The Last Grizzlies of the American West: The Long Hard Road to Recovery

By: Louisa Willcox

On a cold day in November 1984, what may have been the last resident grizzly on the Targhee Forest's Madison Plateau, near Yellowstone Park's western border, was illegally shot. She was a sow (tag #179362), trailed by two cubs. This sow had grown up roaming the high country on the west side of Yellowstone Park and the Targhee National Forest. Transformed in her lifetime, the forest was now characterized by roads and clearcuts, which etched a sharp ten-mile line defining Yellowstone Park's western border. One of the new roads had allowed the poacher into a small pocket of secure habitat on Black Mountain, where the bears were taking refuge.


The story of this bear's death is typical: despite Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections afforded to the grizzly since 1975, nearly all grizzlies still die at human hands, directly or indirectly. In fact, human-caused mortality and habitat destruction explain the dramatic decline of the grizzly bear since Europeans first arrived on North America's shores. Four hundred years ago, an estimated 100,000 grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) roamed North America, from the Missouri River to the California coast, and from Mexico to the Arctic Circle. The grizzly bear is America's quintessential wilderness animalÑ--the story of its decline is the story of wilderness destruction.

Today, only one thousand grizzly bears remain in the lower 48 states. They survive in fragmented, isolated wilderness refuges in and around Glacier and Yellowstone Parks, the Cabinet-Yaak, the Selkirks, the North Cascades, and possibly still in the San Juans of Colorado. The biggest populations with greater prospects of persistence are in the ecosystems surrounding Yellow-stone and Glacier. All these populations face growing human pressures, such as logging and roadbuilding; mining, oil and gas; and residential and recreation development.

In 1975, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the grizzly bear as threatened in the lower 48 states. It was estimated then that the remaining populations represented about 2% or less of the species' pre-Columbian distribution and abundance in the lower 48 states­and since that time the amount of available habitat has decreased considerably. Today, the grizzly is still roughly at the same population levels and occupies the same area it did in 1975. To protect bear populations, an initial recovery plan for the grizzly was adopted in 1982, and revised in 1993. However, two lawsuits, filed by 38 U.S. conservation groups and individuals, resulted in a Federal District Judge's rejection of portions of the grizzly bear recovery plan in 1995. The reasons included: 1) the absence of habitat targets for recovery; 2) unreliable measures of the population, and 3) failure to justify reliance on Canadian bears to achieve U.S. grizzly recovery goals. In response, the FWS is revising the plan and allowing for public comment on the proposed changes. Tied to revision of the plan is the question of whether the Yellowstone population is ready to be delisted. Commodity interests weary of habitat constraints and anti-federal sentiments in western communities are supporting a state versus federal based management approach in Yellowstone.

In July, FWS also released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed reintroduction of the grizzly into central Idaho (the Selway- Bitterroot area). Recovery of bears in central Idaho could greatly enhance overall prospects for grizzlies in the lower 48, and help reconnect Canadian grizzlies to Yellowstone, which has been isolated from other grizzly populations for about 60 years. But the government's proposal creates potentially lethal problems, through an unprecedented award of management authority to a citizens management committee, combined with an absence of habitat protection.

What follows here is an assessment of recovery efforts, what has worked and what could be improved to benefit the grizzly­and other species represented by this umbrella species. Key questions remain about how recovery should be defined, how scientific and other information should be synthesized and incorporated in management and monitoring efforts, and the role of the public in shaping the future of the grizzly.

Why grizzly bear recovery is so tough

Grizzly recovery is a serious challenge for reasons relating to biology of the bear, administrative and management complexities, conflicting public attitudes and behavior, and economic pressures. In terms of bear biology, the grizzly has the slowest reproductive rate of any land mammal in North America. Maturing sexually at roughly five years old, grizzlies often have single cubs or twins, and reproduce every third year. Yellowstone researchers have noted that a female grizzly has difficulty replacing herself in a lifetime, thus the loss of a few reproductive females can significantly affect population growth rates (IGBST 1989-93). Furthermore, grizzly home range sizes are considerable. In Yellowstone, where the largest home ranges have been documented, males roam up to 900 square miles (Knight et al. 1984).

