Grizzly Bears and the Endangered Species Act

On July 28, 1975, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear in the lower 48 states as “threatened,” in part, because the species was reduced to only about 2% of its former range south of Canada. Five or six small populations were thought to remain, totaling 800 to 1,000 bears. The southernmost—and most isolated—of those populations was in Greater Yellowstone, where 136 grizzly bears were thought to live in the mid-1970s. The goal of an Endangered Species Act listing is to recover a species to self-sustaining, viable populations that no longer need protection. To achieve this goal, federal and state agencies:

  • Stopped the grizzly hunting seasons in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
  • Established the Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery area (Yellowstone National Park, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, portions of Grand Teton National Park, national forests surrounding Yellowstone, Bureau of Land Management lands, and state and private land in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming).
  • Created the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to coordinate bear management among the federal agencies and state wildlife managers; the team monitors bear populations and studies grizzly bear food habits and behavior.
  • Established the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to increase communication and cooperation among managers in all recovery areas, and to supervise public education programs, sanitation initiatives, and research studies.

The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was established in 1993 and revised in 2006. It has four demographic and sustainable mortality goals for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This plan guides management when the grizzly is on the threatened species list. Bear managers use the Grizzly Conservation Strategy when the grizzly is off the threatened species list. The Conservation Strategy is the long-term guide for managing and monitoring the grizzly bear population and assuring sufficient habitat to maintain recovery. It emphasizes coordination and cooperative working relationships among management agencies, landowners, and the public to ensure public support, continue the application of best scientific principles, and maintain effective actions to benefit the coexistence of grizzlies and humans. It incorporates existing laws, regulations, policies, and goals. The strategy has built-in flexibility:

  • Grizzly–human conflict management and bear habitat management are high priorities in the recovery zone, which is known as the Primary Conservation Area. Bears are favored when grizzly habitat and other land uses are incompatible; grizzly bears are actively discouraged and controlled in developed areas.
  • State wildlife agencies have primary responsibility to manage grizzly bears outside of national parks, including bears on national forests; national parks manage bears and habitat within their jurisdictions.
  • The grizzly bear population will be sustained at or above 500 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
  • State and federal wildlife managers will continue to monitor the grizzly population and habitat conditions using the most feasible and accepted techniques.
  • Managers will remove nuisance bears conservatively and within mortality limits outlined above, and with minimal removal of females; they will emphasize removing the human cause of conflict rather than removing a bear.
  • Outside the Primary Conservation Area, states develop management plans, with input from affected groups and individuals, that define where grizzly bears are acceptable.
 
A grizzly bear with a muddy face

Management of the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem changes little whether it is listed on the threatened species list or not.

NPS/Peaco

 

Legal Status of the Population

The grizzly bear population has grown robustly since 1983. The rate of growth has slowed somewhat in the last decade, likely due to increased population density. Grizzlies are raising cubs in all portions of the recovery zone. They have also dispersed into habitat well outside of the recovery zone. Bears range south into the Wind River Range, north through the Gallatin Range, and east of the Absaroka Mountains onto the Plains.

For these reasons and because the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem was determined to be a distinct population segment that met all the population criteria for delisting, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population was removed from the threatened species list in 2007 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Several groups advocating to re-list the bears as a threatened population, filed lawsuits challenging the decision.

In September 2009, a federal district judge overturned the delisting ruling, placing grizzly bears back on the threatened species list claiming: (1) the Conservation Strategy that guides management after delisting was unenforceable and non-binding on state and federal agencies, and (2) that the US Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the impacts of the potential loss of whitebark pine nuts, a grizzly bear food source.

In January 2010, the Department of Justice and the US Fish and Wildlife Service filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. Contesting, among other points, that the judge did not consider information on whitebark pine provided in the US Fish and Wildlife Service legal briefing, and should have deferred to the opinion of federal experts to interpret biology.

In November 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the whitebark pine issue, resulting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population remaining on the threatened species list. The panel ruled in favor of the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the issue of the Conservation Strategy providing adequate regulations to conserve bears after delisting.

Meanwhile, management of the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem changes little whether it is listed on the threatened species list or not. Scientists will continue to monitor the long-term recovery goals for grizzly bears and strive to ensure the criteria are met.

 
Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan: New Population Monitoring Criteria

Population Objectives Was the objective achieved?
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Estimated % of total mortality of independent aged females not to exceed 7.6%. (Lowered from 9% in 2012.) X X X X X X X
Estimated % of total mortality of independent aged males not to exceed 15%. X X X X X X
Estimated % of mortality from human causes for dependent young not to exceed 7.6%. (Lowered from 9% in 2012.) X X X X X X X X X
Demographic objective of 48 females producing cubs annually. (2006–2013) X X X X X X X X N/A
Population estimate ≥ 500 bears in the recovery area. (Criteria instituted in 2014) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A X

X = Objective was achieved.
 
bears_gya
 

Quick Facts

The Issue

The grizzly bear was listed as a Threatened species in 1975, which required recovering the species to a self-sustaining population.

History

  • 1993: A recovery plan is implemented with three specific recovery goals that have to be met for six consecutive years.
  • 2000: Draft Conservation Strategy for the Grizzly Bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is completed.
  • 2002: Conservation Strategy is approved after public comment period—16,794 comments were received. It will be implemented when the grizzly is removed from Threatened species list.
  • 2003: Recovery goals are met for the sixth year in a row.
  • 2005: US Fish and Wildlife Service proposes removing the grizzly bear from Threatened species list. 2006: Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan is modified to update methods of estimating population size and sustainable mortality.
  • 2007: Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population is removed from the Threatened species list. Conservation Strategy is implemented.
  • 2009: The population is returned to the Threatened species list.
  • 2010: The US Fish and Wildlife Service appeals the decision to keep the grizzly bear on the Threatened species list.
  • 2011: An appeals court rules the grizzly bear remains on the Threatened species list.
  • 2013: Yellowstone Ecosystem subcommittee and Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team recommend that grizzly bears be removed from Threatened status.
 

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