At the age of 5 in Yellowstone National Park, I saw my first grizzly. With my family, I watched a mother and two cubs walk along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The sighting was a highlight of our trip to America's oldest national park. It also helped launch me on a career path.
Today, working as a wildlife conservation scientist in the Northern Rockies, I see grizzly bears regularly. In the spring, I watch cubs play while their mother eats new grass and digs for roots; in early summer, I see big males vie for females; and in the fall I observe bears young and old scrambling to put on the last pounds they need to get them through their winter hibernation. Every sighting is gratifying, especially since the grizzly bear has been listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act for most of my life.
In 1975, when grizzly bears were first listed as threatened, their numbers in the contiguous U.S. had dwindled from more than 50,000 to fewer than 1,000 because of habitat loss and over-hunting. The bears that remained were isolated in national parks and remote areas that totaled less than 2% of their historical range.
In 1983, the Fish and Wildlife Service prepared recovery plans for six zones where small populations of grizzlies remained. The southernmost of those zones includes the grizzly bears of Greater Yellowstone, which are the most geographically and genetically isolated of the six populations.
Today, things have improved enough that the agency is considering delisting Yellowstone's grizzly bears. From my examination of the best available science, the criteria laid out in the recovery plan have been met. Thanks to the efforts of many agencies and organizations to improve habitat and manage human-bear coexistence, the area's grizzly population has made a remarkable recovery from fewer than 150 bears to more than 700, and the bears' range has expanded well beyond the Greater Yellowstone recovery area.
But while the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population has increased, it is still relatively small and, more important, isolated, placing the genetic health and long-term viability of the population at risk. The Greater Yellowstone grizzlies will remain a borderline viable population as long as they remain isolated from other grizzly populations. This is also true for the other grizzly populations.
The Fish and Wildlife Service recognized this problem as far back as 1993, noting that rather than managing "separate island populations" of grizzly bears, we ought to be aiming ultimately toward reconnecting isolated populations. It's time for that to happen.
As the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population has increased, bears have been moving outward, and the separation between the two largest grizzly bear island populations in the lower 48 states is now less than a third of its original size. Closing the remaining gap and ending the isolation seems truly possible now.
But it won't be easy.
The remaining land separating the bears has seen considerable human alteration and population growth. Grizzly bears and people do not make ideal neighbors, but they can and do coexist. As grizzly bears have moved beyond protected areas, we've learned a lot about what works and doesn't work, and where bears should and shouldn't be. Although grizzly bears do best in wild, remote areas, we've learned that they also successfully move through and occasionally live in areas less wild and remote.
So, what needs to be done to close the gap? We need to keep open and connected what's already open and connected. We need to keep these habitats intact and healthy, and in certain areas restore essential habitats. Most important, we must ensure that people have the information and support needed to coexist with bears. In the end, the conservation of grizzly bears within Greater Yellowstone will depend on what is happening beyond Greater Yellowstone.
The Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear delisting debate provides an opportunity to expand our vision for grizzly bear conservation. It is a chance to move beyond restoring separate island populations. Only by integrating and interconnecting protected areas, mixed-use public lands and (by voluntary actions) private lands can we achieve true grizzly bear conservation.
Jeff Burrell is the Northern Rockies program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society.