“The National Parks do not suffice as a means of perpetuating the larger carnivores; witness the precarious status of the grizzly bear.” These words were published in 1949 in Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County ALMANAC,” which influenced the modern environmental movement. Seventy years later, the insight remains true.
Last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area from protection under the Endangered Species Act. When listed in 1975 as threatened with extinction, there were only 136. By 2014, an estimated 757 grizzly bears lived in the park area; today numbers are below 700. Removing protections for the grizzly when numbers are just in three digits – and in decline – seems counterintuitive.
Now, Wyoming has said grizzlies who leave the park can be baited and killed in a hunt that will permit the destruction of up to 22 bears – visions of not so mild-mannered Minnesota dentist cum trophy hunter killer Walter Palmer, who lured a lion out of a protected park, come to mind.
Since about 2000, grizzly deaths have increased significantly, according to Grizzly Times, which describes mortality “far in excess of anything that can be explained by changes in population size,” and states, “Hunters have emerged as the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality.” In addition to being shot by hunters, reportedly in self-defense, bears lose their lives to automobiles and wildlife agencies, who deliver lethal punishment for bears killing livestock or looking for food in the wrong place.
This is probably not surprising. David J. Mattson and Troy Merrill in a study for Northern Arizona University wrote: “Grizzly bears in the contiguous United States die primarily because humans kill them. This is true now and has apparently been true since widespread contact with European settlers began in the mid-1800s.”
While the National Park Service states that the park’s grizzly population is recovered, and the park may have reached its capacity for bear residents, they acknowledge that not all agree. Among them are conservationists, Indian tribes, activists and concerned citizens. To make a determination of success based on a small region that a species inhabits, as numbers are dropping, on its face seems neither scientific nor holistic. An animal population does not flourish in a vacuum.
The very habitat on which they’re dependent may also be problematic. According to the Mattson-Merrill study, the “apparent robustness” of the ecosystem of the Yellowstone grizzly “is deceptive.” Yellowstone’s grizzlies are highly dependent on whitebark pine seeds, and the continued existence of whitebark pine is in question, under attack by beetles, disease, wildfires and climate change.
If that’s not enough to call out Wyoming on its unconscionable decision, add in that grizzly bears are among the slowest reproducing land mammals. They start families between the ages of three and eight, and have small litters, with long spacing between litters.
Further, there aren’t populations of grizzly bears spread out across the United States. Today a mere 1,500 grizzly bears remain in the lower 48, in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Between the U.S. and Canada, grizzly bears now live in half of their historical range.
Leopold wrote that when he first saw the West, in 1909, “there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass.” But by the time he penned “A Sand County Almanac,” only four decades later, 5,000 of the 6,000 grizzlies, per official reports, were in Alaska. “Only five states have any at all,” he wrote. “There seems to be a tacit assumption that if grizzlies survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me.”
Those in positions to protect grizzlies, ensuring they survive and thrive, appear, based on choices made, to have the least interest in doing so. This includes the National Park Service – they can’t abdicate responsibility at park borders.
This is not to criticize the committed conservationists who number in the tens of thousands working as park employees and volunteers. However, NPS operates under the Department of the Interior, and Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown repeatedly that he places many interests above wildlife. In fact, the Department of the Interior website ranks stewardship next-to-the-last on the stated priorities list.
Governmental organizations with biodiversity responsibilities must prioritize the best care of wildlife – that’s an obvious public expectation. This includes looking at how to extend the grizzly range and develop a system of connectivity that will ensure the long-term survival of Ursus arctos horribilis, not leave the grizzly limited to Yellowstone and assuredly an uncertain future. Ideas Leopold put forth nearly 70 years ago.
Maria Fotopoulos writes about the connection between overpopulation and biodiversity loss. Contact her on FB @BetheChangeforAnimals and Twitter@TurboDog50.