Editor's note: Since this story first published, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the comment period on its proposed plan to delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The comment period closes Oct. 7, 2016.
Each April, people around the world await the emergence of a 20-year-old grizzly from a muddy hole outside Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The bear, called “399” after the number on her radio collar, has a couple Facebook pages, an informal fan club and a lavishly illustrated biography, published last fall. Over the years, she has come out of her den with a total of 11 cubs, one of whom had five offspring of her own. About half of 399’s 16 descendants are dead—at least one illegally shot by a hunter, one killed after preying on sheep and cattle and two hit by vehicles (the causes of all the deaths are not known). And half of 399’s offspring are still alive, some wearing their own radio collars.
What has made 399 famous is that her life has played out in front of people. Along with other mama grizzlies at Grand Teton and neighboring Yellowstone, 399 chooses to feed in roadside meadows so her cubs are safe from male bears in the backcountry. She and her family have become a beloved attraction: Cars idle in “bear jams” as tourists watch the grizzlies dig up yampa tubers, biscuitroot and earthworms. Photographers maneuver to get close-up pictures. Rangers work to keep scores of visitors at least 100 yards away.
But the strategy 399 has followed to keep some of her cubs alive may soon put her own life at risk. Before the year is out, she and other grizzlies in what’s called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act and soon subject to trophy hunting outside the two national parks. Because 399 trusts humans and often spends time outside Grand Teton, she could be among the first bears shot, leaving orphaned cubs. Other roadside bears will most likely die, as will many grizzlies the public seldom sees, if states are allowed to open hunting seasons on an iconic population that not so long ago almost went extinct.
“The federal government is rushing to delist, to turn management over to the states,” says Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection at The HSUS. “And the states are just going to set up trophy hunting.”
Some 80,000 years ago—before there was a Grand Teton or a Yellowstone, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or even a U.S.—the ancestors of 399 and the other park grizzlies arrived in North America. In between ice ages, the bears crossed a land bridge from Asia, on their way to populate half the continent. Over a long, long time, and waves of migration, they multiplied to 50,000. When the first humans moved into the Great Plains and the West, the great bears ranged over the landscape.
In the 1800s, however, the bears nearly disappeared, as ranchers, farmers and government agents trapped and shot them. By the early 1930s, nearly all that was left of grizzlies in the lower 48 were stuffed mounts of rearing bears, huge trophy skins and the image of a now-extinct subspecies on the California state flag. Only a handful of small, isolated grizzly populations survived. One was in remote and rugged Yellowstone National Park. By the early 1970s, the bears there numbered as few as 136.
Then, in 1975, a landmark decision changed that population’s trajectory: Grizzlies in the lower 48 states were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Since that year, it’s been illegal to hunt them. People have also gotten smarter about living near bears, learning to dispose of their garbage, which can lure grizzlies into deadly conflicts with humans, in bear-proof containers. Sheep no longer graze on some of the public lands bordering the parks, and logging roads have been closed, giving bears more habitat. Very slowly—on average, female bears have only two cubs every three years—grizzly numbers have risen in the region in and around the parks. Under federal protection, bears have expanded out of Yellowstone into Grand Teton and beyond. Today, against all odds, visitors to the parks can see them, and 4 million to 5 million people a year go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton for the experience.
“Miraculous” is what scientist David Mattson, a researcher who has followed these grizzlies for four decades, calls the bears, their adaptation to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and their survival into the 21st century in the face of so many threats to their existence. Yet this population of grizzlies—bears the federal government spent 40 years and tens of millions of dollars nurturing back to life--could soon be subjected to trophy hunting outside the boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton. This spring the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed that the bears be removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act under a plan that would allow states to permit hunting. In March, the Wyoming Fish and Game Department issued a press release announcing its proposed management plan—a required part of the process—and stating that U.S. Fish & Wildlife has committed to finish delisting these grizzly bears by the end of the summer. In May, Montana announced a proposed plan, which includes allowing hunters to kill up to 10 bears a year in areas near Yellowstone park.
“Grizzly bears haven’t evolved to be hunted like game,” Wielgus says. “If they hunt them [around Yellowstone], I don’t see how the bear population could continue to stay at the level it is now. It would pretty much have to decline.”
A lot depends on the details of the state management plans, says Kerry Gunther, bear management biologist at Yellowstone, who has studied the grizzlies there for 33 years. As one example, if the states only allow trophy hunting in areas where grizzlies are already killed because of human-bear conflicts, it’s far less likely to reduce bear numbers by much or to remove more adult males and cause influxes of young males, he says. As another example, the locations where Montana allows hunting will be crucial in determining whether the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bears can expand north and link up with the thousand or so bears in the Northern Continental Divide on the Canadian border, increasing the populations’ genetic diversity.
To protect bears inside the 3,468-square-mile park, Yellowstone is asking the states not to allow hunting close to the perimeter. (Wielgus suggests a buffer equal to the diameter of a male bear’s 200-to-500-square-mile home range.) At risk is the unique opportunity that visitors now have to observe grizzlies, Gunther says. Genetically, hunting will leave behind bears who are more wary of humans.
“It could affect people’s ability to see bears in the park, and the bear viewing industry,” he says. Bear tourism generates as estimated $10 million a year for the park and several times that amount for the local economy.
Also at risk, of course, are the individual roadside bears, especially those such as 399 who live in the smaller of the two parks, Grand Teton, and so move more frequently into surrounding areas where hunts could take place.
The states may ban hunting bears with cubs, as the memorandum of understanding between the three states outlines (Montana’s plan would only allow hunting of solitary animals). They may also ban hunting during the part of the year when females, who emerge from dens later and go into hibernation earlier, are more likely to be killed (Montana’s plan would do this). But mother bears, upon which the survival of the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies depend, could still be taken. That includes 399, until now so adept at living with people.
Todd Wilkinson, an environmental journalist, has chronicled 399’s story in a book with photographer Tom Mangelsen, called Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399. He worries that the famous bear, whom trophy hunters are already threatening to kill, will die if hunting resumes. It would be a horrifying call to action for the growing constituency of Americans who see grizzlies not as animals to be feared or eliminated, but as a national treasure, Wilkinson says.
“[Bear] 399 is our transboundary lion,” he says, referring to Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer’s infamous killing of an animal lured out of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last July. “[Bear] 399 is our Cecil.”
In the coming months, a relatively small number of federal and state officials will decide the fate of the 700 or so bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: a window into a story of migration that’s 80 millenniums old. A marvelous remnant. Intelligent animals who have adapted to survive in ways found nowhere else on Earth.
Even if you lay aside concerns over whether the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has correctly interpreted the data it is withholding from the wider scientific community, or whether the fish and game departments of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho can be trusted to serve as faithful stewards of this little group of animals. Even if you ignore worries over whether the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears can make it through yet another challenge to their survival—whether they will be adequately monitored and continue to enjoy enough protections outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton that the population remains viable. And even if you shrug off the possibility that the magic that brings millions to the parks will evaporate as hunters target the very animals tourists have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to see. Still the question remains: Why hunt the bears?
Instead of letting a few trophy hunters kill bears, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service could wait and keep the grizzlies listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Or the agency could refuse to delist them unless states ban trophy hunting. Why take the chance of hunting the bears? Why not simply be grateful that we have the grizzlies at all, that they were saved, not only for the residents of Wyoming, and Montana and Idaho, but for all Americans, for people everywhere? Why not appreciate the wonder that in this time when so much is being lost, these bears improbably survive?