Yellowstone National Park’s iconic grizzly bears are one step closer to losing protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite differing opinions about how well their population is actually doing.
In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) took grizzlies off the list, but they were put back in 2009 following a lawsuit filed by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition that argued the FWS hadn’t considered the loss of their main food source – whitebark pine trees. Keeping grizzlies protected gained widespread public support and the ruling to keep them listed was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011.
While grizzlies have a varied diet, whitebark pine trees provide a critical food source for them in the fall before they hibernate. Unfortunately, the trees are being destroyed by blister rust and invasive mountain pine beetles who have been moving higher into forests as a result of warmer winters. Losing a major food source is a problem that can stand alone, but it’s also expected to lead them to roam, which will undoubtedly lead to more conflicts with humans and more being killed.
At issue now are their numbers and how the loss of whitebark pine will affect their future. According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), there are 629 bears, but it recently updated the number to 741 using a new population model that’s being called into question. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, other studies have questioned the FWS’ accuracy, offering evidence that its numbers are inflated due to data-collection biases and inaccuracies and have indicated that their population is actually declining with the loss of whitebark pine. The Center is also calling out the FWS and federal scientists for refusing to share data that proves there really are more bears.
Conservationists are also worried that being so slow to reproduce, grizzlies won’t be able to keep up with the stressors they continue to face, including a lack of genetic diversity and conflicts with humans and livestock. Scientists already admit that they’ve slowed their own growth because there are more of them sharing the same resources.
“The government is cherry-picking the data to get the result it needs to justify delisting. In reality, top grizzly researchers say the bear population has likely been in freefall for five years now,” said Louisa Willcox, a grizzly bear conservation advocate for the Center. “The hard-fought gains to restore grizzly bears over the past 38 years will be quickly reversed if current declining trends continue ― and delisting would push Yellowstone’s magnificent grizzlies back to the brink of extinction.”
The Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) voted in favor of moving forward with removing grizzlies from the ESA at a meeting held in Bozeman, Mont., at the end of last week. However, some officials are still reluctant to make a move and are waiting for the results of another study that is due out at the end of this month concerning the impact of the loss of whitebark pine.
If protection is removed and management is turned over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, it will also open the door to hunting them. If that goes anything like it has for wolves, or how it went for grizzlies the last time, it will be a complete disaster. When they previously lost protection, record numbers were shot and killed by hunters and other people.
The FWS is expected to make a decision on a delisting rule next month based on the recommendations of the IGBC.
Please sign and share the petition asking the FWS not to strip grizzlies of federal protection.
Photo credit: Jim Peaco/NPS