For decades, grizzly bears have remained an iconic symbol of the western United States. The status of these animals has also ignited debates and fueled polarized opinions. For millions of bear advocates and 200 indigenous communities, the September 24, 2018 decision by U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen that ordered grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem be restored to protected status as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act was a long-fought victory.
Grizzly bears were first added to the endangered species list in 1975 due to hunting that caused a sharp decline in numbers. The first attempt by state officials to remove the protected status of grizzlies occurred in 2007, but their request was denied due to declining whitebark pine seeds that bears rely on as a major food source. Whitebark pine seed numbers have been devastated by climate change and mountain beetle infestations brought about by warmer temperatures and wildfire.
In 2017 however, the bears were delisted by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke who claimed the bears had “rebounded” and “met all criteria for delisting.” At their peak, there were more than 50,000 grizzly bears in the 22.5-million-acre Greater Yellowstone region. At the time of Zinke’s delisting, there were an estimated 700. Due to Christensen’s 48-page decision, grizzly bears have once again gained protected status and trophy hunts planned for Wyoming and Idaho were canceled indefinitely.
Tim Preso with Earthjustice, who acted as lead attorney on the case to relist the bears, said Christensen’s ruling “rejects the government’s notion that we should settle for an isolated subpopulation of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region and call that ‘recovery.’” Along with Preso, leading American scientists agree that “fragmented, geographically isolated populations” are more “vulnerable to suffering collapses than larger, interconnected” populations that cover wide areas. Currently, there are four populations of grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. The Yellowstone bruins face challenges as they are “isolated” and “cut-off” from other bear populations.
Physically, the Selway-Bitterroot sits roughly halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and currently, grizzly populations in both ecosystems are roughly 100 miles apart. According to Frank van Manen, leader of the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, it could take years for contact to be made and even longer for “viable” bear populations to fill the land between. This lack of connectivity and vulnerability helped drive Christensen’s decision to relist bears in the region.
With time now on their side, Preso and other activists and Indigenous groups are hopeful that grizzly populations can connect and expand. In an expression of triumph, Preso stated that the “decision offers a second chance for us to aim for a broader version of recovery in the form of a connected population of grizzlies stretching from the Canadian border to Yellowstone with pioneer bears dispersing to recolonize their historic habitat in the great Selway-Bitterroot wilderness country of central Idaho.”
Did you know grizzly bears were removed from the endangered species list last year?
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