In addition, given the fickle nature of critical food sources in ecosystems such as Yellowstone, bears need to be able to find alternatives when an essential food fails. When alternatives are not present, the grizzlies are forced down into valleys and lowlands where residences and towns tend to be located (Mattson 1991). The grizzly's intelligence and long-term memory add to the recovery challenge, since a bear, once exposed to human foods or refuse, will remember years afterward and return to seek a similar treat­often running into conflict with humans and probable death (Meagher and Fowler 1991).

The administrative challenges facing grizzly recovery are considerable as well. In Yellowstone, for example, Park lands constitute roughly 40% of the entire habitat area, which also includes parts of six National Forests, small pieces of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state lands in three states (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming), and parts of 20 counties. The different missions, mandates, budgets, cultures, and incentives among agencies can contribute to fragmentation in management approaches (Clark and Minta 1994).

In 1983, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) was established to promote coordination among agencies involved in grizzly management. However, discrepancies in management approaches and philosophies about grizzly recovery remain. For example, the IGBC is dominated by members of the Forest Service, which has traditionally promoted timbering and roadbuilding, despite sound biological information on the effects of wilderness destruction and road- building on bears.

Furthermore, one of the original functions served by the committee, coordination of research and scientific inquiry, has been abandoned with the dissolution of research subcommittees. And, the meetings have become increasingly sealed off from public view, with business conducted largely in executive sessions, followed by short, perfunctory summaries conducted for public and press consumption. This atmosphere of secrecy has contributed to growing mistrust by members of the public.

Public attitudes towards bears are complex, somewhat contradictory and difficult to generalize. In general, the public strongly supports grizzly recovery (Kellert 1995). For example, recent local polls in Idaho demonstrate that a majority of Idahoans strongly support restoration and recovery of the grizzly bear in Central Idaho (USDOI 1997). Although today one hears fewer utterings about "shoot, shovel and shut up," those attitudes still prevail in certain places. Aggressive public education by state game agencies, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service seem to be making a difference in changing the behavior of people living in or visiting grizzly bear habitat: this is evidenced by the decline in recent years of certain types of grizzly bear conflicts and mortalities, particularly around garbage dumps and hunter camps in some areas (Mattson and Craighead 1994).

A variety of economic factors help make grizzly recovery even more challenging. Large taxpayer subsidies for the timber programs of the Forest Service and BLM have tended to promote destruction of wilderness habitat. (According to the Congressional Research Service, the Rocky Mountains boast some of the most "below cost" timber sales in the country) (Gorte 1995). This trend continues, in spite of dramatic economic and population change over the last 30 years in the Rocky Mountain West (Rasker 1995). With population growth has come an increase in real estate prices for private lands in some bear habitat in the Flathead area of northern Montana and the counties around Greater Yellowstone. Despite a growth in private lands conservation organizations in recent years, the cost of conserving open space under easement or purchase programs is becoming increasingly high. A less recognized economic issue relates to the growing demand for high priced bear parts, especially gall bladders, as a medicine in Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan (Servheen 1990). This possibly is increasing poaching in the remote Northern Rockies ecosystems (Highley 1996).

In sum, a complex array of social, economic, biological, and administrative factors conspire to make the challenges inherent in recovery of a large predator even more pronounced. While some key problems seem to become less severe (grizzly habituation and conflicts in Yellowstone Park, for example) others are worsening, such as the communications and relationships between agencies and the public.

What has the Endangered Species Act done for the grizzly?

Today, 20 years after the listing of all grizzly populations as threatened in the lower 48, it is clear that the grizzly would not remain but for protections afforded by the ESA. Following are some of the actions that have made a difference. First, legalized hunting of the grizzly was stopped in the three states around Yellowstone Park. (Legal hunting was allowed to continue on the national forests outside Glacier Park until 1990, when a lawsuit by conservationists stopped hunting there.) Second, public land agencies and some communities began to work together to clean up garbage dumps, and to prevent unnecessary habituation of the grizzly bear. The Parks closed the dumps inside their borders and campgrounds on public lands were sanitized and recreationists were educated about storing food properly so they would not attract bears.

