DOUBLE BLIND

What It Takes to Kill a Grizzly Bear

Yellowstone grizzly bears face the two greatest threats to their survival in our lifetime: global warming and the U.S. government. Between them they could wipe the bears out.

11.23.14 11:45 AM ET

One cold October day in 1968, I climbed out of a warm creek on the Yellowstone Plateau and came face to face with a huge grizzly. I froze, not knowing what to do. Since I was naked, my options were limited. I slowly turned my head and looked off to the side. The giant bear flicked his ears and, with unmistakable restraint, swung away and disappeared into the trees. Standing in the chill breeze of autumn, I knew something had passed between us.

That peaceful standoff with the grizzly was the first of hundreds of such bear encounters whose force would shape my journey for decades to come, significantly changing the declination of my life’s compass. I was lost, fresh back from Vietnam, searching, maybe, for a peril the equivalent of war but aimed in the direction of life. That bear and his clan literally saved me. The notion of “payback” (as coined by grunts in Vietnam) means that when you receive a gift from the bear, you find a way to pay it back. It took me a while to figure that out.

                                                            ***                       

Today, the Yellowstone grizzly bear faces the two greatest threats to its survival in our lifetime. The first deadly threat is global warming, which has already decimated the grizzly’s most important food source. The second potentially fatal threat comes from agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) who want to remove the federal protections of the Endangered Species Act from Yellowstone’s grizzlies (called delisting) and turn bear management over to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

“Management” for these three states means hunting licenses. So a combination of trophy grizzly bear permits and a lack of deterrents for just shooting any old bear on sight could lead to the killing of 100-200 additional grizzlies per year. There are as many as 600 or 700 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area. This bear population is an island ecosystem, isolated physically and genetically from other grizzlies living in northern Montana or Idaho. The grizzly has one of the lowest reproductive rates of any land mammal in North America; once you start killing off more bears than are born into this marooned population, you’re headed down the road to extinction for the Yellowstone grizzly.

The government claims the Yellowstone grizzly bear population is large, healthy, has steadily grown in number and is ready to be delisted. Independent scientists say these claims are bogus, that a clear pattern of political bias runs throughout the feds' arguments, and that this bias exhibited by government servants is nothing less than a betrayal of public trust. Why the government is so vehemently eager to delist the grizzly remains a troublesome question.

FWS’s effort to strip these bears of federal protections will be challenged in court by pro-grizzly advocates. This fight looks like it will emerge as the major American wildlife campaign of the decade. Conservationists and Native tribes are already picking sides.

                                                            ***                                   

Yellowstone National Park serves as a microcosm, a model for modern people living with wild nature, a guide for humans coexisting with wild animals and with the wilderness that was once their home. Like most other national parks and monuments, Yellowstone is isolated—an island ecosystem afloat in a sea of human dominated landscapes. Unlike other parks in the lower states, Yellowstone is still home to all the larger mammals that were here when the first European explorers arrived—the wolf, bison, wolverine, lynx and, especially, the grizzly bear. This great bear is Yellowstone’s most iconic animal, both famous and exceedingly notorious, as legendary creatures have always been.

Until recently, our human experience with the extinction of large animals has been restricted to the late Pleistocene when, 13,000 years ago, a lethal combination of global warming and human hunting knocked off the mammoth, mastodons, sabertooth cats, giant sloths, short-faced bears, camels and horses that roamed North America. These, and almost 30 other genera of large animals, bit the dust in record time—within a tiny span of 200-500 years—a heartbeat of geologic time. The one unmistakable lesson of Late Pleistocene extinction is that human activity combined with climate change is an ageless, fatal blueprint for ecological disaster.

This deadly duo has arrived on the doorstep of America’s oldest national park. Climate change or, more accurately, global warming has precipitated the catastrophic collapse of whitebark pine forests, the source of the Yellowstone grizzly bear’s most important food— nuts from whitebark pine cones. Grizzly advocates think Yellowstone’s isolated bear population is in deep trouble.

