Chronicle column: Can we live with grizzlies?

The following was first published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as a guest opinion by GYC Executive Director Caroline Byrd. 

Grizzly bears are at a crossroads as the government proposes lifting their protected status under the Endangered Species Act. The story in the news is the argument between those who insist the grizzly should never be “delisted” and those who believe that bears should have been delisted years ago. That we are having this discussion is a significant milestone in the story of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear. The plans put in place through this process will be the road maps for the bear’s future. But arguing whether we should or shouldn’t delist grizzly bears is diverting the attention from what will really make a difference moving forward. The questions we need to ask are, will the crucial details in the proposed delisting plan continue the trajectory of success? And even more importantly, can we keep bears alive? 

Consider for a moment that 61 grizzly bears died due to run-ins with humans in 2015. That’s a sad record high number. These bears were killed while they’re still protected under the Endangered Species Act, for things like getting into human food and garbage that wasn’t stored securely or for killing livestock. A significant number also died during surprise encounters with hunters. These avoidable incidents are killing too many bears. In this context, any talk of hunting grizzlies – adding another way for bears to die – is inappropriate. 

At the same time, we’re taking a hard look at how the states foresee managing grizzly bears if they’re delisted. We were hoping to see common-sense plans that shore up the steady, stable bear numbers we’ve seen over the past 10 years. But so far the proposed plans are troubling. If you look at the numbers, a disturbing picture emerges: the grizzly bear population is set up to stair-step downwards, with the states intentionally managing for a decline. This will turn a remarkable 40-year recovery process and $40 million investment into a failure. These plans have parted ways from the best-available science and are unlikely to be cheered by most Montanans, never mind the wider American public that overwhelmingly supports grizzly bear conservation. 

Moreover, the states, including Montana, are forging ahead with regulations for grizzly bear hunting before bears are even close to being delisted. This is baffling. Montana must take a step back and develop a protective plan that ensures at least a stable population and avoids senseless killing of bears. The public comment period is open through June 17. If you care about grizzlies, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission needs to hear from you. 

Above all, we need to limit conflicts that are killing too many bears. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and our partners are working on the front lines to keep people safe and bears wild. We’re outfitting every one of the Forest Service campgrounds in Greater Yellowstone with bear-safe bins and food storage containers. We’re helping landowners pay for electric fence that keeps bears away from garbage and chicken coops. We’re working with livestock producers on creative ways to keep their cows and sheep safe in grizzly country. When we work together, we can avoid most conflicts with grizzly bears.  

We’re not against delisting on principle. In fact, we would love to celebrate the successful recovery of the grizzly bear. But instead of celebrating this remarkable Endangered Species Act success story, we’re seeing a rushed process and pressure from the states to move from a stable to a declining population of grizzly bears. The American public is watching and they won’t buy into fewer Yellowstone grizzlies, whether caused by too many avoidable bear deaths now or by a flawed delisting process and bad state management plans later.

Photo Credit: Cindy Goeddel