Helping a Great Bear Hang On

On the 25th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the grizzly continues to inspire both awe and controversy in the American West

  • Douglas Chadwick
  • Dec 01, 1998
One quarter of a century ago, I was working as a field biologist in the Swan Mountains of western Montana when I came across two grizzlies courting. It was a growly affair with chases and cuffs at first, but the bears went on to linger side by side, rubbing heads and shoulders. Taking care not to disturb them, I watched the pair for hours--long, bright hours, for somehow these animals made time slow down and life seem richer as they moved among melting snowfields and meadows cleared by avalanches. But when I reflected that the point of the animals´ togetherness was reproduction, the experience took on a bittersweet quality.
The chances were dwindling that the species--including descendants of the bears I saw that day--would survive in the United States outside of Alaska. I could see firsthand that bear habitat was under siege from road building and logging. Not only that, grizzly hunting was still legal and very much part of the culture of the West; Montana continued selling an unlimited number of bear-hunting licenses every year. The last grizzlies in the Selway-Bitterroot region of western Montana and central Idaho--one of the few populations to survive beyond the early decades of this century--had only recently vanished.

The same year I watched that mating pair, 1973, the nation´s lawmakers enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a revolutionary attempt to legally define our obligations to other life-forms. Two years later, grizzlies were federally listed as threatened in the contiguous 48 states. As a result, today the bears are holding on fairly well in the American West, most notably in two chunks of habitat--the Yellowstone National Park area and northern Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is even considering reintroducing grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot region.

Shock waves: Behind those few facts is a remarkable tale. For few animals have showcased the strengths and weaknesses of the landmark act that saved them quite like the strong, intelligent competitor with humans for food and space that we call Ursus arctos horribilis. And few people foresaw the degree to which grizzly conservation would send shock waves through the West--or how much saving the big mammals would protect an ecosystem´s worth of other wildlife.

Ursus arctos, the brown bear, is native across the Northern Hemisphere, from Japan to Italy. North America is home to two subspecies. Middendorffi includes only the big bears of Alaska´s Kodiak Island, often referred to as Kodiaks. The rest are horribilis, commonly called grizzlies, though not all have the characteristic grizzled, or silvertipped, coat. Some are pure blond and others black, while the coastal ecotype tends to be solid brown.

Before European settlers arrived and began to exterminate grizzlies, 50,000 to 100,000 of the bears may have existed south of Canada. In this century, state game departments took responsibility for managing the bears. Before grizzlies were federally listed, that usually meant destroying problem animals--those that raided livestock and leftover food or simply seemed too close for comfort--while encouraging sport shooting of others. The general thinking was that as long as the death toll stayed high, plenty of bears must still be out in the woods.

The reality was altogether different. Development kept eliminating critical habitat. Bear neighborhoods were overrun by people, garbage and domestic animals. In the backcountry, road building for logging in national forests and other activities was making formerly remote populations accessible to hunters and poachers.

Desperate straits: By the 1970s, grizzlies in the West numbered fewer than 1,000, clinging to barely 2 percent of their former range. The population in Yellowstone numbered just 200 to 300 by some estimates; only about 30 were breeding females. Grizzlies reproduce more slowly than any other U.S. land mammal, giving birth for the first time at age five or six and typically waiting three years between successful litters. Cut off from other populations, Yellowstone´s bears looked about to go the way of the silvertips Lewis and Clark first met on the Great Plains, or California´s estimated 10,000 golden bears or the grizz of the Selway-Bitterroot region.

We know grizz can accelerate to 35 miles per hour in a couple of heartbeats and roll aside boulders with the flick of a paw. Yet perhaps their most amazing feat has been getting bureaucrats from agencies that once seldom communicated to consider the ecosystem they share. With individual home ranges as large as 600 square miles, the bears use an array of habitats from peaks to plains, ignoring the boundary lines so important to humans. "The grizzly is a landscape-level animal that requires us to go beyond the usual state and federal jurisdictions," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Chris Servheen, recovery coordinator for the species.

For the Yellowstone bears and their managers, that meant defining an area now called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Several times the size of the 2.2-million-acre park at its core, it also includes portions of state lands in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming; five different national forests; and various wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management districts, private lands and municipalities.

