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 percent 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.
It 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.
Legal status of the population
Scientists and managers believe the grizzly bear population has grown robustly since 1983. Grizzlies are raising cubs in all portions of the recovery zone, and cub survival is high. They are also dispersing into new habitat well outside of the recovery zone. Of the estimated 593 grizzlies living in the area, approximately 150 have home ranges wholly or partially in Yellowstone National Park. Other 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 bear advocacy groups filed lawsuits challenging the decision and some cases are still pending.