Greater Yellowstone Grizzly delisting recommendation to come from US Fish and Wildlife Service in one year.
Last Friday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the commencement of a one-year status review of the health and viability of two grizzly bear populations: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population (GYE) and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population (NCDE) (see Figure 1). The review will be comprehensive, using the best available scientific and commercial data available to inform a 12-month finding on whether to delist one or both grizzly bear populations. If it is determined a year from now the population should be delisted, the process will shift gears toward finalizing a new delisting rule, conservation strategy, and acceptable state plans – all with additional public notice and comment opportunities. If the bears are eventually delisted, the management of the species would transition from the federal government (USFWS) to the state wildlife agencies for each state containing the bear population(s) that was(were) delisted.
Figure 1: Recovery zones and current estimated distributions for the six grizzly recovery zones originally identified in the grizzly’s listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975. There are currently no known populations in the North Cascades and Bitterroot recovery areas. Estimated distributions are current as of 2020 for the Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide and are current as of 2019 for the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk. Notice how the estimated current population distribution of the two populations under status review (GYE and NCDE) have expanded well beyond the recovery zone (RZ) originally identified in 1975 (USFWS, 2021).
The status review was initiated after Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all petitioned FWS for delisting the grizzly bear. Montana and Wyoming’s petitions were found to present substantial information indicating the grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) may qualify as their own distinct population segment and may warrant removal from the list of threatened and endangered wildlife.
Reactions to the preliminary grizzly bear decision were across the board:
Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Jamie Rappaport Clark, who now presides over Defenders of Wildlife, called the agency’s move “premature.
“… delisting would condemn these vitally important animals to the whim of current state politics in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho where they are openly hostile to predator species like grizzly bears,” Clark said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, meanwhile, branded the announcement “welcome news for Wyoming” in a press release. “I’m hopeful the decision to delist the grizzly is not impacted by out-of-state environmental extremists who don’t truly understand the science” (Koshmrl, 2023).
Will the GYE grizzly be delisted?
While it is impossible to predict the findings of the FWS as they begin their year-long review, we can get some clues by looking at the recovery criteria in the original 1975 ESA listing as well as the past willingness of the FWS to delist the grizzly in 2007 and 2017.
The GYE grizzly bear population size and geographic range
As of 2021, the GYE grizzly bear population was estimated at 1,069 individuals inside the demographic monitoring area (DMA; Figure 2; USFW, 2021). This is 2-3 times the estimated population size of about 136 – 300 grizzly bears at the time of listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Grizzly bears currently occupy about 98 percent of the suitable habitat in the DMA and their geographic range has been expanding year over year for the past decades. Currently, 30 percent of the GYE grizzly bears’ distribution occurs beyond the DMA. Over the years, as the habitat reaches carrying capacity or ‘fills up with bears,’ the population slowly expands its range outward. Grizzly bears have tripled the extent of their occupied range in the GYE since the early 1980’s (USFW, 2021). Check out this animation of GYE grizzly bear distribution from 1990 – 2020 (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem recovery zone (RZ) and demographic monitoring area (DMA) boundaries. The DMA surrounds and includes the recovery zone (USFWS, 2021).
Each year, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department publishes a report on grizzly bear management captures, relocations, and removals in Northwest Wyoming. Notice that the map of grizzly bear captures from the 2022 report (Figure 3) shows how conflict management for grizzlies is concentrated around the boundary (and even outside) the demographic monitoring area – another indication that the bear population and geographic range is slowly expanding.
Figure 3: Locations (n = 21) for grizzly bears captured in conflict management efforts in the Wyoming portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 2022 (WGFD, 2022)
What recovery criteria were established when the grizzly was first listed in 1975 and have those criteria been met?
Recovery Criterion 1: Maintain a minimum population size of 500 animals and at least 48 females with cubs-of-the-year within the DMA.
Progress Criterion 1: There were an estimated 1,069 bears and 84 unique females with cubs in the DMA in 2021. This criterion has been met.
Recovery Criterion 2: 16 of 18 Bear Management Units (BMUs) within the Recovery Zone must be occupied by females with young, with no 2 adjacent BMUs unoccupied, during a 6-year sum of observations.
Progress Criterion 2: 18 of 18 BMUs occupied by females with young in 2021 and during the most recent 6-year period of 2016–2021. This criterion has been met.
