Molvar: Delisting grizzly bear would wreak havoc on the species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reached a preliminary finding that removing Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears in two ecosystems, the Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide, might be warranted.

The finding, issued in response to petitions from Montana and Wyoming, will trigger a formal review of the grizzly’s status in the two ecosystems. A petition from Idaho to delist all grizzlies in the continental United States was denied, serving to limit the scope of the review.

Idaho’s proposal to delist all grizzlies in the lower 48 was laughable. Those of us engaged in wildlife conservation were happy to learn the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t slipped so far from reality as Idaho’s politicians.

However, we were disappointed to see the agency consider delisting the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone grizzlies just to appease the states of Montana and Wyoming. The two grizzly populations are genetically isolated from each other, and a half-baked plan to introduce Northern Continental Divide grizzlies into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem does not overcome the distinct lack of state support for a sustainably connected grizzly bear population.

An estimated 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the western United States. But European colonizers soon began mounting efforts to eradicate the species.

Subject to government-funded bounty programs, grizzlies were relentlessly poisoned, trapped, and shot across their range.

By the 1930s, they were reduced to just 2% of their original range in the continental U.S. By 1975, the year the Service listed grizzlies in the Lower 48 as “threatened,” only 700 to 800 bears remained in small, isolated populations.

Grizzly bears have expanded modestly since the listing. The grizzly population in the Lower 48 has grown to about 1,900 bears, most concentrated in two “recovery zones,” the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes and surrounds the eponymous national park, and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, in northern Montana.

Overall, grizzly bears occupy only about 6% of their historical range in the Lower 48. They continue to face a number of threats, including lack of population connectivity, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and dwindling food sources.

What’s more, they remain persecuted. They are often killed in response to conflicts with livestock released to graze in their core habitat.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service reached the right result on Idaho’s petition,” said Joe Bushyhead, endangered species attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “But we strongly oppose attempts to delist grizzly in Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems.

“Delisting these isolated populations of grizzlies will violate the terms of the ESA and hamstring efforts to recover bears elsewhere in the Lower 48. The Service should not confuse the growth of just two bear populations with recovery.”

If the Fish and Wildlife Service were to delist the two populations, it would need to also find that bears in the two areas amounted to “distinct population segments” — isolated populations that, like a species or subspecies, can receive their own ESA protections. But in fact, the agency has identified lack of connection between Western grizzly populations, and the resulting consequences on the species’ genetic health, as a stressor affecting all listed bears in the Lower 48.


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