We’re Putting Grizzlies in the Crosshairs

A government proposal to remove the grizzly bear from the list of endangered species would surely condemn the species to almost certain slaughter.

Design Pics Inc / Alamy

For the first time in more than 40 years, Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly bears may soon be in the crosshairs of trophy hunters. Worse, the deadly combination of bear hunting coupled with climate change—which has already decimated Yellowstone’s most important bear food—poses a double whammy threat to the survival of the iconic grizzly.

The March 3 announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) came paired with an astonishing declaration in the Federal Register: “Therefore, we conclude that the effects of climate change do not constitute a threat to the [Yellowstone grizzly bear population] now, nor are they anticipated to in the future.”

This nearly unbelievable, flat-earth statement by America’s chief wildlife agency should warn us that President Obama is not carefully watching his flock. It also tells us that in the battle to save the Yellowstone grizzly, the FWS has once again aligned itself with the wrong side of the fight.

The federal plan would remove Yellowstone’s grizzly bears from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, which have been in place since 1975, and turn over bear management to the three states surrounding the park. This process is called “delisting,” and it means that the FWS believes that the Yellowstone grizzly population has grown, that the bears have plenty of food, and their habitat and future look just dandy.

Of course tremendous controversy surrounds these claims. Major conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Humane Society, environmental advocates such as Patagonia and GOAL, and a coalition of Native American tribes are all fiercely opposed to delisting. Should the delisting rule be legally challenged again, as it was back in 2009 when the FWS decision was reversed in federal court, the conservation law firm Earthjustice likely will take the case again. Global warming, in particular, has introduced enormous uncertainty as regards the stability of the ecosystem for bears.

The only certain outcome of delisting the Yellowstone grizzly bear is that it will result in trophy hunting of bears by the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

Sport hunting presents the greatest immediate threat to the survival of Yellowstone’s grizzlies. While the FWS has done a professional job of recovering grizzlies for the past 40 years, if the government successfully delists the bear (only a 60 day comment period and scientific peer review remain as possible speed-bumps in this process), there is no limit on the numbers of bears who may be shot. The FWS says the grizzly population will be carefully managed, but there is no funding for this, nor for monitoring the number of dead bears. The states, especially Wyoming, have been aggressively pushing delisting for years and can’t wait to get their hands on the controls. They’ve already divvied up the Yellowstone’s grizzly pie into wedges of “harvested” bears: Wyoming gets 58 percent, Montana 34 percent, with the final 8 percent going to Idaho (incidentally, the Wind River Reservation tribes get none.)

After spending a federal fortune each year since 1975 to bring the grizzly back from near extinction, we’re now poised to abruptly begin killing them off for the bargain price of a hunting license. Why this fierce madness to kill our largest carnivore?

“Hunting is conservation” is the frequent, if glib, retort of conventional sporting organizations. The FWS and other wildlife agencies derive their policies from a North American wildlife management model that dates back to the early 1900s, which many conservation biologists consider antiquated because the ethos of the model is rooted in agricultural notions that wildlife is property (like livestock) and exists to serve mankind. The model is not a legal position but a statement of values and attitudes. The rub lies in its application to the killing of large carnivores, and our emotional attachment to (or hatred of) top predators like bears, wolves, and lions. Each side of this argument over the sport hunting of carnivores cites its own science, but frankly this is and should be an ethical issue, not one based on the old methods of counting animals and determining kill quotas.

For the record, the FWS has done a fine job of recovering any number of species, like fish in Oregon and Florida or wildflowers in Tennessee; they are currently working toward the recovery of more than a thousand endangered species. With the recent delisting of the wolf, however, local and regional politics locked horns with the best science; then climate change intruded its significant but unpredictable head. With global warming on the scene, the FWS declines to list big animals like the wolverine south of Canada, and now wants to jerk the Yellowstone grizzly off that list as well.

I am a hunter who doesn’t buy into the fatuous claims about the need to kill carnivores. Apex predators serve a complex and necessary role in ecological communities and in their own wild social communities. America’s great bears today threaten our minds more than they do our bodies; by reminding us that upon occasions still possible today, we mighty humans were once just another flavor of meat. They challenge our notion of how we fit into the world and our dominion over it. And that’s why we need them alive and roaming the land.

Grizzlies entered my life when I came home from war way too crazy to hang out on street corners. In that unbalanced stratosphere, the worst thing you can do is think about yourself: You need something large, unpredictable, and probably dangerous to anchor your mind: Staring at your bootlaces doesn’t work.

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The one place that has always been a sanctuary for me is the wilderness, so I headed for the Rocky Mountains and camped out, wandering north with the seasons until I landed in Yellowstone. There I ran into grizzlies, and all traces of self-indulgence vanished. Living in grizzly country is a lesson in enforced humility. They rivet your attention as only a same-sized predator can. You hear better, smell better and see more when you live on the ground unarmed with an animal that can kill you and eat you (they almost never do). I lived with grizzly bears for well over a decade and, in grizzly country, I recaptured the threads of my own humanity.

