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Grizzlies have come back from the brink

Grizzlies in Alaska's Kenai Penninsula. Photo by Max Goldberg

Though known at times to be horrific, I've always believed that part of the grizzly bear's Latin scientific name is unfair and inaccurate: "Ursus arctos horribilis." Indeed, the grizzly bear, which is a subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), is reputed as malicious, but in reality is reclusive, generally passive, and, like most species of wildlife, especially bears, desires nothing more than space to roam and to be left alone.

At one time in the lower 48, contiguous United States before European settlement, some 50,000 grizzlies are estimated to have inhabited a large swath of the western half of the country from the Great Plains (including even parts of western Minnesota) to the Pacific Ocean. Even as recently as 1922, according the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 37 separate grizzly bear populations were once present in the lower 48. Yet by 1975, 31 of those populations had been extirpated.

Today there are estimated to be anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 federally-protected grizzly bears occupying remote corners in just four western states — Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

In 1975, grizzly bears in the lower 48 were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. These bears are relegated to just five areas, or ecoysystems, which include the Yellowstone ecosystem, Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, Selkirk ecosystem, and Northern Cascades ecosystem.

According the FWS: ". . . the grizzly bear recovery effort has met with some successes. These successes have been largely due to a cooperative effort among several organizations called the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which coordinates habitat management, research, education, and outreach."

Some time ago, I mentioned that federal protection of grizzly bears under the ESA could be lifted for one of the distinct populations mentioned above. A long process has culminated with the recent press release on June 22 from the Department of Interior in Washington that read:

"Due to the success of conservation efforts and collaboration among a variety of stakeholders, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced today that the Yellowstone population of the grizzly bear has been recovered to the point where federal protections can be removed and overall management can be returned to the states and tribes. The population has rebounded from as few as 136 bears in 1975 to an estimated 700 today and meets all the criteria for delisting."

For certain, grizzly bear existence, as well as their 40-year recovery from less than 200 animals in the 1970s to the near 1,500 grizzlies today, was made possible by their receiving full protection under the ESA. Without such protection the June announcement would never have been possible.

Collaboration and cooperation was key to grizzly bear population recovery. For example, in order to ensure the continued recovery of grizzlies in the lower 48, "Defenders of Wildlife" created the "Defenders of Wildlife Grizzly Compensation Trust" in 1997 to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by grizzly bears. From their website:

". . . Defenders of Wildlife went a step further by starting a fund to promote proactive initiatives to prevent conflicts between bears and humans, like installing bear-resistant garbage dumpsters and electric fences. By focusing on conservation efforts that keep bears alive and encourage habitat sustainability, Defenders is working to achieve a healthy, resilient grizzly population throughout the West."

And in a past article written by an MSNBC senior news editor about the once-proposed bid to delist the Yellowstone grizzly population, the editor wrote of Dr. Chris Servheen of the University of Montana and the USFWS' grizzly bear recovery coordinator, as saying, that since July 28, 1975 when grizzly bears were first listed as a threatened species, ". . . all the parameters of recovery have been met or exceeded: the number of females with new cubs; the distribution of moms with cubs throughout the Yellowstone area; and overall mortality in the bear population of less than 4 percent."

Moreover, as contained in the recent press release that announced the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) Distinct Population Segment has met the criteria for removing federal protection under the ESA:

"The GYE grizzly bear population is one of the best studied bear populations in the world thanks to the longstanding efforts of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team population and habitat monitoring efforts undertaken by the IGBST indicate that (Yellowstone) grizzly bears have more than doubled their range since the mid-1970s. They now occupy more than 22,500 square miles, an area larger than the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. Stable population numbers for grizzly bears for more than a decade also suggest that the GYE is at or near its capacity to support grizzly bears. This decision by the (FWS) was informed by over four decades of intensive, independent scientific efforts."

The press release further informed that the " . . . GYE grizzly bear population was determined to be recovered because multiple factors indicate it is healthy and will be sustained into the future. These factors include not only the number and distribution of bears throughout the ecosystem, but also the quantity and quality of the habitat available and the states' commitments to manage the population from now on in a manner that maintains its healthy and secure status."

It is reassuring to know that the ESA works as originally intended to protect, preserve, and help endangered wildlife populations recover. And while robust populations of brown bears and the subspecies grizzly bear abound in Canada, Alaska and Eurasia, it is exceptional that in certain remote area of the otherwise densely human populated contiguous United States, that the grizzly bear, as noble and worthy a creature as they come, remain on the landscape as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.