                                                            ***

Although the most important element of this heated dispute remains the recent loss of the whitebark pine due to global warming, this battle has a longer history. The government, represented by FWS’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, has been pushing for delisting for more than two decades. FWS submitted a formal rule and delisted the grizzly in 2007, but was sued by wildlife groups. The government lost; a federal judge vacated the rule in 2009. The legal ground for the reinstatement of endangered species protection was FWS’s failure to consider the impact of losing whitebark pine as a food source on the Yellowstone grizzly bear; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision in 2011. But the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, the group responsible for agency science, released the government’s answer to those charges last December and, again, provided information for FWS to use in order to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

The polarity between Yellowstone grizzly advocates and the government’s position reveals the heart of the flawed relationship between American environmentalists and the Obama administration: First, the Eastern, urban-based Obama White House remains largely unresponsive when it comes to the rights and welfare of iconic animals like grizzly bears, bison, wolverines, or wolves—why the president has turned his political back on efforts to protect wilderness animals continues to baffle supporters, especially in the West. Second, the federal agency that advises on grizzlies, the FWS, has failed to confront the considerable and urgent threats presented by global warming.

The battle between conservation groups and FWS over the fate of the Yellowstone grizzly is about to repeat. But this time the environmental movement is itself divided and the debate—between those conservationists who want federal protections for the grizzly extended and those who think the government might have a case or who are exhausted by the decades-long fight—has grown snarly.

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There’s a reason for the uncivil barbs: The advocates most concerned with removing Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone’s grizzlies believe delisting could lead directly and rapidly to the bear’s extinction—that it would mean the end of the legend.

But how could the most famous animal of our most beloved national park simply wink out? It's a scenario that’s possible only with excessive mortality—killing far more grizzlies than are born into this rare, isolated population. Current human-caused grizzly mortality is at a near record high: 56 killed in 2012. Experts generally consider known mortality to represent about half of actual grizzly bear deaths for the ecosystem. Stripping federal protection from Yellowstone’s grizzlies will turn grizzly management over to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which will immediately issue hunting permits. They’ve said so. Nobody knows how many, but it was reported that Wyoming plans to put out as many as 60 permits the first season. Add Montana and Idaho’s hunting quotas to that number and you have a formula for the final, rapid decline of Yellowstone’s slow-reproducing grizzlies. This isolated population of bears cannot survive such hunting pressure (legal grizzly hunting around Yellowstone was stopped more than 40 years ago).

                                                            ***

                                  The Government’s Argument

The December 2, 2013 Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team’s “Final Report to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee” contains the science that will be argued when and if FWS decides to call for delisting. The paper is important because its final form will contain “the best available science,” as called for by law, and because it attempts to address the 2011 concerns raised by the 9th Circuit Court.

The study team's argument for removing Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies covers four main topics: the persistence of whitebark pine trees, the use by bears of alternative foods to pine nuts, the large size of the grizzly bear population, and the body condition (fat) of the bears.

The final report holds out hope for the survival of the whitebark pine and tells us that the collapse of those whitebark forests may not be as bad as scientists have reported. And, even if pine nuts have indeed disappeared from the grizzly’s diet, the report claims, it doesn’t matter much because the bear’s omnivorous habits have allowed it to find other things to eat. These bears, they say, have compensated for loss of whitebark pine by eating more meat, false truffles and, as flexible foraging omnivores, more than 200 other kinds of foods. The grizzly population is healthy and large in numbers. In fact, the team reports, there are so many bears that the grizzlies have started to kill each other’s cubs, causing a slowing of population growth. This is, they say, because the habitat is full, at a maximum carrying capacity for grizzlies (the report refers to these claims as “density-dependent effects”). Overall, the study team thinks the bears are doing peachy and voted unanimously to delist them.

                                                Whitebark Pine

The report states repeatedly that the pine beetle epidemic is waning, and regeneration (of seedling whitebark pine trees) and cone production is good. Cone production—the number of pinecones on an individual tree—is mentioned 33 times in a 35-page report, as if cone production in a ghost forest of dying trees is still relevant. (If you have 100 mature trees and 98 of them are dead, it doesn’t matter, in terms of bear food, if those two live trees double their cone production or not.) In whipping this dead horse, the government is still trying to deny the conclusions of independent scientists who say whitebark pine nuts are flat gone—not to return in our lifetime—as a functional food for grizzly bears.

 Whitebark pine is a western, five-needle, high altitude stone-pine whose cones produces the high-energy nuts (60 percent fat by weight) bears prefer. Red squirrels cache the pinecones (saving the bears a ton of work). Female grizzlies eat more pine nuts than males do, and the more pine nuts they eat, the more cubs they give birth to, according to David Mattson, a senior research scientist at Yale who studied Yellowstone grizzlies for 15 years while working for the National Park Service. Besides documenting the importance of whitebark nutrition to grizzly mothers, Mattson points out that the females were killed at a lower rate because the high, remote location of whitebark tree-stands keeps the bears from wandering down out of the park into areas frequented by hunters and livestock.

Whitebark pine trees have died off in massive numbers in recent decades, victims of an infestation by the mountain pine beetle, an infestation made possible by global warming: higher winter temperatures allow pine beetle larva to survive freezing to death (a few nights of 30-35 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, depending on the insulating thickness the bark, kills the bugs). When summer comes, adult beetles attack and larva feed in the cambium layer, girdling the trees and sealing their doom. Young whitebark pine trees don’t get infected; these small trees (less that around 5 in. diameter) will simply not sustain outbreak populations. But they also don't greow cones: Whitebark pines can wait 80 years or more to begin cone production.

By 2002, global warming had raised winter temperatures in Yellowstone to the degree that pine beetle larva could overwinter in mature whitebark pine trees. Beetles devastated these forests in three or four years and are still killing whitebark pine wherever the few surviving cone-bearing trees survive.

In 2007, FWS reported that the beetle outbreak had affected only 16 percent of the whitebark pines. But two years later, Jesse Logan, the retired head of the U.S. Forest Service's bark beetle research unit and the leading expert on the Yellowstone whitebark outbreak, teamed up with pilot Bruce Gordon and geographer Wally Macfarlane to photograph and map the devastation in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Their research showed that rather than 16 percent, the beetles had chewed their way through 95 percent of Yellowstone’s whitebark pine tree population. The government subsequently revised its estimate, saying that 74 percent of the trees had been affected. For his part, Logan now believes that more than 95 percent of cone bearing trees are infected.

The government report states the “outbreak [of beetles] is waning.” This is true: you can’t kill a dead tree. When you infect more than 95 percent of the whitebark pines, the few adult trees left can’t sustain an outbreak. Also, the report claims the greater Yellowstone’s colder regions--the Wind River Range and the Beartooth Plateau--showed “low levels of [beetle-killed trees] mortality” and identified these areas as “refugia” from the beetle outbreak. That data (collected in 2012 and 2013) is obsolete: Jesse Logan confirms both areas are “now showing significant mortality.”

What ties together this discussion of whitebark, global warming, mountain pine beetles, and grizzlies is the tree’s ability to produce edible nut-bearing cones. This high-altitude pine needs to be 50-80 years old before it even begins to produce cones. But by the time the tree is that old, its bark is also thick enough to allow the beetles to move in, overwinter, and kill the tree. All those whitebark seedlings in Yellowstone aren’t going to make it to cone-bearing age. As soon as the little whitebark grows big enough (about 5-6 inches in diameter) to produce pinecones, beetles kill it; it’s almost that simple. When I ran this scenario by Logan, he sadly agreed.

Finally, the government believes “restorative planting of blister rust-resistant seedlings … indicate(s) whitebark pine shows promise for being maintained in the subalpine forest.” Briefly, blister rust is an Asian fungus introduced from Europe to America around 1900. It does kill whitebark seedlings and younger trees. But set beside the mountain pine beetle, which has been here for millenia, blister rust is a minor factor in mature whitebark tree mortality. Blister rust is like having the flu; the pine beetle is like fast acting leukemia. Moreover, genetic engineering of blister rust is impossibly expensive and doomed to failure; genetic engineering won’t bail us out in heat-blasted, grizzly-roamed forests or anywhere else in our warming world. 

By any measure, independent forest entomologists believe that beetles have made the whitebark pine functionally extinct in the Yellowstone ecosystem, a state of affairs made possible in turn by warming subalpine temperatures. Pine nuts are gone and won’t be back in our lifetime—because global warming will not allow them to recover. The feds can’t quite seem to wrap their minds around this one.