A trophy hunt for grizzlies could begin, if we don’t stop it, as early as next year. The danger is simple: In an isolated, island ecosystem like Yellowstone, once the number of dead bears greatly exceeds the number of cubs born, you’re headed toward extinction. Here are the current stats: The feds say about 700 grizzlies live in and around the park. But the growth of that grizzly population has leveled off; the, current population estimate is down 6 percent from 2014. Mortality from all causes (natural deaths, management, road-kills, poaching, defending livestock), as reported by the government, was 59 dead grizzlies in 2015. Reported mortality is about half of actual dead bears—an accepted rule of thumb. Start adding in the number (one estimate is 72) of bears who will be shot in the trophy or sport hunt and you could end up with 200 dead grizzlies in a single year. Even a current population of 700 grizzly bears would be doomed to extinction by that much mortality.

There is a very dark side to this lust for killing top carnivores. The first and easiest grizzlies to be killed will be the roadside bears of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. These loved and most photographed bears have little fear of humans since wildlife is protected in national parks. Thousands of park visitors have thrilled over viewing grizzly bear families (mother bears with young are more frequent along roads). One famous mother grizzly, known as number 399, is now in hibernation but frequents roadways in Grand Teton. A Jackson Hole, Wyoming, outfitter has reportedly pledged that this is the first bear he would target: “because he hates federal government, bear-loving environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act,” according to journalist Todd Wilkinson.

Last year, during the furor over the killing of Cecil the African lion, Yellowstone park officials decided to kill another famous mother bear who had fatally mauled a photographer, and send her cubs to live in a zoo. The American public unloaded a ton of fury on the park’s superintendent.

There is more: Delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies will make them very easy for anyone to kill; without federal protection, their bearish lives will be made expendable. Witness how the only agreement by the three states is how they divide the spoils of Yellowstone into three piles of dead bears. The unmistakable message is that the only measure of value of these magnificent animals is as a head on the wall or a rug on the floor. Of the reported 59 grizzlies killed in 2015, more than half were killed in interactions with hunters who mistook grizzlies for black bears or shot them just because they imagined themselves threatened. There has been virtually no penalty or fine for illegally killing a grizzly, even though serious penalties exist on the books. Even blatant poaching is dismissed with barely a swat on the wrist.

Trophy hunters would also kill female grizzlies, the reproductive engines of the ecosystem. Even if state game departments say, don’t shoot bears with cubs at their side, a hunter need only claim he didn’t see the little bears. Additionally, even experts can’t unfailingly tell an adult female grizzly bear from a solitary male of equivalent size.

Hunting would still be prohibited within national parks, but most all Yellowstone grizzlies leave the protective confines of the park sometime in their lifetimes.

Another imperiled category of grizzlies are those who wander far from Yellowstone, attempting to link up with bear populations south of Glacier National Park. This connectivity is absolutely necessary for the longtime survival of Yellowstone’s biologically-isolated grizzly bear population. Young male bears are often the first to begin this journey (which is essential for genetic viability), followed by female grizzlies whose presence constitutes true colonization of new habitats. Yet these bold, indispensible animals will be shot on sight.

This proposal creates a deadly atmosphere where the lives of bears will become cheap, and grizzlies will be killed at any time for almost any reason. Grizzly bears tend to be open country feeders, unlike black bears who prefer the forest; as such, grizzlies make easy targets. One of their major foods is army cutworm moths that summer in high open scree fields above the timberline. Grizzlies congregate up there, knocking over rocks and licking up the moths. Hunting these bears under these conditions is not sport, it’s slaughter pure and simple.

Global warming, which the FWS denies has any effect at all on the lives or futures of grizzlies, is in itself sufficient reason to never delist the Yellowstone grizzly. For one thing, the region can likely expect a terrifying drought. But climate change has already proven a disaster for grizzlies. For millennia, the park’s grizzlies have fed on nuts from the whitebark pine. The nut is highly nutritious and mother grizzlies who eat pine nuts have more cubs and better survival rates. Whitebark pine forests grow at high elevations in remote places, and so serve to separate vulnerable young and mother bears from armed hunters at lower altitudes outside the park during hunting season.

The pine nut, Yellowstone’s most important grizzly bear food, disappeared about a decade ago when winter temperatures warmed to the point where mountain pine beetle larva could overwinter in the pine trees’ bark. Come summer, the adult beetles gird the trees and kill them. By 2009, 95 percent of the mature, cone-bearing trees were “functionally extinct,” in the words of retired Forest Service biologist Jesse Logan. Whitebark pine nuts will not come back in our lifetime. The FWS now grudgingly concedes that this rich food is disappearing, but concludes that the loss of whitebark pine “has had no profound negative effects on grizzly bears at the individual or population level.” That statement is patently false (for a detailed discussion of threats to Yellowstone’s grizzlies, go here).

The decimation of whitebark forests by climate change is just the first gust of the hot wind blowing across the Rocky Mountains. In Yellowstone, we can expect more dry weather that will bring weeds and diminish the habitat, the carrying capacity for grizzlies. There will be widespread, negative changes we can barely imagine.

The federal government is not impressed by climate change and clearly states global warming is not a threat to grizzlies today or in the future. The FWS remains adamantly chained to this delusional stance despite a legal requirement to use “the best available science.” In a recent lawsuit over wolverines, FWS agents again dismissed the predictions of climate models as unreliable. The government demands accurate climate predictions out to 2085 before they act on the detrimental effects of global warming.

What are they smoking? No one has a clue if the bears, or their clever human managers, will even be around in 2085. Climate change is a black hole of uncertainty for all species. Aside from the fact that it’s coming to get us, nothing is sure.

All photos of bear 399 taken by Thomas D. Mangelsen ( and were originally published in Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone