It’s a sure harbinger of spring in the high country around Yellowstone National Park: grizzly bears emerging from their winter dens over the next several weeks, ravenous. They’ll stick close to home at first, eating the carcasses of elk and bison that have died during the winter and the first tender grasses shooting through the snowpack. But if the lumbering giants don’t find enough food in the backcountry, they will descend to lower elevations, wandering into neighboring states and potentially people’s backyards and ranches, where they will seek out garbage cans, fruit trees, and livestock. That is why every year at this time, the National Park Service broadcasts warnings to be on the alert for bears.
Those public service messages have gotten increasingly shrill in recent years, according to some residents who live around the park. Grizzly numbers are up and so are encounters—sometimes deadly—with humans. In 24 years, there were no fatal grizzly attacks on humans in Yellowstone. In the last three years, there have been four.
Once near extinction, protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act allowed the grizzly population to rebound from less than 200 to an estimated 600 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area today. The bear has done so well, in fact, that federal officials are ready to strip the grizzly of its protected status in the Yellowstone ecosystem by early 2014 and declare North America’s greatest conservation victory.
“It’s taken us 30 years to get to this point,” says Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is heading up the delisting effort. “We consider the species recovered.”
But while their numbers have rebounded, conservationists say that with civilization encroaching on their habitat and climate change shrinking their food supplies, grizzlies may still be very vulnerable.
“The gains are precarious,” says Louisa Willcox of National Resources Defense Council, a conservation group. “Grizzles are low-reproducers. You can turn increased numbers into a decline very quickly.”
Such a decline could accelerate, conservationists say, once federal protections are removed and management for the grizzly is turned over to the states that border Yellowstone: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Citing problems with “nuisance bears,” Wyoming has already asked federal officials to fast-track the delisting process.
“The states want the keys to the car,” says Willcox. “And when they get them, they will do what they’re doing with wolves now—they’ll hunt them.”
In fact, before the bear has even been removed from the Endangered Species List, Wyoming has already signaled its desire to allow hunting. Wyoming officials and ranchers argue that bears have been taking too heavy a toll on livestock and become an increasing threat to humans living near the park.
“These aren’t just backcountry issues anymore,” says Steve Ferrell, policy adviser to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and former Wyoming Game and Fish Department director.
But Chuck Neal, retired ecologist for the Interior Department and author of Grizzlies in the Mist, says those concerns are overblown. The chances of being injured by a bear at Yellowstone are approximately 1 in 2.1 million, according to the National Park Service.
Neal said that politics, more than science, drives policy regarding large animals in the West. Ranchers have gotten their way, Neal said, because of the deep pockets and influence of the livestock industry and what he calls “the cowboy mystique.”
“You would think people would love wildlife more than a stinking, fly-infested, shit-smeared cow,” says Neal. “But everybody loves John Wayne.”
While many ranchers and state officials argue that there are too many grizzlies, some conservationists contend there are too few.
When Lewis and Clark explored this region in 1805, between 50,000 to 100,000 grizzlies roamed from the plains to the Pacific Ocean. But the Wild West was settled in the late 1800s, when large animals and Indians were cleared to make room for ranching, mining and homesteading. After that, the grizzly’s range was reduced by 99 percent in the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Today, rather than roaming freely, grizzlies are boxed into designated “recovery zones,” areas of federally protected land in the northern Rockies where federal officials monitor them and ensure they have everything they need to survive, including food.
“These are postage-stamp populations,” says Willcox. She argues that with the loss of a major bear food source—whitebark pine—within the recovery zones, grizzlies must be allowed to disperse in order to find food.
Not everyone agrees. Ferrell says the land is already stretched too thin, arguing, “The bears are crowding their habitat and putting stress on resources.”
But Neal says there’s plenty of land for bears—“hundreds of thousands of acres” of biologically suitable habitat. He argues that bears are also good for the land. Large predators such as grizzlies are considered “umbrella” species: Because they are omnivores that eat a variety of food, both plants and animals, they help preserve biodiversity. Protecting large wild areas for predators to live and roam in effect protects the land for many more plant and animal species, says Neal. “But Wyoming seems more interested in game farming than it is in managing for healthy, wild ecosystems.”
In fact, Wyoming officials have made it clear that they want to contain the bears to prevent them from interfering with ranching, one of the state’s three biggest industries, along with minerals and tourism. An article in Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune titled "Use Killing to Manage Grizzly Dispersal," declares, "By killing grizzly bears, Wyoming should be able to determine where the animals live."
The minimum population estimate for Yellowstone grizzlies is currently 600, but Wyoming wants no more than 500 grizzlies in the Yellowstone region.
Neal says that, at 600, the Yellowstone bear population is not truly wild and free-ranging, but more akin to that of an “open-air zoo.” In order to be self-sustaining, their numbers in all the interconnected Northern Rockies ecosystems suitable for bear habitat should be a minimum of several thousand.
The grizzly has been on the Endangered Species List since 1975. It was removed briefly in 2007, then after a challenge from environmental groups, re-listed again in 2009. An appeals court ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not fully consider dwindling whitebark pine numbers when the agency sought to drop grizzlies from the threatened list. Servheen's committee is analyzing data on whitebark pine now, and he expects they will complete the study in early 2014. He said he hopes that it will pave the way for delisting to go forward.
This spring, when grizzlies come out of their dens, they can roam to their heart’s content with a designated recovery zone around Yellowstone the size of West Virgina. If federal protections are removed and neighboring states are allowed to resume hunting, things might look very different for a bear coming out of hibernation at this time next year.
When a bear leaves Yellowstone then, said Neal, “Beyond that magic line that a bear can’t see, that bear will be subject to the tender mercies of the state of Wyoming.”