Grizzly bears struck fear into the hearts of human beings long before Leonardo DiCaprio crawled and grunted his way to his first Oscar in The Revenant.
DiCaprio’s role was based on the true story of mountain man Hugh Glass, who in 1823 was torn to shreds by a bear in a brushy river bottom in South Dakota. The movie transposes the bloody encounter to the mountains, presumably for the enhanced scenery. South Dakota can be a bit monotonous.
Historically, the grizzly ranged from Alaska to Mexico and from the Great Plains to California. Today they remain on just two percent of their historic range in the lower 48, primarily in Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park and their surrounding ecosystems.
In 1975, the bears were listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, giving them special protections that included no hunting. Now, after 42 years, the Yellowstone bears have been delisted, initiating lawsuits against the feds from opponents including several Indian tribes.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made the delisting announcement on June 22, citing the “rebounded” population of bears in Yellowstone from 136 to 700. Federal protections are removed and management of the bears returns to the states and tribes.
“As a kid who grew up in Montana, I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” Zinke said in a statement.
Chris Servheen, who was the nation’s first grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1981 to 2016, calls grizzlies “very special.”
“They’re iconic wilderness animals,” Servheen said. “They’re large, and can be ferocious and dangerous. Most of the time they’re not.”
When Servheen was given responsibility for the big bear’s recovery there were thought to be only about 800 to 1,000 bears left in the lower 48, with about 136 of those in the Greater Yellowstone area.
Today, the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem has about 700 bears, and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem in Montana, including Glacier National Park, is thought to have about 1,000 bears. Very small populations may exist in isolated wilderness areas in Idaho, Washington’s Cascade Mountains and other parts of Montana.
Servheen agrees with Zenke’s decision to delist the bears.
“The objective of the Endangered Species Act is to get listed species to the point protection is no longer needed,” Servheen said. “Yellowstone bears are at that point.”
Others disagree, including the Crow Indian Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Piikani Nation, the Crazy Dog Society, Hopi Nation Bear Clan, Northern Arapaho Elders Society, and nine individual Native Americans who filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana, asking for a permanent injunction against the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.
The lawsuit calls the decision “premature” and alleges that Indian tribes, including the plaintiffs, were left out of the decision-making process.
“Without the protections afforded to species listed on the threatened species list, states will classify (Greater Yellowstone ecosystem) grizzly bears as game animals, and will be free to set hunting seasons and issue hunting permits for the (Greater Yellowstone ecosystem) grizzly bear population … prior to the bears’ sustainable recovery throughout its traditional habitat range, including traditional tribal lands,” the lawsuit states.
Unlike the tribes, who could sue immediately, Matt Bishop, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena, Montana, had to give the Fish and Wildlife Service 60 days notice on June 30 that he intends to sue.
“We’re really disappointed in the decision, and think the delisting is premature,” Bishop said. “I think grizzly bears are doing well in Yellowstone and seeing improvements, but we’re still talking about an isolated population not connected to other bears in the lower 48.”
Bishop is also convinced the public will have a hard time stomaching trophy hunting of grizzly bears.
“Shooting a bear to put it on the wall is a lot different than hunting an elk or deer,” Bishop said. “I don’t think that’s going to play well.”