Another chapter in the saga to remove grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act protection is underway in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
There are currently several efforts to delist two segments of the grizzly bear population that some experts believe are healthy enough to be considered recovered: the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho recently created a Memorandum of Agreement to help delist the grizzly bear population from GYE, and in December 2021, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte announced that the state is requesting the US Fish and Wildlife to remove the ESA NCDE population and expand the area’s designation further east into Montana. Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale has also introduced legislation in the US House to exclude both populations.
State biologists and conservation groups like the Western Bear Foundation agree that the GYE population, estimated at more than 1,100 bears, is well above management goals. However, delisting opponents say those estimates are high and that the population goals for delisting are too low for a sustainable population. Some activists and animal rights groups say the threshold should be raised to 2,000 bears, a number many biologists consider to be beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.
Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game, said people and communities affected by these sometimes dangerous and destructive animals need the tools to manage them: “Right now, the state doesn’t have any way to safely manage proactively those bears and to control that expansion. Essentially, it’s very much a reactive response that we have under the federal administration.”
Each of the wildlife departments and the governors of the three states agree and express similar concerns that the states and citizens within them who interact with these animals on a regular basis do not have a way to properly handle the animals.
Opponents of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem delisting petition cite similar concerns and raise issues with several recently passed laws that could affect delisted grizzlies. Montana Senate Bill 337 prohibits Montana parks, wildlife and fisheries from relocating grizzly bears outside of established recovery zones, which would slow the bears’ expansion into new areas. Senate Bill 98 allows ranchers to shoot grizzlies that “endanger livestock,” a term opponents say is ill-defined. Hunting black bears with bloodhounds also became legal in Montana this year, which some believe could lead to potential clashes with grizzlies.
In recent history, GYE grizzly bears have been delisted and relisted twice, once in 2007 and again in 2017. In the most recent attempt, the GYE grizzly bear was delisted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service been reached. Idaho and Wyoming planned modest hunting seasons soon after. Hunters were limited to 22 bears in Wyoming and just one in Idaho. Despite the small number of tags available, the hunt caused a national outrage, leading some environmental groups and even famed chimpanzee biologist Jane Goodall to request tags not be used.
Other forms of opposition have come from environmental groups, animal rights organizations and even some Native American tribes, some of which joined together to challenge delisting in a lawsuit filed by the Crow Indian Tribe in 2018. The plaintiffs felt that the population estimates were inflated. and that the 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 that “the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] The service’s analysis of the threats facing the grizzly segment of Greater Yellowstone was… illogical and inconsistent with the cautious approach required by ESA.” The decision to delist was appealed and later upheld in July 2020.
But even after all this back and forth, delisting advocates remain steadfast in their conviction that these two populations are ready.
“The important thing is that states come forward now to say they’ve done the job, and now is the time to put this behind us and delist these bears and celebrate the success of the recovery,” Joe Kondelis, president of Western Bear Foundation, he told MeatEater. “Hunting was a big focus last time, which I think influenced everyone a lot. Now, instead, we are focusing on the facts and why these two segments of the population are recovering.”
Kondelis and others argue that animal advocacy groups will continue to change the parameters to keep the grizzly bear, one of their main fundraising animals, on the endangered species list indefinitely. But many hunters, ranchers and villagers who deal with these dangerous animals feel they are not being heard.
“We need to create grizzly bear defender hunters,” Kondelis said. “There are defenders of hunters of many species such as deer, elk and wild sheep. Any species that has defenders from hunters is thriving.”
While some opponents say hunting would be a huge threat to populations, MeatEater’s Ryan Callaghan says overdevelopment of land in grizzly bear country is a much bigger threat.
“The landscape is constantly changing,” Callaghan said. “There is a much greater amount of development in grizzly bear country in our current time frame than there was in the past. And the bottom line is that state agencies have a mandate to make sure the long-term health of these animals is considered. That is priority number one. So I strongly believe and have faith in the fact that state agencies are more than capable of considering this.”
Opponents of delisting have been drawing parallels between possible state management of grizzly bears and recent high-profile and much-scrutinized gray wolf hunting seasons, which saw parts of the lower 48 delisted. lower as of 2009. Montana, Wisconsin and Idaho came under fire this past year for their wolf handling procedures. Critics are very concerned that the same thing will happen to grizzlies, ignoring highly limited tag quotas proposed by states. It’s also worth noting that Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, where most of both populations live, would be completely off limits to hunting.
At the end of the day, not many animals make it off the endangered species list. The grizzly bear, which Aldo Leopold called “the outstanding achievement of the evolution contest,” could be seen as a success story for the historic act, some conservationists insist. Whatever happens next, the large omnivores are likely to continue to thrive and spread throughout their historic range.