Western landscapes contain sufficient habitat to support a moderate population of grizzly bears provided effective wildlife management strategies are employed to minimize conflicts with human activity, protect private property rights, and insure public safety.
However, there is no scientific justification for restoring a high impact non-endangered species such as the grizzly bear, to anything approaching the full extent of their historic range.
Most of our current grizzly bear management policies were created in the 1960’s and 70’s and do not reflect current reality. Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s actions directing U.S. Federal policy leaves little doubt that conflicts between humans and grizzlies will reach a critical, and albeit very dangerous tipping point before sufficient public resentment arises to challenge the status quo. Citizens living with grizzly bears (and wolves) in many areas of our western states will have to experience the increasingly negative consequences of current wildlife management policies before any substantial changes are made.
The brown, or “grizzly” bear (Ursus Arctos) has never been a biologically endangered species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the bears as a “Species of Least Concern” due to their healthy global population and extensive circum-polar range. In the United States excluding Alaska, the species historically numbered at least 100,000 south of the Canadian border. But by 1960, westward expansion had resulted in the grizzly population plummeting to a few hundred bears in the lower 48 states distributed along the northernmost portions of the continental divide and the greater Yellowstone ecosystems. This decline prompted a regional listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Thanks to successful recovery efforts, the grizzly population is now considered robust and expanding. There is absolutely no danger of the animals becoming extinct anytime in the foreseeable future. Occupied range has increased significantly across major portions of four western states. While efforts to de-list the animals from their official “threatened” status under the ESA are scientifically justified, downgrading the bear’s status continues to receive substantial social opposition from a well financed coalition of environmental organizations. With few enemies and a continued ban on hunting, grizzlies in our western states could easily number 15,000 to 20,000 by the year 2050.
As grizzly bear numbers continue to increase and their range continues to expand, we must define what it means to have a “fully recovered” grizzly bear population. For starters, let’s take a closer look at the current situation.
In 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service produced a “May be Present” map for grizzly bears. This map purports to show where grizzly bears can be expected to be encountered here in the Inland Northwest. Judging by the “May be Present” map, grizzly bears have expanded their range more than a hundred fold since recovery efforts began in earnest fifty years ago. However, the map’s deficiencies and limitations should also be noted as it does not fully represent the current situation.
In developing the “May be Present” map, Fish and Wildlife Services chose to use location data limited to individual bears that have been fitted with GPS tracking collars. Grizzly bears that are not wearing tracking collars but which may have been sighted “outside of known current distribution“, are excluded from the mapping data.
The USFWS’s reliance on only using verified tracking data from GPS collared bears casts significant doubt on the accuracy of the “May be Present” map. For example, merely by looking at the lack of blue ink in the North Cascades, or the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystems, where multiple un-collared grizzlies have been photographed by hunters and hikers, reveals the inadequacies of the “May be Present” mapping process. Individual grizzlies often have home ranges exceeding 2000 square miles, which means they could literally be anywhere in the region at any given point in time. The bears simply don’t care about lines drawn on a map.
Additional maps reveal more information about grizzly bear range. The map below purports to show current grizzly bear “migration corridors” between Glacier National Park and the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
This so-called “corridor” map utilizes blue triangles to signify the location of 21 GPS collared grizzly bears. Each triangle represents one bear at one single location at one single point in time. The number and distribution of any non-GPS tracked grizzly bears is unknown.
Since the daily movements of these 21 bears is not indicated on the map, the actual range of these GPS tracked bears is also unknown. Again, on any particular day, grizzly bears (GPS tracked or untracked) could literally be anywhere, including areas well off of this map. Creating colorful “migration corridor” maps for grizzly bears is absurd. Bears don’t utilize designated routes to go visit their relatives in another region. Bears will remain in a particular habitat as long as they choose to do so, or as long as the food sources remain viable, or until they are dislodged by a competitor.
