Everyone loves a good comeback story. The classic tale of the little guy fighting his way back against impossible odds to win the day. There are hundreds of blockbuster movies out there with that very premise. Right now, in the American West, there is a comeback story going on that would make a doozy of a Hollywood movie. Only instead of tiny Samwise Gamgee fighting his way onto Notre Dame’s football team, the “little guy” in this case is an 800-pound super predator—the grizzly bear.
Having come back from the brink of extinction, the grizzly is once again living well in the mountains of the west. Their populations have risen so far above expectations, a question has arisen: Should grizzly bears in the lower 48 be taken off the endangered species list and should we be allowed to hunt them again?
Ever since Lewis and Clark made their hard-fought trip to the Pacific and returned with tales of “tremendous bears that were extremely hard to kill,” the grizzly had been in trouble. Between 1800 and 1975, the number of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states dropped to a mere one percent of their original population. Mostly this was due to a combination of their habitat being destroyed and developed by the westward expansion of civilization, along with unregulated hunting and commercial trapping.
Grizzlies scared people. They were seen as a threat and so they were killed. Had this trend continued, the great bears would have become extinct. But a hard line was drawn by U.S Fish and Wildlife. In 1975, with fewer than 1,000 grizzlies living in the continental United States, U.S Fish and Wildlife put grizzlies on the “threatened” species list. This ended the unregulated slaughter of the species. Without being constantly hunted and trapped, and with their habitat being better maintained, grizzlies then did something unexpected—they began to bounce back.
To see how well grizzly bears could recover when left on their own, the U.S. government employed a group of researchers to conduct a study on ecosystems that had enough habitat to accommodate a growing number of bears. Using Yellowstone National Park as a focal point, researchers designated a 30,000-square-mile region around the park—which included parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—as a “recovery range.” The study of grizzly recovery proved enormously successful in the area, with the population rising from fewer than 150 animals to around 700 in just a few years.
With the success of the program, similar studies were undertaken in other areas with similar results. In northern Montana along the Continental Divide, where both Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness are located, grizzly numbers shot up almost 200 percent. More than 1,000 bears now populate the area. Later, in a general study, scientists found that bear populations had increased all the way through Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The Fish and Wildlife service realized that their protection of the animals had worked, and the grizzly was back in a big way.
The rebounding grizzly population quickly discovered that its former wilderness home was surrounded by humanity. Livestock ranches and a rise in recreational outdoor pursuits brought back an age-old problem: Bears and humans began to clash. Grizzlies being both naturally curious and opportunistic feeders began to take advantage of a newfound resource, and bear attacks on livestock soon became a common occurrence, especially on ranches in the greater Yellowstone area.
Even more vexing: Attacks on humans began to rise. Between 1980 and 2002, there was an average of one grizzly attack on humans per year. In 2003, that number rose to two per year. In 2005 there were more than six grizzly attacks on humans. This rise in bear/human interactions fuels a fire already sparked by big-game hunters who have come to believe the grizzly bear’s high numbers make it ineligible for threatened status, and that its population should be controlled by selective harvest.
In 2017, U.S Fish and Wildlife did de-list the Yellowstone grizzly bear populations from the endangered species list. This group of animals was chosen because of their proximity to humans and ranches in the area. They transferred the bears’ management to the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. All the states planned to open a limited grizzly hunting season, yet this was short-lived. Only a year later, due to massive protests from environmental groups, grizzly bears were put back on the endangered species list and the planned hunts in Wyoming and Idaho were cancelled. It seems the world isn’t ready for the bears to be hunted.
These same conservation groups, along with U.S Fish and Wildlife, now focus on reducing conflicts with humans and grizzlies. Inevitably, though, as the bear population continues to grow, the demand for management of their numbers will resurface and the debate will rage on. Until then, we can all enjoy the grizzly bears’ comeback story, feeling privileged to live at a time when these awesome animals still roam.