Yet, the interagency report, even when grudgingly conceding its disappearance, concludes that the loss of whitebarked pines “has had no profound negative effects on grizzly bears at the individual or population level.”

“The interagency committee,” Logan says, and Mattson agrees, “has a history of first denying what was occurring in whitebark and then underestimating, or in fact, misleading, the impact of the loss.”

                                                Alternative Foods                                 

Other key Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team arguments for delisting the Yellowstone grizzly center on the alternative foods grizzlies are eating, which the team thinks compensate nutritionally for the loss of pine nuts. This claim is one of the team’s most controversial arguments. Other foods, such as cutthroat trout, have also been lost to bears and most remaining major food groups for grizzlies are in jeopardy.

The Yellowstone grizzly is one of the more carnivorous interior bear populations in North America. These animals eat meat and it is increasing amounts of meat in the grizzly diet, the government report says, that will make up for the loss of whitebark pine nuts. Yellowstone’s grizzlies eat winterkilled elk and bison in the spring. Occasionally, bears run down and kill weak elk in early spring; they prey upon elk calves in early June and nail a few cow-struck bull elk who are easier prey during the fall rut. Some bison die during the violence of the rut in August; there is intense competition by bears for these rare summer carcasses. During these encounters, bigger, more dominant grizzlies sometimes kill younger bears (and unwary humans). Bears may appropriate wolf-kills, mostly elk, and again, this creates a dangerous environment for grizzly cubs who, as noted in the report, are sometimes killed by bigger bears or wolves. Carcasses and wolf-kills are a dangerous food source for young bears and their mothers.

A far more dangerous meat-eating scenario is found outside Yellowstone when grizzlies get into conflicts with livestock or are drawn to the carcasses, gut-piles, and other leavings of armed big-game hunters. As Yellowstone bears increasingly wander outside the sanctuary of the park, they run an ever-greater risk of getting shot. It really doesn’t matter whether the bears wander because they can’t find nutritious foods like whitebark pine nuts or because, as the government claims, the carrying capacity of the habitat has been reached—they get killed either way. This borderland—the interface of human activity and wild habitat—is the most dangerous region of all for bears. Records from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team show mortality (grizzlies killed) from livestock conflicts and bear-deaths inflicted by big-game hunters have risen dramatically since 2008, immediately following the most devastating loss of whitebark pine, which occurred from 2003 to 2007. The loss of whitebark and the rapid increase in human-killed grizzlies are synchronous. Meat, especially outside the park, is a nutritious but deadly alternative to pine nuts.                                                             

Army cutworm moths, another major grizzly food source, summer in high elevation talus fields. These agricultural pests migrate in mid-summer to the Rocky Mountains from Kansas and Nebraska to beat the heat. The moths are abundant in July and August. Grizzlies lick them up by the thousands, and the media has made a big deal out of Yellowstone bears eating these bugs. Though the seasonality is different, some authorities see these insects as a substitute food for pine nuts—moths are highly caloric and found on high, remote mountains away from humans. But the moths are a fickle food for bears; their occurrence and abundance are correlated with pesticide spraying in the Plain states and Canadian provinces. And, always, global warming could push the cutworm moths north, out of the park, by heating up the region. Because this food source could abruptly disappear at any time, cutworm moths cannot be counted on to replace pine nuts.

Global warming is the hot wind driving all species of plant and animal, not just whitebark pine, like skittered leaves across the Yellowstone ecosystem. Because climate change has already decimated the most important bear food, the pine seeds, the Yellowstone grizzly will become a poster child for global warming. And it’ll get worse: We can expect the weather to get hotter and drier, stressing the vegetative base animals depend on.

This means a decline in habitat quality for grazers like bison and elk, whose winter-killed carcasses grizzlies feed upon. Buffalo pose a special problem: in a much-criticized removal program aimed at controlling brucellosis (a European cattle disease given to bison by cows but never transmitted back from bison to cattle in the wild), Yellowstone National Park plans to capture and remove 900 bison from the park herd and ship them to slaughter this winter. Some of those 900 bison might have perished naturally during the killing cold of winter and provided spring food for grizzlies.           

