By Dr. Ralph Maughan
For the Journal
In the 1970s there was a sharp drop in the number of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area. By 1975 the grizzly population had fallen to less than 200 bears, perhaps as few as 136. Since those dark days of the 70s, there has been success recovering the grizzly. The official count is now 717. Notably, however, the population stopped growing 13 years ago.
Back in the day, the newly passed Endangered Species Act (ESA) was used to rescue the great bear. They were put on the threatened species (TSL) list in 1975. The Yellowstone grizzly bear has been there ever since except for an abortive try by the government to declare them “recovered” in 2007. A federal judge disagreed and put them back on the TSL in 2009.
Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is at it again. They have opened a 60-day comment period about a new proposal to take the Yellowstone grizzly off the list (called “delisting”).
Delisting the grizzly bear is a big thing because animals like grizzly bears, bald eagles, American alligators, California condors, and polar bears, were exactly what most Americans and members of Congress thought they were going to protect when the ESA was enthusiastically voted into law 41 years ago.
Over the last 41 years of the ESA not very many of the species put on the threatened or the endangered list have gone extinct, although many species perished while waiting to be listed. The large majority of the animals and plants that have been placed on the list have instead been brought back from the brink a bit or at least continue to persist pretty much on their own. I am saying that the number of listed species keeps growing.
To save the grizzly bear, many management changes were made, such as requiring nearby communities like Cooke City and West Yellowstone, Montana, to use of bear-proof trash containers. State hunting seasons for the bear were closed, though by then few bears were being taken. Timber sales in “occupied grizzly habitat” were modified or cancelled. Some livestock grazing allotments on public land were shut down. Many more allotments were bought out from willing sellers of grazing privileges and then retired. These purchases came from private dollars.
Hunters, backpackers, and other travelers in grizzly backcountry were encouraged to carry pepper spray rather than firearms for point defense against charging bears. Rules were established for backcountry hunting and other camps.
Lots of scientific research was done, occasionally against the objections of U.S. Senators like John McCain who made a continuing campaign complaint in 2008 about the 2.5-million dollars used to study the DNA of Montana grizzlies, e.g., “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal,” he cracked, “but it was a waste of money.” In fact, it gave the most accurate count yet by far of the numbers of grizzly in NW Montana.
Grizzly bears have the slowest reproduction rate of any North American mammal. Despite this, before long the number of bears began to rise. This population growth continued until about 2003 when it stopped and stabilized at around 750 bears. In 2015, the estimate was 717. It had been a bad year for bear mortality.
Back in 1975, the small grizzly population kept close to Yellowstone National Park. They were rarely seen more than a mile or two outside it. This slowly changed as the bears followed food and did not get killed. I was elated when I began to see their signs and actual grizzly bears in the backcountry 10 or more miles outside the Park. This occupation of their former territory continues today. Movement of grizzlies into Grand Teton National Park has made grizzly watching a new experience for visitors there. The new coffee table book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of bear 399” has thrilled many.
The attitude of many local people has improved too now that folks have direct experience with grizzlies instead of having only hearsay knowledge. They know they are unlikely to be attacked by a bear. Even those who have gotten mauled are now often quick to show their bravery and ability to objectively look at the situation and say that they do not want the bear killed.
I like the current situation — bear population stable, bears reclaiming previously used backcountry habitat, people seeing lots of bears, especially from the roadside and folks becoming increasingly sophisticated about the real costs and benefits of having the bears near.
Nonetheless, FWS and the state fish and game agencies keep pushing for delisting even though it will cost the states money to manage them. They didn’t listen to the public in 2006 and probably won’t now. According to the FWS, over 212,000 comments were submitted on the 2006 delisting proposal. Over 99 percent of these comments opposed delisting. The bear got delisted anyway.
Grizzly bear conservationists continue to fear, as they did in 2006 for the future food supply of the bears. The federal judge relisted the bear in 2009 because he agreed that more study of food sources needed to be done.
Grizzlies eat many things and could eat many more kinds of things if they were available, but four food sources stand out for this bear population. One of these, cutthroat trout, has disappeared entirely from their diet in the Park due to introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake and the disaster of whirling disease in the Park’s cutthroat creeks and rivers.
The second is the billions of nutritious little balls of fat and protein called miller moths. These are adult army cutworm moths that fly to the highest zone of the mountain peaks to the east, southeast and north of the Park. They feed on alpine wildflower nectar during the late summer and then rest in the rocky snowfields. There they lie torpid. Bears dig in the rock slides and gobble them, perhaps 40,000 a day. The nectar becomes brawny bear. This food source for grizzlies is high above and far from roads, livestock and tourists. More and more bears are discovering the millers.
Whitebark pine grow in stands just below timberline in and near Yellowstone Park. For as long as anyone remembers, in the fall grizzlies head uphill to the twisted land of the whitebark seeking their fatty pine nuts. Unfortunately, most of these rare pines are now dead. They were felled by forest fires in recent hotter than usual summers and from the effects of whitebark pine blister rust, an exotic invasive fungus. Whitebark pine nuts are great for the same reasons as cutworm moths are.
Finally, there are the elk. Yellowstone grizzlies are the most carnivorous North American grizzly. This is because of the huge amount of elk they eat. The amount has been growing too as the reintroduced wolves take down the elk and bears saunter up, sit on the carcass, and steal it.
All of these food sources are threatened, but to answer the judge’s worry about bear food, FWS employed studies on other foods grizzlies eat such as ants, sedges, rodents, thistles, berries, mushrooms, etc. The variety is impressive, but less assuring is the implied contention that the bears will always find something to eat.
Finally, there is the proposed return of state trophy grizzly hunting. Some optimists say 700 bears is a conservative estimate. They say that instead there are a thousand or more, providing a surplus for a hunt, but these people are matched by those who say 700 is optimistic. After losing 60 grizzlies last summer, isn’t about 660 bears a more likely estimate going into 2016?
I say, why can’t there be certain species that are never delisted, which by their nature will always be limited in numbers, not really safe in the kind of world we live in today? Grizzly bears today are a stable situation. Disturbing it will only cause it to go in one direction, down. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, a fine conservative bit of wisdom in this case.
Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.