Third, a significant reduction in sheep grazing in essential habitat has helped lower human-caused mortality. As domestic sheep are easy prey, grizzlies often find themselves within range of herder's guns. Twenty years ago, a number of forests, especially the Gallatin and Targhee, featured "black holes" for bears, where the location of sheep allotments marked significant mortality sinks. An economic downturn in the sheep industry, combined with a program that traded allotments into non-grizzly habitat, helped the Targhee Forest, for example, remove 20,000 sheep from occupied grizzly habitat and reduce grizzly mortality.

Fourth, a quiet but major gain for the grizzly was the backcountry management program instituted ten years ago inside Yellowstone Park. Yellowstone closed to overnight camping in key bear habitat areas in the Park and the sanctuary provided by these closures have been critical to maintaining security in the heart of the grizzly's range.

Fifth, the ESA brought federal prohibitions on the take of grizzly bears, except in self-defense situations. While federal agencies have been reluctant to prosecute cases, and courts in the region have been lenient, this prohibition has probably helped deter some illegal killing. In addition, the Section 9 prohibition on "take" and Section 7 requirements for consultation with the FWS have also helped improve protection of grizzly bear habitat. Through the biological consultation process, development of a proposed ski area on the Gallatin National Forest near West Yellowstone was halted on the grounds that it would have jeopardized the grizzly. The same process resulted in a decision to remove recreational facilities at Fishing Bridge in the heart of Yellowstone Park, where important cutthroat trout spawning grounds and a spring grizzly feeding area lie in the middle of campgrounds and other developments. In some cases, consultation by FWS has been prompted by litigation by outside parties, resulting in the halting of clearcutting on the Targhee in 1993 and the initiation of restoration and road closures for bears on a number of forests.

Sixth, scientific research by state and federal agencies on grizzly/habitat relationships was greatly expanded as a result of an ESA listing. For example, research was undertaken by scientists at a number of universities, further adding to the significant body of knowledge about grizzly population dynamics and habitat needs. In recent years, researchers have moved beyond strict biological and ecological issues into questions of economics, policy implications, and design of management systems for bears and other large carnivores. A number of these issues are explored in the summer 1996 issue of Conservation Biology (Noss 1996).

The role of the conservation community in grizzly recovery

In 1987, a number of conservation organizations, influenced by the newly developed Society for Conservation Biology, reassessed the status and prospects of grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies. As a result, a new collaborative grizzly bear conservation campaign was launched, which includes local and regional groups in the Northern Rockies, as well as national organizations. The goals of this effort include protecting and restoring habitat necessary to maintain the grizzly and its ecosystems in the long term. This involves expanding the proposed recovery zones in areas of public land where there is room for grizzly bears to increase their distribution and abundance; restoring habitat linkages between currently isolated populations; restoring grizzly bears to significant portions of their range where they are currently absent or in critically low numbers; maintaining and restoring the wilderness character of grizzly bear habitat through careful management of roads on public lands. The goals also include improving the grizzly recovery plan so that it would truly recover the grizzly and helping reduce unnecessary human-bear conflicts and grizzly mortality. Relying on staff, volunteers and the unique skills of participating organizations, the campaign has integrated scientific analysis, outreach and education, and administrative action.