Yellowstone elk have also declined. And, from the south, chronic wasting disease is poised to decimate the elk herds. Its arrival, experts say, is not just inevitable but imminent.

Besides a few rodents and insects, Yellowstone’s grizzlies will have a hard time finding adequate meat that is also a safe food source.

Of course, grizzly bears are omnivores and, as the government tells us, may adjust to the loss of foods like pine nuts by eating something else, like plants and fungus. The government identifies false truffles and more than 200 other kinds of foods grizzlies may have eaten. That’s all well and good, but while I share a gluttonous interest in underground mushrooms, I don’t expect to get fat off them. They are an undressed salad compared to a Pacific wild salmon. And pine nuts are 30 times more caloric than false truffles.

Likewise, the claim of 200 foods is disingenuous. A single grizzly, indifferent to human taxonomies, grazing on spring vegetation, may consume dandelions, spring beauty leaves, clover, horsetail, and a couple dozen species of grass and sedge on a single morning’s feeding. The “kinds” of such foods don’t matter as much as the bulk of green vegetation eaten, and none of them approach the dietetic value of pine nuts. Green plants in pre-flowering stages may contain significant protein but not fat. And, if these alternative foods were indeed similar in food value to pine nuts, why are the bears not already wolfing them down? 

In Alaska, biologists have found that Katmai’s salmon-rich Alaska Peninsula supports 157 more grizzlies per unit of habitat than does the North Slope of the Brooks Range, where grizzlies eat more kinds of food. It’s the quality and quantity of the food that limits grizzly nutrition and drives population decline or growth, not the number of species eaten.

As Mattson puts it, “There’s not a single positive trend afoot in Yellowstone grizzly bear habitat,” adding, “a far better approach (than federal delisting) scientifically, would be to take a precautionary stance in the face of uncertainty and controversy.”

                                            Counting Bears

Wild bears are notoriously hard to count. A common question about Yellowstone’s grizzlies is, “How many of them are out there?” The answer is that no one knows with anything resembling scientific certainty. When the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee tells you there were 136 grizzlies around Yellowstone in 1975, that’s a horse you don’t want to bet on—none of us had a clue in 1975. Before 1992, total population estimates were pretty much wild-ass guesses; the estimates from 1992 on are based on observed numbers of unduplicated females with cubs and some kind of multiplier for other classes of bears. There are many assumptions, including that these mother grizzlies are indeed “unduplicated.” Respected University of Colorado and California biologists, reporting in Conservation Letters, severely criticized the government’s methods of counting bears, and concluded that Yellowstone’s grizzly population has increased far less than generally believed. Past analyses, they said, have been too inaccurate to allow any firm conclusions about the current and future status of the bear. There have been rebuttals by both sides.

A universal complaint from independent scientists is that the government study team has not released their raw data, making outside peer review impossible. Most blame is heaped at the feet of the Interagency Committee coordinator Chris Servheen, who these independent investigations believe has a career political agenda. Logan complains that his requests for information remain unanswered. Mattson says the government bogarts this stuff, gathered at taxpayer expense, and maintains “a monopoly on the data.” Barrie Gilbert, a retired grizzly biologist from Utah State University, who studied the grizzlies of Yellowstone during the  ’70s, questions all such government bear counts: “Population data on post-whitebark pine collapse is suspect and not made available to independent scientists.”

Regional newspapers variously report 500 or 741 grizzlies live in and around Yellowstone. A Wyoming game manager said there were 1,000. Mattson reminds us that the government population estimates added 100 additional bears at the very moment they changed their statistical method and adds that “population size and trends …  tell us nothing about the unfolding present and impending future.” They are, he says, “a snapshot of the past.”

In the long run, the bear counts may not matter. Yellowstone’s grizzlies live in an island ecosystem, isolated physically from other breeding grizzly populations. Linkages and corridors connecing the Yellowstone grizzly to other bear populations are currently nonexistent, but they are essential. Delisting the Yellowstone grizzly will render this achievable goal of connectivity impossible. Theoretical biologists inform us that we need a minimum of a couple thousand grizzlies to maintain a stable isolated Yellowstone population. Given our human intolerance, that’s not going to happen.  What Yellowstone’s grizzlies need most is what they have now—continued protection under the Endangered Species Act.