From property owners to casual visitors, everyone in Yellowstone grizzly country has had to learn how to control food wastes. Since the bears are also lured into trouble by domestic sheep, the number allowed to graze on prime bear habitat in Idaho´s Targhee National Forest was reduced from 20,000 to zero through the 1980s. During the same period, sections of Yellowstone were closed to visitors so the bears would have some places free of any disturbance.

Farther north lies Glacier National Park; the Bob Marshall/Great Bear/Scapegoat wilderness complex; and adjoining public, private and tribal lands--all of which managers now treat as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Since the 1975 listing, biologists have been estimating the grizzly population here as numbering between 300 and 600. Bears are tough to census in the rugged forests, but intensive studies in one segment clearly found that the bears avoid roads and that their numbers decline where the road density exceeds one mile per square mile of habitat. To avoid putting the grizzlies further at risk, which would violate the ESA, the Flathead National Forest has had to scale back timber harvests and gate off many existing logging roads.

The act has affected private land owners as well. The dense forests of the Flathead region´s Swan Valley provide wildlife corridors between the core of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the outlying Mission Mountains, where 10 to 20 grizzlies still hold on.

To safeguard those links, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forged a unique grizzly conservation compact in 1995. This voluntary agreement limits harmful development on 33,000 privately owned acres. On another 83,000 acres held by a timber corporation, it also calls for closing or even obliterating roads, scheduling logging so that it disturbs no more than a fraction of the area at any one time and leaving streamside zones intact. Nationwide, more than 7 million acres of private property are now committed to management for the benefit of endangered species. Most are part of so-called Habitat Conservation Plans. These cooperative efforts allow landowners to proceed with development projects if they also agree to protect habitat for imperiled wildlife.

Good news for other species: Habitat protection for grizz has been good news for the other wildlife that shares the same space. It´s no accident that many of the contiguous 48 states´ last harlequin ducks, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, lynx, pine martens, wolverines, mountain caribou and great gray owls are found in the remaining strongholds of grizzlies. Nor is it surprising that the recent return of the gray wolf to the West has taken place largely in grizzly country.

And those relatively large creatures are only the most obvious ones to benefit. Look more closely and you´ll also find wildlife on a smaller scale profiting from the protection of grizzly habitat. The water howellia, a little-known member of the bluebell family, is just one example. Much of the plant´s Northwest seasonal pond habitat has been reduced by logging, grazing and the draining of wetlands. "Grizzly range overlaps with 40 percent of Montana´s vascular plants of special concern," points out resource specialist Bonnie Heidel of the Montana Natural Heritage Program. "That´s 148 species, from rare orchids to little-known sedges." Since 147 of them lack any special protection, their main safeguard is the fact that grizz walk among them. That was the case for the water howellia until it joined the federal list of threatened species in 1994.

Ecologists recognize the great bear as a keystone species that markedly influences the environment and the balance of other creatures within it. Formidable predators, grizzlies can kill a substantial number of hooved animals, especially young ones during the birth season. As expert scavengers, the bears hasten the release of nutrients from the carcasses they locate. In vegetarian mode, they spread seeds--as many as 7,000 in each dung pile when a grizzly is feasting on berries. As diggers of roots and underground prey such as hibernating ground squirrels and marmots, the bears excavate acres of terrain with their four-inch-long claws, opening the ground for new plants to colonize. Grizzlies have been identified as the principal movers of soil among the fauna in parts of Montana´s Glacier National Park.

Numbers up: Once protected, the habitat has in turn been good for the bears. "Numbers appear to be on the rise, at least in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem," says recovery coordinator Servheen. "Our counts indicate an absolute minimum of 262 grizzlies there and possibly as many as 500. We intend to start delisting that population within a year."

Many bear advocates, however, feel that giving Yellowstone´s bears the stamp of good health may be premature. An overriding concern is that about 90 percent of the grizzly deaths recorded since 1975 have come at the hands of humans--nearly all on private acreage--and the number of people living around Yellowstone is projected to double within the next 30 years.

As for grizzlies of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, no one can say without more information just how well they are doing. The outlook is not promising for the three other remnant groups in the contiguous states. Just a handful have been counted lately in northwestern Montana´s Cabinet-Yaak region, depite the reintroduction of several bears to augment the group. The Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington host no more than 30 to 50 grizz. Another half-dozen or so inhabit the North Cascade Range of western Washington.

Sometime in the next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether or not to reintroduce grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, where wolves were brought in from Canada during 1995 and 1996. While some area residents don´t want anything to do with horribilis, the danger they pose or federal officials, others say the only opinions that should count are those of biologists who are supposed to determine what is best for the bears.

The middle ground in this ongoing debate has been defined by an unusual coalition led by the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and representatives of the timber industry. Their Citizen Management Alternative calls for reestablishing grizzlies with less strict protection than usual along with an unprecedented level of local involvement in management. Under a special provision of the ESA intended to make the act more flexible when controversial species are returned to a range, the Selway-Bitterroot bears would be designated an "experimental, nonessential" population.

The primary recovery zone would consist of 4.1 million pristine acres already set aside as the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and adjoining Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Around this area would be an immense, 15.3 million-acre tract of national forest and private lands termed the "experimental population area." There, grizzlies would not have the same priority as in areas declared critical habitat under a traditional recovery plan. Instead, a citizen management committee would try to balance the bears´ needs with those of logging and ranching operations and other human enterprises in ways that are compatible with a growing grizzly population.

Attorney Tom France of NWF´s Northern Rockies Field Office in Missoula, Montana, labels this alternative "the radical center." He reasons, "Out here, folks are less afraid of bears than of government regulations and their effects on the local economy. This is a remarkable opportunity for community involvement in an endangered-species recovery."

Critics of the plan think the compromise sounds like gambling with grizzly recovery rather than ensuring it, since some of the richest habitat lies outside the main recovery zone. France and others insist the crucial point is to get the bears on the ground. Having grizzlies in the Selway-Bitterroot region could increase the species´ numbers in the West by as much as 30 percent over the next half-century. And the location midway between Yellowstone and grizzly country to the north would multiply the chances of bears moving from one existing population to the next, increasing genetic interchange.

Canada connection: After all these changes, what are the great bear´s chances in the West? "Without links to Canada, I would say about zero over the next century," says Troy Merrill of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, a research foundation associated with the University of Idaho. Americans may imagine their neighbor to be a sprawling north country standing by to reseed the United States with wildlife if we lose ours, but southern Alberta and British Columbia are filling up with people and development as rapidly as the U.S. side of the border.

Once again, Ursus arctos horribilis is asking us to look beyond the usual boundaries. U.S. bear managers are beginning to regularly meet with their counterparts in Canada. Some conservation biologists feel that the only Rocky Mountain ecosystem truly viable over the long term would be a continuous stretch of untamed terrain running from Yellowstone to the Yukon Territory. There is even a new organization called Y2Y promoting this vision, using grizz range as a blueprint for what should be saved.

If you´re lucky enough to go there yourself and to see a big, silvertipped bear at home, it will probably take a while for your pulse to calm down. Once it finally does, you might pause to reflect on two mammal species with the power to determine how large, varied and full of promise the natural world of tomorrow will be. One is you. The other is the grizzly, in every sense a living definition of wildness.

Montana writer Douglas Chadwick has a conservation easement on his property near Glacier National Park.

Saving Endangered Species: Keeping the Wild Alive
This December, using the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Endangered Species Act as a kick-off point, the National Wildlife Federation is launching a comprehensive two-year campaign to focus attention on our imperiled wildlife heritage. "Our goal is to build a broad base of enduring support for endangered species by educating the public and the media about such issues as biodiversity and the connection between human welfare and species protection," says Jeff Flocken, NWF´s endangered species outreach coordinator.

As part of this campaign, the Federation is developing a wide range of education materials for nationwide distribution to schools. It is also preparing profiles of 25 carefully selected threatened and endangered animals and plants--including the grizzly--that represent a cross section of the different kinds of problems and solutions needed to recover rare species. These 25 species will also be highlighted in various educational and conservation components of the campaign.

For more information about this initiative visit the Federation´s Wildlife web site.

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