near its borders, all protected from development and drilling by the Endangered Species Act. “We’ve got a gold-plated management plan,” says Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s coordinator for bear recovery.
Which is why, in early 2015, the USFWS is expected to issue its second proposal to remove the area’s grizzlies from the list and hand over the animal’s fate to the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Shortly after that, the agency will almost certainly be sued by environmental groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, that want the protections to remain in place.
Environmentalists continue to argue that two of the bears’ primary food sources—whitebark pine nuts and spawning cutthroat trout—are in serious decline. They’re right, and the shortage makes for hungry grizzlies. “When bears traverse the landscape looking for food, they bump into people at high rates,” says bear advocate Louisa Willcox. “And when they bump into people, they tend to die at high rates,” often because they become aggressive or a nuisance (threatening livestock, raiding garbage cans).
But the real reason groups are suing is that a bear isn’t just a bear; it’s an umbrella species with habitat protections that benefit every other species in its range. “If the grizzly bears are protected, then the wolverines are, too,” says conservationist Casey Anderson, best known for his friendship with a 900-pound male grizzly rescue named Brutus. Though wolverine populations are in decline, they are not covered by the ESA—and neither are many species of songbirds and amphibians that don’t draw nearly as much attention as a toothy 1,000-pound omnivore.
On the other side of the argument, states are eager to have access to land currently locked down by the Endangered Species Act. “Right now you can’t log, you can’t open up trail systems,” says Anderson.
The USFWS, meanwhile, just wants a win. “The Endangered Species Act needs success stories,” says Servheen. “If we can take a difficult animal like grizzly bears and increase their numbers, it shows that the act works.”
The gray wolf could have cemented that success story—it was delisted in 2012—but the states messed it up. Wyoming allowed wolves to be shot on sight and quickly landed them back on the list. Without a doubt, the USFWS deserves some recognition for its handling of grizzlies. The Yellowstone population is on the right track—even if it hasn’t yet linked with Glacier National Park’s, which advocates hope will improve genetic diversity. The best thing for the bear, and the Endangered Species Act, is for that linkup to occur without protections. “It’ll happen,” says Servheen. “Eventually, they’ll be connected.” If, that is, the states do their part.