Recovery Criterion 3: Maintain the population within the DMA around the 2002–2014 model-averaged (n=674) by maintaining annual mortality limits for independent females, independent males, and dependent young. The 2021 total mortality limits were 9% for independent females and 20% for independent males, and the human-caused mortality limit was 9% for dependent young.
Progress Criterion 3: 2021 mortality rates were 5.7% for independent females, 8.1% for independent males, and 2.5% for independent young; all of which are under current recovery criteria thresholds. This criterion has been met.
Habitat-based recovery criteria: Incorporate thresholds for secure habitat (areas with no motorized access), livestock allotments, and developed sites.
Progress on Habitat-based recovery: All habitat-based recovery criteria have been met and maintained since 1998.
FWS shows willingness to delist GYE grizzlies in 2007 and 2017.
Likely due to the recovery criteria above being met (in many cases for years), the FWS has tried to delist the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies twice before. In 2007 the GYE grizzly was removed from the threatened species list only to be placed back on two years later as a federal district judge ruled that the Conservation Strategy was unenforceable and that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the impacts of the potential loss of whitebark pine nuts, an important grizzly bear food source (NPS, ND).
Again in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from the threatened species list. This lasted for about a year before a U.S. District Judge restored protections for the Yellowstone-area population in 2018 due to concerns about genetic diversity and what happens when population numbers are “recalibrated” by scientists changing the way they count bears (NPS, ND; Koshmrl, 2023).
How would the states manage the GYE grizzlies?
Opponents of delisting have been successful with litigation resulting in reinstating protections for GYE grizzlies in 2009 and 2018, mostly because the state management plans have been deemed inadequate (the states include Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho). This time around the states have been proactive in creating a pact in which they pledge to manage for a new ecosystem grizzly population goal of 932 bears if federal Endangered Species Act protections are lifted. The three states also agreed to ensure genetic diversity by moving two bears from outside the ecosystem into the area by 2025 if no natural migration occurs by then (Thuermer, 2021).
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been ready twice before to delist the GYE grizzlies, indicating that they might be ready again a year from now…
What can you do to influence this Federal process and to coexist with bears locally?
You can make public comment on the 90-day findings of FWS that will inform the status review. You will also be able to make public comments when the FWS makes the findings of their current review and recommendations for both populations public (in early 2024).
Locally there is a lot you can do to better coexist with bears and other wildlife:
Follow new county bear regulations that went into effect on July 1st, 2022 (The Town of Jackson is planning to implement similar regulations within a Bear Conflict Zone at the Town’s perimeter starting April 1, 2023):
- Trash containers and dumpsters anywhere in Teton County are required to be Bear-Resistant (IGBC approved, inside of the Town of Jackson). Get a Bear-Resistant trash can here.
- Feeding of wildlife is prohibited and bird feeders need to be unavailable to wildlife at all times of year.
- All attractants must be unavailable to wildlife (livestock feed, apiaries, chicken coops, compost, etc.). A resource for using electric fencing for controlling bears or other predators is here.
- Ornamental fruit bearing trees and shrubs, like crabapples, are prohibited. Existing ornamental, non-native fruit trees shall be managed by harvesting ripe and fallen fruit or fencing to prevent wildlife access. A local company, Farmstead Cider, is producing cider from local crab apples, and will assist community members by harvesting their crabapples.
The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has been working for over 40 years to help humans coexist with our wild neighbors. We will be watching this grizzly review closely and will keep you updated. Please share your opinions and ideas concerning grizzlies or other wildlife or conservation issue with Conservation Director Kevin Krasnow at Kevin@jhalliance.org
Thank you for your partnership in conserving the wildlife, wild places, and community character of Jackson Hole!
Koshmrl, M. (Feb 3, 2023). Grizzly delisting back on the table as feds reconsider state management. Wyofile. Accessed 2/7/23.
National Park Service. (ND). Grizzly Bears and the Endangered Species Act. Accessed on 2/7/23.
Thuermer, Angus, M. Jr. (2021). Wyo approves tri-state grizzly hunting pact in delisting push. Wyofile. Accessed 2/7/23.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. (June 1, 2021). 2021 Grizzly Bear Recovery Program Annual Report.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department. (2022). Grizzly Bear Management Captures, Relocations, and Removals in Northwest Wyoming.