Roads kill

Significant progress has been made in recent years incorporating new information about roads in habitat management. Over the last 20 years, the body of scientific information concerning roads and associated human impacts on bears has ballooned. Although research of roads and access has been conducted in various habitats, from wet, densely forested areas such as the Cabinet-Yaak to the relatively dry, open terrain of the Yellowstone, the findings are remarkably similar: grizzlies are highly sensitive to fragmentation of habitat by roads, and human-caused grizzly mortality increases as roads and motorized use road densities increase. For example, research on the South Fork of the Flathead has shown that road densities must be maintained under one mile per square mile to avoid adverse impacts on bears, and that over two miles per square mile road densities equates to the grizzly's displacement from the area altogether (Mace and Manley 1993). Studies also found that bears are displaced on average, about .3 mile on either side of a roadway (Mattson et al. 1987), and that even after roads are closed, bears, especially females with cubs, tend to continue to avoid using roadway areas.

Using different methods, federal researchers came to similar conclusions in Yellowstone. They found that grizzlies need contiguous areas of secure, quality habitat of 5,000 to 7,000 acres (roadless country), which translates to overall road densities of less than one mile per square mile at scales approximating grizzly home ranges. Also, these researchers developed some new ways to weigh road impacts according to the available cover. Using this approach, road densities as low as .26 mile per square mile were found to be needed for the Targhee, given past roading and logging impacts (USDOI 1994).

Because of the demonstrated adverse impacts of roads on grizzly bears, conservationists attempted to close the gap between scientific information and management through a series of lawsuits filed by Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund (EJLDF; formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund). These lawsuits were successful in prompting the affected forests to launch road closure programs in grizzly habitat. Although restoration efforts have been slow, at least the new information about road impacts is being recognized and is sinking into some new land management plans.

Grizzly recovery plans

The release of a draft revised grizzly bear recovery plan in 1992 precipitated a deluge of comments from the public and key scientists. For example, Lee Metzger (Metzger 1992), Craig Pease (Pease 1992), and Mark Shaffer (Shaffer 1992) felt that the recovery plan was seriously flawed. According to Shaffer, "by relying on the handful of small, isolated population units, [the plan] violates every rule that population viability analysis has taught about the general requirements for long-term viability. It confuses short-term stabilization with long-term recovery and will produce neither" (Shaffer 1992). Despite such responses, the final grizzly bear recovery plan changed little, prompting a number of scientists to request that the plan be withdrawn. In 1993, thirty-eight conservation groups, represented by attorneys of EJLDF and the Fund for Animals, filed lawsuits against the FWS for inadequacies in the grizzly recovery plan. In September 1995, a Federal District Court Judge ruled that the grizzly bear recovery plan was illegal and inadequate (Fund for Animals v Babbitt, Civ. No. 94-1021, Civ. No. 94-1106 (Dist. of Columbia Court 1995)) because: 1) it does not consider habitat status and trends; 2) the use of females with cubs-of-the-year as a measure of population size is unreliable and scientifically unsound; 3) the plan's criteria do not take into account the impacts of genetic isolation; 4) the criteria do not take into account the potential impacts of disease; 5) it's reliance on Canadian bear populations to determine recovery targets is unjustified; 6) the recovery plan does not clearly account for the impacts of mortality related to livestock grazing.

In March, 1996, FWS reported that it would develop habitat-based recovery criteria and include these in the recovery plan, and provide additional evidence on the other points itemized above, by December, 1996. The FWS also stated that it would not press for delisting any grizzly bear population until these recovery criteria have been developed and satisfied for that population. Of particular concern is the proposed delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, which is being promoted by the State of Wyoming seeking to reinitiate a grizzly bear hunt.

The ongoing public process raises a number of questions concerning recovery of grizzlies and other endangered species. First, how much habitat is enough, and in what configuration is it needed, to reduce the risk of extinction and ensure recovery? Second, how should demography data be tied to measures of habitat status and trends so that recovery plans address both issues in meaningful terms? Third, although ESA recovery plans are discretionary, how can they be translated into on-the-ground management programs which hold land managing agencies accountable for their implementation? Fourth, how should the recovery plan account for changes in adjacent Canadian ecosystems, where habitat quality is declining rapidly? Fifth, how can FWS improve its procedures for incorporating public comment and constructive, independent, scientific analysis? The revision of the plan invites the FWS to engage in the recovery effort in fresh ways, taking advantage of a growing public constituency and new perspectives and framework for analysis. It also invites further thought about how recovery efforts in general can be improved from a scientific and policy perspective.