                                                            Fat Bears

What about the government’s claim that Yellowstone’s grizzlies are as fat (as an index of general health) as they were in the past? This turns out to be only half true:  a 2013 report documented a decline in body fat in adult female grizzlies, primarily after 2006. This is exactly what you would expect from the catastrophic loss of pine seeds; female bears were more dependent on pine nuts for nutrition than male grizzlies. Incidentally, the government’s final report presents this evidence of deteriorating body condition among female grizzlies, and then proceeds to dismiss the results due to “small sample size.” More dominant male grizzlies maintain their body fat by competing successfully for the more nutritious, and far more dangerous, meat sources. But, even by this scanty data, it’s clear that female grizzlies are the losers in the scramble to find nutritious food to replace pine nuts. And it’s females who are the reproductive engines of a grizzly population.

                                                Grizzly Bear Mortality

The government reports “a slowing of population growth” and claims that the growth of Yellowstone’s grizzly population has slowed because the habitat is full up with grizzlies. Sometimes called “carrying capacity,” it means all the bears the country can support. The final report says, “The primary cause of the slower (grizzly population) growth during 2002-2011 was lower annual survival rates among cubs and yearlings.” The question is whether the slower growth and lower survival rates for little bears is due to some “density-dependent” effect or simply the loss of whitebark pine as a food source.

Biologist Mattson is alarmed by the abrupt 2008 rise in grizzly mortality from conflicts both with livestock and hunters. Using the government study team’s data, Mattson has graphed grizzly mortality from livestock conflicts and also from hunters who shoot grizzlies they mistook for black bears or just because they didn’t like the way the grizzly was looking at them (yes, it’s that easy to get away with illegally killing a grizzly; states almost never prosecute these crimes). The two graphs of dead grizzlies are remarkably similar: both spike up starting in 2007 or 2008, at the same time of maximum whitebark pine loss. And this is just the known grizzly bear mortality. Unreported kills by ranchers or hunters are always significant in a culture where “shoot, shovel, and shut up” are common barroom conversations. A seldom-mentioned but critical grizzly bear habitat requirement, along with sufficient quantity and quality of food, is security from the kinds of human beings who are inclined to kill them.

                                                 Trophy Hunting                       

If the federal government succeeds in removing the Yellowstone grizzly from Endangered Species-listing, bear management will be transferred to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. “Management” in this situation means issuing permits for trophy grizzly hunts. As Gilbert says: “Delisting … will resurrect a so-called 'trophy' grizzly bear hunt, a historical tradition out of touch with current principles of wildlife management.”

How many permits will the three states put out there? If Wyoming indeed wants to issue 60 permits, Montana and Idaho won’t be far behind. Back in the ’60s, when hunting grizzlies was legal, biologists found that 47 percent of all bear mortality was caused by big game hunters.

One can quibble about how many legal hunting permits will be issued by Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho and how successful that grizzly hunt will be, but what is certain is that a climate will be created where it will be very easy for anyone to kill a Yellowstone grizzly, for any reason. If you doubt that, look at the history of these Northern Rocky Mountain states with the recently delisted wolf.

On Sept. 30, 2012, FWS delisted the gray wolf and transferred wildlife management to the states. In Wyoming, protected wolves became legal vermin overnight—subject to being shot on sight in approximately 90 percent of the state as of October 1. In the other 10 percent of Wyoming, wolf-hunting season opened that same day. The state of Idaho paid a bounty hunter to kill wolves in the Salmon River country. My own state of Montana’s wolf record is no better. These hostile attitudes towards top predators will create a virtual “open season” on grizzlies once the Yellowstone bear is delisted.

