The headline in the Chicago Tribune back in June 1983 was ominous. “Grizzly bears struggle to stay alive — but is it too late?” Federal agencies were trying to preserve the dwindling population in and around Yellowstone National Park, with discouraging results.
The grizzly was protected by the Endangered Species Act starting in 1975, by which time it had already been eradicated in most of the territory it once roamed from Alaska to Mexico. Poachers were wreaking havoc. Females were giving birth to fewer cubs. Conservation efforts, noted the story, “may already be too late to preserve the largest and most storied carnivore in the contiguous United States.”
With protection, though, the population picture has brightened. On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzlies in the Yellowstone region from the federal list of threatened species. In 1975, there were as few as 136 of these bears; today, there are 700, spread across a range that has tripled in size. Tom France, regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation in Montana, recently told The New York Times that the animals have “recovered under any metric we look at. We should consider it a great success.”
Bears in Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park will still be off-limits to hunters. But Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will manage the population, and now may decide to allow some hunting. Grizzlies elsewhere — notably in and near Glacier National Park, where some 1,000 live — will still be protected. And under the new policy, if the number of bears in the Yellowstone area drops to 500, Washington will reimpose protections.
But there are three reasons to be wary:
—A decade ago a similar lifting of protections backfired. Federal judges overturned that Fish and Wildlife decision because the grizzlies’ survival still was seriously threatened.
—The bears hugely contribute to the Mountain West’s economy. Tourists flock to see them. Memo to the West: When you hunt bears (and wolves and other captivating wildlife), you lose Midwest tourists and their dollars.
—Most troubling, the feds’ action doesn’t ease the geographic and genetic isolation of this population. As natural historian Thomas McNamee wrote in the Times last month, “The only way Yellowstone’s grizzlies can be expected to thrive in the long run is for their ecosystem to be connected by a corridor of occupied habitats to other grizzly populations … up the Rocky Mountain chain to Alaska. That’s still possible, if grizzly hunting remains forbidden and the connecting lands are safeguarded in perpetuity against incursion and development, which they are not today.”
In the short run, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming officials may recognize that apex predators are a magnet for tourism business and revenue. “Government and independent economists have placed the combined value of nature-based tourism in Yellowstone and Grand Teton at close to one billion dollars annually,” National Geographic magazine reported last year. “The main draw has always been bears.”
If the grizzly population were to drop, communities that depend on nature-loving visitors from the Midwest and elsewhere also would suffer. Locals got a stark reminder of their dependence on wildlife in May when a white wolf, the only one in Yellowstone, was illegally shot and had to be euthanized. Wolf enthusiasts alone account for some $35 million a year in spending in the area, and this wolf was a particular lure.
This grizzly delisting decision doesn’t sit well with everyone. The superintendent of Yellowstone opposed it, as did several Native American tribes. We hope they’ll watch and publicize how the bears do under the new policy. We also hope federal and state agencies that often give too much deference to hunters and ranchers haven’t repeated their bungling of a decade ago.
Yes, the Yellowstone grizzlies have made an impressive comeback. But they aren’t out of the woods.