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The not so endangered, endangered grizzly

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Let's manage them the right way.

            When thinking about the western states, two animals come to the forefront of a person’s mind that has been toiled in controversy. Just like the wolf, the North American grizzly was once on a serious collision course with extinction. Due to the overwhelming success of the Endangered Species Act, there has been an abounding recovery of the wolf and now the grizzly is also finding itself in the delisting conversation.

      Before, I get into my thoughts about delisting and even a proposed hunting of the grizzly, let’s start with a little history of what was originally proposed for the recovery criteria.  There are six ecosystems throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming that are officially considered Recovery Areas. These areas are named Northern Cascade, Bitterroot, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, Northern Continental Divide, and the Greater Yellowstone. They were separated in these areas specifically for management purposes.  There are a few criteria that are required to be met in order for the grizzly to be delisted and fall under state agency management.

-The individual ecosystem must have a population of a minimum of 500 bears. This is not the management level of bears, but a minimum requirement.

-There must be a minimum of 48 females with cubs observed in the ecosystem for a length of 6 consecutive years.

-There must be females with cubs in 16 out of 18 Bear Management Units and no two adjacent units may go more than one year out of six years without a female with cubs inhabiting the unit over any six year period in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  

-The mortality rate of females must not go above 9% in any given year.

          Granted, not all of the ecosystems are above the minimum criteria to be turned over to state management. However, there are some that far exceed the minimum.  The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is estimated to have 700-1000 bears and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem exceeds 1100 bears. In the GYE in 2013 it was observed that there were 58 females observed with cubs and this number has maintained or grown since. The mortality rate for female bears was below 8% and has not risen above this number. All of the criteria were met and exceeded in 2 of the 6 ecosystems.

      Delisting the bears in the 2 ecosystems has happened twice since 2007 and has been overturned both times. This is mainly due to strong opposition to the idea of “Trophy Hunting” of these iconic animals. The first delisting to be overturned was due to a food source being “threatened”, the white bark pine nut. This ruling was overthrown since stating that the white bark pine nut was not a major contributing factor in the survival rate of these bears.  The second and most recent delisting was an interesting one in my opinion.  It was stated that because the bears from one ecosystem do not migrate and breed with those from another ecosystem, than their genes were in jeopardy, therefore, placing the bears at risk.

      Let me say that I believe that this argument will not stand for long. The reason is that these bears do migrate.  Slowly, they are making their way from both the GYE and NCDE and are being found in more central and western Montana.  There have been pictures and sightings of grizzlies in the Helena National Forest and in the Deerlodge National Forest in recent years.  As a matter of fact, last year while hunting in the Big Belt Mountains, Helena National Forest I personally crossed a hunter who was leaving the woods and told me to be careful because he just saw a grizzly. He told me where and though I did not see the bear personally, I did cut its tracks.  This year, the Montana Fish and Game released an article stating that they had spotted and taken pictures of a grizzly in the same area where I spotted the tracks. 

      I only mention this story to say that I believe that the estimate for the number of grizzlies is wrong.  I personally believe that the numbers given by the study teams are low, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but misleading.  The bears will at some point in the very near future need to be managed.  What does management mean?

      There are going to be a large number of people that are not going to agree with me.  I believe that each ecosystem should be evaluated per the original criteria and once the criteria are met in all categories, then it should be turned over to state management. Once the state is managing the bears, hunting regulations will need to be instituted.  This does not mean that it will be open season on grizzlies. There will be a very limited number of bear tags released and based on a lottery system and will be valid in only the areas that have met the criteria. No hunting will be allowed in the national parks.

      A very long conversation could be had about the need for hunting management of bears. On one side of the coin, those against hunting say that equilibrium will eventually be met naturally. By allowing the bears to continue to grow in population, eventually they will eat their way out of a sustainable food source and their population will naturally diminish based on starvation. Starvation is not a cause of death that is quick and painless.  It is pain and suffering that lasts for weeks.

In my opinion, the option of starvation is far crueler than a quick shot through the heart or lungs from a hunter. This brings us to the opposite side of the coin. As the number of bears in an area increase, so will the number of tags to maintain equilibrium based on biological research of sustainable food and habitat of the area.  Hunters provide billions of dollars each year that is contributed to the sustainability of conservation management. From a logical perspective, more bears will be saved through habitat conservation than with option one.

      There will always be some people who do not agree with hunting, much less the hunting of an animal that is not overly popular to eat. Though trophy hunting is not an overall popular subject, what other viable and humane way of management is there for these apex predators? The truth is that there isn’t another, more humane option, but I am open-minded to another solution. Please, if you have another idea, I would love to hear and have a discussion about your idea.

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