To delist or not to delist?

In addition to the debate over the grizzly bear recovery plan is the question of whether the Yellowstone, and possibly the Northern Continental Divide, grizzly population should be delisted or removed from ESA protection. In that case, primary control over the grizzly bear's future will be returned to the states. What are the possible implications of this shift? First, the states do not have direct authority to manage habitat on most of the grizzly bear's range in the Selkirks, Cabinet-Yaak, Glacier and Yellowstone systems, which principally consist of National Forest and National Park lands. State authority is limited to the management of wildlife populations, and while state agencies can influence management of habitat on federal lands, they cannot force habitat protections on an unwilling federal land managing agency. Second, although the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is divided over three states, bears do not recognize the boundaries. Because of their large ranges, grizzlies require a level of interstate cooperation and management that does not presently exist for any wildlife species in the region. Although researchers have repeatedly emphasized the need for comprehensive management of grizzlies and their habitat, by removing federal oversight, delisting would further balkanize management between the involved states. Third, the states are particularly vulnerable to influence and manipulation by extractive industries. Often, work by state field-level biologists is ignored, if their recommendations counter the wishes of such industries. These and other issues prompted the Society for Conservation Biology to pass a resolution in 1996, opposing the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly. The debate about the delisting will likely begin again once the recovery plan is complete.

Central Idaho grizzly reintroduction ­restoring a missing link

To begin alleviating problems associated with isolation of individual grizzly populations in the lower 48, FWS directed that Central Idaho wildlands be evaluated for potential grizzly reintroduction in its 1993 recovery plan. This evaluation showed that, while salmon, a critical traditional food source for the grizzly, has largely been eliminated, and whitebark pine have been severely reduced by disease, there is still an ample array of quality foods and habitats necessary for grizzly recovery in this area. The draft EIS, released in July will be open for comment until November, but no funds are available for reintroduction activities for the next year. In the meantime, a FWS Preferred Alternative in the draft EIS is addressing immediate reintroduction efforts. This alternative is an agreement between representatives of Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation, the Resource Organization On Timber Supply (ROOTS), and the Intermountain Forestry Industry Association. Key elements of this proposal include: 1) introduction only into designated wilderness areas; 2) authorization of a citizen management committee, appointed by the governors of the States of Montana and Idaho to make decisions concerning grizzly management; 3) designation of the population as "experimental, non-essential" under Section 10(j) of the ESA; 4) agreement that no habitat standards or protections would be incorporated in the reintroduction program at the outset; and 5) grizzlies would be brought in from Yellowstone, Glacier, and possibly British Columbia.

Over 50 other conservation organizations have expressed concerns that: 1) the zone is too small to adequately recover the grizzly; 2) habitat protection standards are important to maintaining grizzly populations and without them, the reintroduced bears are unlikely to survive; 3) while there are benefits to an advisory body of citizens to air local concerns over grizzly issues and management options, granting full authority to a citizens committee (which would be politicized by the appointments of the governors' offices, and would lack necessary scientific expertise) is inappropriate, and will not likely succeed. In addition, 43 Canadian conservation organizations have expressed concern about the impacts on potential source populations in Canada (Batackyi letter dated November 1996). Citing declining habitat and localized population declines in British Columbia and Alberta, these groups requested an evaluation of the effects of removal of bears from the Canadian populations, and requested to be involved in the EIS process. In response, the Minister of Environment in Alberta stated that, since their grizzlies were far below required levels for recovery, no Alberta bears would be removed in the reintroduction process (Lund letter dated February 1997). The government of British Columbia is not participating in this discussion thus far.

In the meantime, new scientific information is being generated that will shed light on suitable habitat for grizzlies in the central Idaho landscape. Members of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute and Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit have developed a new approach to assess potential suitable habitat for grizzlies, and have outlined a novel approach for using this assessment to design protected for grizzlies and other large carnivores (Merrill et al. 1997).

