The American grizzly bear has become a shining jewel of conservation and ecological recovery. The bruins have made the arduous journey from being nearly extinct in the contiguous United States and Canada to rule their forests again.
These great creatures have also become one of the quintessential images of the untamed frontier, terrifying wayward trappers of old and chronicled in Native American stories and culture. To this day, grizzlies are still threatening bold Alaskan adventurers and mean danger to countless unversed Yellowstone tourists.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is the last bastion of these massive brutes, and a large contributor to why they have become the poster child of successful recovery.
It is often misunderstood just what is meant by the GYE, which is different from the park itself. The ecosystem is made up of a large patchwork of public and private lands. The whole thing, sitting around 34,000 square miles, is almost exactly 10 times larger than the national park itself.
The grizzly bears, and a large portion of the other species as well, utilize much of this land, roaming to and fro as the seasons shift. The combination of such a large interconnected tract of land, plentiful food sources from Yellowstone game and federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has boosted grizzlies population to ecosystem shattering numbers.
The exact number of bears in the ecosystem will most likely never be known, but the success of the recovery efforts has poised the grizzly population in a prime spot. However, they may be at the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, meaning that regardless of continued efforts by humans, there will be too much competition over resources for the population to continue to grow.
As the bears have grown in numbers, the conflicts have grown just the same. Territorial disputes, conflicts with other species, conflicts with tourists in and outside of the park and numerous other problems have become more pronounced as the bears flourish.
The success has brought to the table a rare and advantageous opportunity. The Yellowstone grizzly is doing so well that it has been afforded the opportunity to be delisted from the ESA. This grants numerous new challenges and benefits in itself, and is an accomplishment few other species have been able to enjoy.
Were the bear to be delisted, management of the bears would transfer to state agencies and there would even be opportunities for a hunting season in the states that house their ecosystem. There has been a lot of concern over this. What would a hunting season do to the numbers? Still, the amount of tags available and with the careful regulation and monitoring by local agencies, the effects would be negligible at worst.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service was well on its way to accomplishing just this — going through the science, the projected challenges of climate change and the viability of success off of the ESA. However, there was a hiccup at the end of the process.
In order for delisting of the bear to be finalized, a public comment period has to be held, where individuals can make statements about the proposed actions. Grizzlies hold a special place in people’s hearts, and that was evident in the comments received by the USFW as they postponed the delisting by six months as of January while they collect more data.
The future of the bears’ ESA status is still in question, as one of President Trump’s recent executive orders put a huge blockade of regulatory hoop-jumping in the way and a gag order on the agencies. With the new challenges, and the future unclear, the most we can do is push for the best route for these species’ futures, and wait to see how things unfold.
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