 In 2008, the first year after the collapse of whitebark pine nuts as food, the government estimated that 79 grizzlies died in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Fifty-six grizzlies were known to die in 2012—rough numbers that probably represent about half of actual mortality. With delisting, relaxed regulations, and hunting quotas, you might add in another one or two hundred dead grizzlies. During bad drought years, which global warming models predict for Yellowstone, you could end up with 300 dead grizzlies in this island ecosystem during a single year. At that point, it wouldn’t matter how many hundreds of bears are in Yellowstone: In a species with a very low reproductive rate, this is a blueprint for turning the grizzly bear of Yellowstone into nothing more than a legend, fading with memory into the hot sagebrush.

                                                            Resistance

Yellowstone’s grizzlies have many friends and an international constituency that reaches far beyond the region. As citizens, we could mobilize and petition President Obama to order the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw the proposed order to delist the bear.

But why do the feds continue to cling so fiercely to their need to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies? I put this bedrock question to Louisa Willcox, who has unfalteringly defended the grizzly for three decades, variously representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, National Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The answer, she says, is “about power and ego.” Willcox blames Chris Servheen, “the longest running recovery coordinator (of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee) in the history of the Endangered Species Act,” for whom “delisting Yellowstone grizzly bears would be the capstone in his career. In accomplishing delisting, Servheen is taking personal revenge against those who have worked assiduously for years to stop delisting and secure more protections for grizzly bears: for him, this agenda is personal.” For the feds, she says, “delisting is, at bottom, about appeasing the states; FWS believes, despite lack of evidence, that such moves will save the Endangered Species Act. The shrill demands of states like Wyoming only amplifies the imperative for the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist bears.”    

                                                            ***

The tribes are already preparing for battle. The Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council is in the process of passing a resolution opposing FWS’s drive to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear, which is the strongest political statement the tribal government can make. The Oklahoma Kiowa have joined this warpath; the Yellowstone is their ancestral homeland. On November 4, the Fort Hall Shoshone-Bannock tribes announced their opposition to Yellowstone delisting. They will also oppose any attempts to hunt grizzlies in their recognized ancestral homelands. According to the Goal Tribal Coalition [www.goaltribal.org), the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho of the Wind River Reservation are especially concerned about delisting because the State of Wyoming has identified the Wind River Range as one area from which they intend to extinguish the grizzly. The explicit intent of Wyoming Game and Fish is to see the extinction of the grizzly bear in the Wind River Mountains, including the territory of the Shoshone and Arapaho. The Reservation is sovereign Indian land, and the grizzly is a sacred animal to these tribes.

                                                            ***

The most practical way to stop delisting might be to do what citizens did last time, in 2007: Get the word out to the American public, find willing plaintiffs among wildlife advocacy groups or individuals with the courage to stand up to FWS and ask the environmental law firm Earthjustice to file a lawsuit. Last time, an Earthjustice lawyer, representing more than a half dozen national and regional organizations, successfully argued the case against delisting in U.S. district court. 

This time, many of those same wildlife advocacy groups have been reluctant to officially oppose delisting and sign on to a lawsuit. Perhaps they think the government is right about the high number of bears or are just tired of this 22-year-old battle; I’ve heard complaints that they fear this potentially acrimonious debate could drive away their funders. There’s time for all undecided conservation organizations to reexamine their priorities and change their minds.

The perfect group to oppose the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly is the Sierra Club, which was a plaintiff in the 2007 lawsuit. This is exactly the kind of broad based, democratic support the Yellowstone grizzly deserves. If you are a Sierra Club member, as I am, please write your leaders and ask them to take a look at the precarious plight of their furry brothers living on the Yellowstone Plateau.

***

In 1968, when I crawled out of that warm creek and came nose to nose with the huge grizzly, I discovered I wasn’t top dog. I lived somewhere in the middle of the food chain—an involuntary humility, which remains the emotional posture behind reason. It’s my hope that grizzlies like the one I encountered on that creek bank will live on beyond the legend, roaming the Yellowstone and inspiring in all who need it the weapon of humility to confront our own dangerous, rapidly changing world.

And where better to find that weapon than sharing the wild woods with our largest carnivore?

Doug Peacock has been writing and lecturing about Yellowstone's bears for 40 years. The author of two books and dozens of articles about grizzlies, he is a grequent visitor in high school and college classrooms. Peacock served as an expert witness on grizzlies in federal court for Glacier National Park. He lives near Emigrant, Montana.