Grizzly Bears in the American West – A Story in Conservation

After a long hibernation fighting the biting cold, a 24-year old, 160kg (350lb) Grizzly Bear alights from her set into the light of spring. She is no ordinary Grizzly but 399, so called because of the research number assigned to her by the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Study Team. And 399 is not alone; as she emerges from winter, her fine, golden-brown fur flowing in the early morning wind, she is accompanied by four tiny copies of herself. 

While the human world is recalibrating after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 399’s bearing of four young cubs give some sense of constancy, at least in the animal kingdom, generating a ripple of response among locked-down humans who have been following her progress for years.

“She still lives!” declared American wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen, not alone among his peers in expressing euphoric elation, because 399 is a living embodiment of a miracle that continues to reshape the reputation of Grizzly Bears in the American West.  

399’s extraordinary longevity is a testament to the enduring legacy of American Grizzly Bear conservation policy in the United States, which can largely be traced back to the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

At the time of passing, the United States Supreme Court praised the Act, calling it “the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation.” Two years after the Act entered the statute books, Grizzlies in the contiguous United States (also known as the “Lower 48”) were added to the threatened category.

The passage of this Act paved the way for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee to be formed in 1983, which was tasked to help coordinate conservation efforts in the United States across local, state, tribal, and federal jurisdictions. Where often in practice organisations and bodies work at crossed purposes, generating self-harm in conservation projects, implicit in the Interagency was a cross-collaborative ethos across stakeholders within the context of conservation, co-opting all interested parties into collective, agreed methodologies to help protect American Grizzlies.

As a result, in 1991, regulated Grizzly hunting ceased in the Lower 48, although this reality in turn served to expose a tension between state and federal governments in the nation. Ever since the birth of the United States, the tension between these two levels of government have dominated the American political landscape.

The tension is a timeless, recurring issue; an issue to which the Endangered Species Act was not immune. A notable example of this conflict within the context of Grizzly Bears was in the state of Montana, a state that permitted a limited number of bear hunts in order to combat aggressive bear-human interactions. The logic of the Montana authorities was to instill “a healthy fear of humans” into the minds of the local Grizzly population.

However, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court in the city of Missoula struck the hunts down days before they started, contending that the Endangered Species Act strictly allows the hunting of animals under the threatened category only in extreme circumstances. Not everyone was happy, but protection for the Grizzlies continued uninterrupted.  

Following the ending of Grizzly Bear hunting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed a groundbreaking revision of the 1982 Grizzly Bear Recovery Act on September 10, 1993.

“The grizzly bear is a symbolic and living embodiment of wild nature uncontrolled by man,” wrote famed conservationist Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the document, “Entering into Grizzly country represents a unique opportunity – to be part of an ecosystem in which man is not necessarily the dominant species.” It is within this historical and conservation context that 399 was born, three years later, in the winter of 1996.

“Where the Grizzly can walk, the earth is healthy and whole,” stated Lynne Seus, the Co-Founder of Vital Ground, a land trust that champions and advocates for the conservation of American Grizzlies. It is inherent from Seus’ statement that this species in the greater Yellowstone area, including 399, are essential pieces to the ecological puzzle that defines the natural world of the American West. Their contribution to the stabilizing of the local ecological system – as is often the case with apex predators – is paramount. 

Perhaps the most famous recent case study which points to this phenomenon is the wolf in Yellowstone. When wolves were hunted out from Yellowstone in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their removal resulted in booming populations of elk, who then decimated the surrounding vegetation and damaged the local supply of aspen trees. However, once wolves were reintroduced, the elk population was trimmed, and the aspens – among many other species of endemic plant – regained lost territory. 

While a number of high-profile politicians are currently looking to revoke the Grizzly Bear protections, conservationists, indigenous groups, and study centers continue to advocate for the protections of Grizzly Bears at a local and national level in the United States. Although the debate is unlikely to cease in the foreseeable future, the nation-wide protection offered by the Endangered Species Act continues to be a blanket protection for the Grizzly, and thus naturally by extension, for its ecosystems. 

“There can be no greater issue,” President Theodore Roosevelt famously proclaimed, “than that of conservation in this country.” It is reasonable to concur that the longevity of 399 was a direct result of federal protections granted to American Grizzlies, and as such, perhaps President Roosevelt’s historic voice may in fact not just be an echo from the past, but a call to the future of conservation in the American West.

Beto Wetter For The Yucatan Times
Wildlife

Beto Wetter lives in California from where he writes environmental features for wide-ranging online and print media.



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