In sum, the revision of the recovery plan and the discussion about grizzly restoration in the Selway-Bitterroot offers significant opportunities to build a new framework for recovery of the grizzly bear. Whether FWS and other land managing agencies will pursue creative and innovate thought about science and policy, and engage the public constructively in these issues, is yet to be seen. At stake, however, is an animal whose fate hangs in the balance. By making the most of these present opportunities, we may yet see the grizzly bear remain and recover in the American West.

Literature cited

Batackyi, C. for 43 Canadian Environmental Organizations; Letter to Premiers of British Columbia and Alberta, November 26, 1996.

Clark, T.W., and S.C. Minta. 1994. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Prospectus for Ecosystem Science, Management and Policy. Homestead Press, Moose, WY.

Gorte, R. 1995. Distribution of Timber Sale Receipts, Fiscal Years 1992-1994. GAO/RCED-95-237ES.

Highley, K. 1996. The American Bear Parts Trade: A State By State Analysis. Humane Society of the United States; and Personal Communication, 1997.

Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, 1989-1993. Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Investigations, Annual Reports of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Bozeman, MT.

Journal of the Society of Conservation Biology. Vol 10, No. 9, August, 1996. pp. 936-1055.

Kellert, S.R. 1995. Public Attitudes Toward Bears and their Conservation. International Conference on Bear Research and Management.

Knight, R.R., D.J. Mattson, and B.M. Blanchard. 1984. Movements and Habitat Use of the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear. U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team Report, pp. 177.

Lund, T., Canadian Minister of Environment, letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, February 1997.

Mace, R.D., and T.L. Manley. 1993. South Fork Flathead River Grizzly Bear Project, Progress Report, 1988-1992. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Helena, MT.

Mattson, D.J. 1991. Grizzly bear mortality, human habitation, and whitebark pine seed crops. Journal of Wildlife Management 56: 432-442.

Mattson, D.J., and J.J. Craighead. 1994. The Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery program, uncertain information, uncertain policy. Pages 101-130 in T. Clark, R.P. Reading, and A.L. Clarke, editors. Endangered Species Recovery: Finding the Lessons, Improving the Process. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Mattson, D.J., R.R. Knight, and B.M. Blanchard. 1987. The effects of development and primary roads on grizzly bear habitat use in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 7: 259-273.

Meagher, M., and S. Fowler. 1991. Human-caused Mortality of Yellowstone Grizzly Bears. U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team Report.

Merrill, T., D.J. Mattson, R.G. Wright, and H. Quigley. 1997. Assessing Regional Habitat Suitability and Designing Protected Areas for Large Carnivores. Draft Paper.

Metzger, L. 1992. Letter Submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Grizzly Recovery Plan.

Noss, R., editor. 1996. Journal of the Society of Conservation Biology, 10(9), pp. 936-1055.

Pease, C. 1992. Letter Submitted to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Grizzly Recovery Plan.

Rasker, R. 1995. A New Home on the Range: Economic Realities in the Columbia River Basin. The Wilderness Society.

Servheen, C. 1990. The Status and Conservation of the Bears of the World. Paper Presented at the Eighth Conference of the Parties (COP8) on Bear Research and Management, Monograph Series 2.

Shaffer, M. 1992. Keeping the Grizzly Bear in the American West: A Strategy for Real Recovery. The Wilderness Society, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Ecological Services. 1994. Biological Opinion of the Grizzly Bear Management Strategy for the Portion of the Plateau Bear Management Unit on the Targhee National Forest.

U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 1997. Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Bitterroot Ecosystem, Draft Environ-mental Impact Statement. Appendix 5.

Louisa Willcox is the project coordinator for Wild Forever. She is also on the steering committee for the Yellowstone to Yukon biodiversity initiative, and serves on the board of directors of the Wildlands Projects. She can be reached at Wild Forever, 234 E. Mendenhall, Bozeman, MT 59715. Tel: (406) 582-8365.

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