There’s a 20-year-old mother grizzly bear who many hope survived the frigid Wyoming winter and is waking up from a deep hibernation somewhere in or near Grand Teton National Park, a place of incredible granite peaks, lush alpine meadows and forests that still feel wild.
Her name is Grizzly 399, but she’s no ordinary bear. She and her cubs have been featured in newspaper articles and in the 2015 book Grizzly: The Bears of Greater Yellowstone by writer Todd Wilkinson and world-renowned wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen who spent nearly 10 years, following her and her family. In 2020, she gave birth to four cubs, a miracle given her age in many biologists’ minds.
But she’s played a far more important role in one of the nation’s greatest endangered species success stories. She, and her offspring, are beneficiaries of the Endangered Species Act that enabled the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly population to beat all odds after teetering on the brink of extinction. It grew from 136 bears in 1975 to around 700 today.
On March 3, 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced its proposal to delist the Yellowstone-area grizzlies, which includes Grizzly 399, from the federal threatened species list. It’s a proposal rife with controversy grounded in science and emotion.
“We look at this as a success story,” says Serena Baker, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If you look at the numbers for grizzlies bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area, they have rebounded about 500 percent. Those grizzly bears have doubled their ranges to more than 22,500 square miles today ⎯ that’s an area larger than Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire combined. To really and truly recover a population that requires that kind of space in the U.S. today, it’s really a success.”
Could Climate Change and Hunting Wipe Out the Grizzly?
But that’s where things get a little sticky. Not everyone feels confident that delisting the grizzly, which ultimately opens the door to trophy hunting of the species, is the right thing to do ⎯ at least for now.
Some conservationists and scientists argue that climate change’s negative impacts on grizzly’s primary food source ⎯ the whitebark pine, which is now virtually extinct ⎯ has caused a cascading effect that needs to continue to be monitored. They also are wary of state management, fearful state hunting seasons could wipe out the iconic grizzlies, one of the slowest terrestrial mammals to reproduce. It can take a single female 10 years to replace herself in a population.
“We feel it’s a success story, but it’s a success story in the making,” says Bonnie Rice, the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies senior campaign representative. “Our goal is not to keep them on the [threatened] list forever, but we feel we need to examine factors like shifting food sources and isolation of the population before we turn the keys over to all three states and start talking about initiating a hunt. Let’s have a moratorium on hunting until we see how the states manage the grizzly bears without the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”
States To Manage Grizzlies
Delisting the grizzlies would allow states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to assume management of the population, all of which have collaborated and cooperated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recover the species under the Endangered Species Act. During the past three-to-four decades, Wyoming has spent $40 million to recover the species, the majority of money coming from sportsmen, says Renny MacKay, communications director of Wyoming Game and Fish.
“It’s an incredible investment by the people of Wyoming,” says MacKay. “Whenever the grizzlies come off [the list], it means the management of bears is led by people who live closest to the wildlife and by people impacted by the wildlife.”
Increase in Human-Grizzly Conflicts
And admittedly, living with large predators roaming in the mountains near your town is not always easy. It requires tolerance and patience, MacKay says. In the past couple of years, it has meant increased conflicts between humans and grizzlies. In 2014, there were 164 reported conflicts between grizzlies and people and human-related activities, up from 152 conflicts in 2013.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials point to increased conflict as a sign the grizzly population has reached its carrying capacity.
“This decision [to propose delisting the bears] was really based on the best available science,” says Baker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “More human-to-bear interactions are happening and grizzly bear experts tell us the population is at its carrying capacity. Bears are moving into problem areas because of it.”
But others point to the fact that from 2002-12, the grizzly population stagnated after growing 4-7 percent per year from 1983 to 2001. With the bear population expanding its range but not increasing in number, they argue there is an alternate explanation for increased conflict. At its heart is the whitebark pine.
Whitebark Pine’s Disappearance Leads to Meat-Heavy Diet
Historically, whitebark pine and its cone seeds, found typically at elevations above 8,500-feet, was a key food source for grizzlies, especially mother bears that eat twice as many of the seeds as male bears, says Sierra Club’s Bonnie Rice. For bears like Grizzly 399 who give birth during hibernation, the high-energy seeds provided them with a significant source of protein as they weathered the winter months. Decimated by the mountain pine beetle infestation and white pine blister rust, the whitebark pine is virtually extinct, says Rice.
The result? In the past, bears like Grizzly 399 spent a lot of time at high elevations upwards of 8,500 feet, munching on whitebark pine far away from people. Today they are more meat dependent, moving to lower elevations to hunt for elk and livestock on the edges of the ecosystem. It is here they are more likely to come into conflict with humans, Rice says.
Losing a primary food source is a big deal. But losing your young is another. These days, biologists are seeing a higher rate of death among grizzly cubs, Rice says. Adult male grizzlies are killing the cubs at carcass sites where they view the cubs as competitors. Because it can take a female 10 years to replace herself, conservationists like Rice see the loss of cubs as a threat to the vibrancy of the population.
Grizzly Delisted Once Before
If the Yellowstone-area grizzly is delisted this year, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2007, it was delisted. Two years later, it was put back on the list after a district court in Montana ruled that there was not enough analysis on whitebark pine, a critical food source for the grizzlies, among other things, to delist the animal.
What did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do differently this time?
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service really commissioned the best experts on whitebark pine, which has really declined, and found that grizzly bears were really resilient creatures that will find other food sources,” says Baker. “Another thing we’ve done differently is spend time thinking through what it looks like when an endangered species comes of the list and management is assumed by states and tribes.”
The initial recommendation to delist the bear was sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 from the Interagency Bear Study Team, a group of scientists from federal government agencies, tribal members and staff from the game and fish departments in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Could Grizzly 399 Be Hunted?
But what would happen to Grizzly 399 or her relatives if the delisting happens? As long as she and other bears stay within the boundaries of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, they cannot be hunted. Hunting will continue to be illegal within national parks.
But if they wander out of the parks? They will not be offered the same protections as they were under the Endangered Species Act. The park service emphasizes its desire to work with states to focus hunting away from park boundaries and closer to high human-bear conflict areas.
In the meanwhile, MacKay of Wyoming Game and Fish points to the $40 million the state has invested in the conservation of the grizzlies and asks why it would ever risk letting the grizzly population falter.
“Our grizzly management rules, the delisting rules, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife rules, all those rules are a means to ensure the bears stay recovered,” he says. “Wyoming is absolutely committed to maintaining a recovered population of grizzlies.”
Island of Grizzlies Not Sustainable
Rice of the Sierra Club hopes those rules include something about natural connectivity between the Yellowstone-area grizzlies and those in the northern Continental Divide ecosystem that stretches from the area around Kalispell, Mont., to British Columbia. From the Sierra Club perspective, an isolated, so-called “island” population of grizzlies is not self-sustaining long-term in terms of genetic diversity.
“Our vision for grizzlies in the Lower 48 is that we have a thriving, well-distributed, well-connected several thousand grizzly bears,” Rice says.
Baker, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says connectivity is part of the plan.
At 20 years old, Grizzly 399 may not live to experience a potential delisting, although her offspring will. The average lifespan of grizzlies is between 20-25. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aims to have a decision by the end of 2016.
What will happen to those grizzlies that survive Grizzly 399 remains to be known