A typical male grizzly bear may have a home range exceeding 2000 square miles. This biological fact reveals the limitations of any of these so-called habitat maps. Keep in mind that the blue triangles on the corridor map above are labelled “outliers”. These particular bears are occupying habitat outside of the official recovery zones and outside of the official current distribution areas. These verified “outliers” are not an aberration. They are proof that the current range and distribution of grizzly bears is far greater than officials are willing to admit.
Grizzly bear recovery in the western United States has always been a step by step process. Originally, there were only 6 designated core recovery areas, (North Cascades, Selkirk, Cabinet/Yak, Northern Continental Divide, Bitterroot, and Greater Yellowstone). These areas were designed to act as seed beds where fully protected populations of grizzly bears could reproduce and expand without human interference. These initial recovery areas were never intended to be the only areas where grizzlies would be allowed to roam. As core areas become saturated, grizzly bears naturally migrate out and expand their range. Additional recovery areas have been identified as suitable core habitat for increasing bear populations.
The official government policy is to connect all of these designated core recovery areas with much larger swaths of protected habitat in order to facilitate “biological connectivity between isolated populations”. This strategy is being accomplished in a variety of ways including through the regulation of private property, land purchases by government agencies and privately funded conservation organizations, by designating conservation easements on private property, and ultimately forcing land abandonment due to unsustainable economic hardship from increased depredation of livestock and the growing threat to personal safety.
As part of President Biden’s agenda, “America the Beautiful: Our Work to Conserve at Least 30% of Lands and Waters by 2030”, the administration executed E.O. 14008- Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The plan includes added protections and efforts to create “resiliency” for grizzly bears and other species at risk in order to protect them from the “catastrophic effects of climate change”.
Likewise, “The Great American Outdoors Act”, signed by President Trump, provides $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase private property and place it under permanent Federal protection for the purpose of species conservation. But the fact is, the government doesn’t have to own the land in order to control it. Private non-profit environmental organizations and conservation land trusts now control over 60 million acres of private property through a combination of purchases and conservation easements. Tens of thousands of private property owners are not just selling their own property rights, but they are selling the property rights of future generations. When an individual is allowed to enact permanent land use restrictions via conservation easements on private property that the individual currently owns, any future land owner is also denied their property rights. It is the opinion of this author that no individual has the right to forfeit the property rights of subsequent generations. Conservation easements should be de-funded and removed as an option for all current and future land owners.
When it comes to grizzly bears, the net result of current policies is the proliferation of a non-endangered high impact species far beyond the official recovery zones. Grizzly bear habitat now includes a significant portion of their historic range. By any common sense measure, grizzly bears should be considered a “fully recovered species”. Current proliferation policies invite increased conflict and create a snowball effect of consequences detrimental to human activity. Residential communities and towns increasingly find themselves surrounded by a sea of dangerous predators. Responsibility for managing non-endangered species should be granted to the states where effective wildlife management and control measures, including a well regulated hunting season, should be enacted immediately.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades ecosystem will be released sometime this fall. Previous recovery goals for the North Cascades were based on supplanting the population of existing bears drifting down from British Columbia with up to 200 new bears translocated from surplus populations in Idaho and Montana.
The long term goal is to insure that a population of grizzlies established in the North Cascades is connected by additional protected habitat across the northern third of Washington state. These so-called “migration corridors” are deemed essential in order to “insure biological connectivity between isolated core populations” in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Grizzly bears should be expected to utilize all the available habitat extending east from the Cascades to the Idaho Selkirks and Continental Divide ecosystems and south to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and beyond.
Ursus Arctos, the common brown or “grizzly” bear, is considered an “umbrella species”. By protecting hundreds of thousands of square miles of grizzly habitat, many other species are also protected. It was never about insuring the survival of any one particular “endangered species”. For the past fifty years, conserving grizzly bears was about being able to control land use and limit human activity.
Meriwether Lewis described the grizzly bear as a “most tremendous looking animal” and noted that the animals were, “extreemly hard to kill”. Managing these magnificent creatures as they continue to expand their range into areas near human settlements will be challenging. Managing human populations may prove far easier.
For further reading and related content: