Current and historic ranges of the continental grizzly bear. PHOTO COURTESY OF IGBC

Grizzlies, GYE, listing, delisting, repeat

1800 to 2020

Early 1800s: Grizzly bears ranged from Alaska to Mexico and to the western shores of the Hudson Bay. Approximately 50,000 grizzlies lived in this area during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

1959: Approximately 200 grizzlies counted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Oct 15, 1966: Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act to provide means for listing specific fish and wildlife species as endangered and outlined ways to provide protection. Congress identified the growth and development of the U.S. as factors leading to the ‘extermination’ of some native species. The Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Defense, and other agencies within these departments, were to conserve species to the best of their abilities within their powers.

The Secretary of the Interior, in consult with appropriate states, would define a species as threatened if their habitat appeared to be in danger from ‘overexploitation,’ ‘drastic modification,’ or ‘predation’ among other descriptors.  The National Wildlife Refuge System was developed to consolidate land, water and interests administered by the above authorities for protection and conservation. This allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to acquire land for species’ habitat. In 1969, the Act was amended to provide additional protection to species facing worldwide extinction. (Similar population numbers as 1959.)

Dec 27, 1973: Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which defined endangered and threatened species and made plants and all invertebrate eligible for protection. Additionally, it required federal agencies to conserve listed species and not allow actions that may harm listed species or their habitats. The goal of the ESA is to help recover populations to the point where they no longer need protection. The ESA is administered by FWS.

July 28, 1975: Under ESA authority, grizzly populations in the lower 48 states were identified as threatened by FWS (approximately 1,000 bears). FWS prepared a recovery plan and identified six recovery zones. Four populations, in four of the six recovery zones, were reduced to 2% of their original size and were identified as threatened with extinction. Five or six small populations were thought to remain (800-1,000 bears), the most isolated located in the GYE (136-312 bears) and unknown populations in the North Cascades Ecosystem and the Bitterroot Ecosystem. Specific ecosystems were named in the first version of the recovery plan.

1983: The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) was created to facilitate communication, cooperation, research and policy among population managers—federal and state agencies—in recovery areas. The IGBC implemented the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. The first draft was developed in 1982.

1991: Grizzly hunting ends in the continental United States. Wyoming and Idaho ceased grizzly hunts when grizzlies were protected in 1975, part of the ESA plan to restore the population, but small hunts continued in Montana to help reduce bear and human conflicts. (Between 200 and 300 GYE grizzlies approximated.)

September 10, 1993: Originally approved in 1982, the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan developed to guide management of grizzlies while on the threatened list. Grizzlies were to remain on the threatened list until recovery criteria were met which included a minimum number of females with cubs seen annually, a distribution of family groups through the recovery zone and a limit of human caused bear mortalities.

Six recovery ecosystems were developed to support grizzly bears at the time of listing and consisted of areas thought to be part of their original habitat—the North Cascades Ecosystem, the Selkirk Ecosystem, the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the Bitteroot Ecosystem and the GYE. This was approved by the FWS. A Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy was developed to inform grizzly management if they were to be removed from the list.

2002: About 560 grizzlies live in the GYE ecosystem.

Nov 2005: The GYE grizzly population exceeded 600. FWS proposed removing the GYE population from the threatened list and designating the population as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS), identifying it as different from other populations in the lower 48. DPS included grizzlies in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Four other populations remained listed—the Northern Continental Divide, Selkirk, Cabinet-Yaak and North Cascades ecosystems. General consensus is that few grizzlies remain on the U.S. side of the North Cascades.

March 29, 2007: After a public comment period following the 2005 proposition, FWS announced the delisting of the GYE grizzly bear, and conservationists and tribal groups filed lawsuits. The four other populations remained listed. Grizzlies would now be managed under the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy adopted in 1993 and management of the bears outside the recovery zones would be handed to state agencies.

Sept 21, 2009: A federal judge in Missoula, Donald W. Mollody, relists the GYE population. The plaintiff, the Greater Yellowstone coalition, cited reasons such as an unenforceable conservation strategy, the decline of whitebark pine as a grizzly food source and genetic diversity between grizzly populations as reasons for listing.

In terms of genetics, the plaintiff argued the GYE population does not have sufficient diversity to maintain sustainability, while FWS argued otherwise and explained the possible ‘translocation’ of bears into the population as an ‘acceptable management technique.’

FWS, one of the defendants, claimed the, “best available science shows the grizzly bears will adjust to any declines in whitebark pines.” Additionally, it cited the increase in grizzlies’ population as rationale for delisting. The judge, responding to the whitebark pine debate, said, “the agency has not articulated a rational connection between the best available science and its conclusion that bears will not be affected by declines in whitebark pine because they are omnivores.”

August 2010: FWS, the state of Wyoming, the Safari Club International and others appealed the 2009 decision to the U.S. 9TH Circuit Court of Appeals, stating the GYE population has recovered and faces no threats. (Between 300 and 400 GYE grizzlies approximated.)

Nov 2011: A three-judge panel for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sides with the District Court’s 2009 decision. The court identifies whitebark pine decline as a threat to grizzlies but sees the recovery strategy as adequate. Grizzlies remained threatened under the ESA.

2013: Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, the IGBC and the IGBST (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team) recommend grizzlies be removed from the threatened species list. The above explain grizzlies have adapted to the decrease in whitebark pine and found alternate food sources.

June 22, 2017: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announces the delisting of the GYE grizzlies (690 now exist in the ecosystem). Conservation and tribal groups sue. Grizzly hunts in Idaho and Wyoming are anticipated to begin Sept 1, 2018.

Aug 30, 2018: District Judge Dana Christensen issues a halt on the 2018 grizzly hunts.

Sept 24, 2018: Judge Christensen relists GYE grizzlies, stopping the scheduled hunts in Wyoming and Idaho. His decision was substantiated in part by the effect delisting could have on other ecosystems.

Dec 2018: FWS files notice to appeal the blocked delisting of GYE grizzlies.

May 24, 2019: The Trump Administration asks Federal Appeals Courts to delist GYE grizzly bears.

Jan 2020: GYE grizzly population estimated at above 700.

July 8, 2020: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Montana District Court’s opinion (2009) and kept the GYE grizzly population listed as threatened under the ESA. “This is a tremendous victory for those who care about Yellowstone and its grizzly bears,” Tim Presco, Earthjustice attorney, said. “The court rightfully rejected the misguided proposal to subject Yellowstone grizzlies to trophy hunting for the first time in 40 years. The grizzly is an icon of our remaining wilderness at a time when our wilderness is shrinking and our wildlife is under assault.”

“The US Fish and Wildlife Service is disappointed in the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. Our 2017 delisting rule was based on a rigorous interpretation of the law and supported by the best available science,” FWS’s statement read. “It was developed in collaboration with our federal, state and tribal partners and we commend them for their efforts. Although grizzly bears in the GYE remain listed, the US FWS continues to believe, based on the best available science that grizzly bears in this ecosystem are biologically recovered and no longer require protection under the ESA.”

The IGBST’s annual report was updated March 25, 2020.

In no particular order sources for this article include: MTPR, Public Law 89-669 (the Endangered Species Preservation Act), the ESA, the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior (press release, 2005 delisting), the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan (updated 1993 version), IGBC (with particular assistance from Frank T. van Manen, supervisory research wildlife biologist with USGS/IGBST), FWS (comment on 2020 decision provided by Joseph A. Szuszwalak, public affairs specialist with FWS), U.S. District Court 2009 decision.

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