In 1975 Yellowstone National Park boasted a mere 136 grizzly bears; a population so small it was deemed they must be put onto the Endangered Species Act to protect them. Flash forward 40 years and the population now stands at a much healthier 700 individuals, which is apparently enough to get them removed from the Endangered Species Act. Whilst some are hailing this a conservation success story, many others are crying out that this is simply too soon and other factors are at play here.
To fully understand the story of the grizzly bear you need to travel back to around 1500. Around this time the bears would have roamed freely between Alaska and Mexico and numbered approximately 50,000. However the arrival of Europeans in the New World, brought with it persecution for grizzly bears as they were shot, trapped and poisoned into near extinction. In 2016 the population is a shadow of its former self as there are believed to only be 1,500 bears living in isolated populations within the lower 48 states.
The de-listing of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears has been a hot topic in recent years. They in fact had their protections removed and given to the states they inhabited in 2007 until suing environmental groups had that decision revoked.
Not a lot has changed in environmentalists eyes between then and now, as many are furiously campaigning to prevent the bears from losing their protection. They argue that removing protections has a variety of cons to it regardless of the argument that 700 individuals is not a viable population.
Perhaps most importantly is the protection grizzly bears bring with them as an umbrella species. Everything within the grizzly bears range benefits from their protections as humans are preventing from logging and other harmful activities in the area. That means species like wolverines (not listed under the act but in decline) as well as uncharismatic species of amphibian, bird and invertebrates who desperately need conservation action to protect them but don’t gain nearly enough attention as grizzly bears.
Of course the flipside of that argument is obviously, many activities harmful to the habitat which are forbidden are also big economic winners. Many campaigners claim there is political pressure for the protected lands to be opened up to certain activities for the economic benefits.
The problem with certain activities however is they can be economically beneficial for a short time before the environment becomes too damaged to sustain them. However tourism has already proven to be one of Wyomings main income generators.
A 2014 study showed tourists are happier to pay more to enter Yellowstone if there is the opportunity to see a bear along the road. With the loss of a healthy population of bears, the park could stand to lose $10 million dollars every year in tourism.
Of course that income could be generated elsewhere argue some. Many assert that people would be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot grizzly bears. Wyoming also believes that licences sold to trophy hunters would help reimburse farmers who had lost stock to the bears. This could be a huge step back for conservation where the idea of shooting a species to conserve is being increasingly considered draconian. The Cecil the Lion backlash is still having impacts so it’s hard to consider trophy hunting as a viable argument in the current climate.
Perhaps what should actually be considered is the population itself. Is 700 a viable number? It certainly is a large increase and should be hailed as a success story. Some think that the idea of delisting grizzly bears is all about the win; the Endangered Species Act needs success stories to show it works. Delisting such a large, charismatic animal is sure to grab headlines and help put pay to doubters.
History as shown however that when there is doubt, you can’t be too careful. Gray wolves were delisted in 2012, but quickly found themselves back on the list as Wyoming allowed them to be shot on sight.
Even if Wyoming presented a different attitude towards grizzly bears, it might not be enough to prevent their populations from dwindling. Scientists have found that the four main foods linked to the healthy resurgence of bears are actually in decline; partly due to climate change. Without viable food sources it is only a matter of time before the population starts to dwindle again, especially if they are robbed of their legal protections.
Moreover, the Yellowstone population are genetically isolated. Linking them to the only other population in the North is the only sustainable method to prevent inbreeding. It seems that this is the course of action that should actually be taken, rather than prematurely delisting the bears.
One thing is certain however; the attitudes presented towards grizzly bears have substantially switched since 1975. Now the majority of people want to protect them and understand the crucial role they play in the ecosystem. With that knowledge it is hoped that even if the bears are delisted it will not cause their population to crash once again.
Featured Image: Brutus the Bear by Grayson Schaffer
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