Is Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bear Population Doomed?

 Barrett Hedges / National Geographic / Getty Images

Nearly a half century ago, when I returned from Vietnam, I was lost and wandered the Western American wilderness seeking palliation from war sickness. As the snows melted, I moved north into Yellowstone National Park. Though I wasn’t looking for them, there were grizzly bears, and they commanded my attention. I found great beauty married to danger and, seeing through their eyes, discovered a new way of looking at the world.

Years later, I wrote: “These bears saved my life.”

So I am beyond alarmed that state and federal governments have teamed up to deliver a potentially deadly blow to Yellowstone’s grizzly population. Last week, the Interior Department announced that after more than four decades of enjoying strict federal protections, the bears would no longer be considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Management of the animals will be handed over to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho this summer — all of which intend to open a trophy hunt as early as this fall.

I live on the edge of this great ecosystem, and grizzly bears roam as far north as my house in Montana. I have fought on the side of the bears in grizzly battles for five decades. The proposed delisting and trophy hunt have come to haunt my waking days.

Grizzlies are one of the slowest reproducing land mammals in North America. My fear is that the loss of protections and the opening of hunting will result in many more bears being killed than are born into the ecosystem — a timeless and common cause of extinction. Yellowstone is an island ecosystem, meaning there are no bears recruited from the outside. The mortality rates we know about in Yellowstone are already very high — around 80 grizzlies have died in each of the past two years. With a trophy-hunting season, grizzlies will become even easier to kill.

The argument by the Fish and Wildlife Service is that the grizzly population has increased five-fold in 42 years, to about 700. The agency also argues that the decimation of whitebark pine — the nut of which is the Yellowstone grizzly’s most important food source — is not an issue and that the effects of climate change do not and will not constitute a threat to the Yellowstone grizzly. Grizzly advocates like myself believe, frankly, that this is horseshit and bad science.

The FWS has tried to delist the Yellowstone grizzly before, removing the great bear from the ESA list during 2007. In 2009, a U.S. District Court judge decided against the FWS, citing the drastic decline in whitebark pine caused by climate change. This [ruling] reinstated ESA protections for the last eight ears. The situation today is much the same. The only thing new in the approaching lawsuit will be the trophy hunt by the states.

Two weeks ago, my daughter, Laurel, and I climbed a high ridge near the northern border of Yellowstone park. The wind was howling and we took shelter, huddling behind a large granite boulder. I saw Laurel’s face change and, looking beyond my only daughter, spotted a mother grizzly and her small yearling cub 40 feet away coming over a small summit. The two bears reared up, looking around, trying to smell the air, to decide if we were a threat to the cub. We didn’t move a muscle. The bears walked past us to the edge of a short cliff and stopped to nurse 30 feet or so away. The rhythmic puttering sound of nursing went on for five minutes. Down below somewhere, I could hear the bellows of two adult bears, an unusual occurrence but no doubt a mating pair of grizzlies in June. The male grizzly would be a much greater danger to the cub than the two of us. I should mention this has happened to me only on salmon streams in British Columbia and Alaska, but never in the backcountry of Yellowstone. She graced us with her trust.

That trusting bear will fare poorly should she leave the park to be hunted after delisting.