What do grizzlies need? A future

The following was first published in the Jackson Hole News and Guide as a guest opinion by GYC Executive Director Caroline Byrd. 

In 1980, I started patrolling trails in the backcountry of the Shoshone National Forest. I will always remember chasing my packhorse down the North Fork of Crandall Creek in the middle of the night after he pulled his picket. Then I stopped in my tracks. I realized he had been spooked by a grizzly. I quickly retreated back to my camp and waited until morning to go after the horse, finally finding him seven miles down the trail.

A grizzly sow moves her cubs. (Photo Len Trout.)

A grizzly sow moves her cubs. (Photo Len Trout.)

Back then seeing a grizzly was rare. But today, the Shoshone has the greatest grizzly density of any place in the Lower 48.

Anybody who lives or recreates in Greater Yellowstone, and especially in Jackson, knows that we have witnessed increasing grizzly bear numbers in the past 40 years. This slow and steady expansion is prompting us to be more "bear aware" and to do smart things like carrying bear spray when we hike, bike and hunt. Grizzlies have made a remarkable comeback in the Greater Yellowstone. This is a success for bears and for the Endangered Species Act. And now it’s up to us to keep bears alive and to continue this success.

How do we do that? For the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, it means three things. First, reducing conflict — promoting and funding work to keep bears wild and people safe, like bear-proofing campgrounds and working with ranchers to keep bears and cows separate. Second, protecting the big, wild spaces where grizzlies live. Third, ensuring Yellowstone grizzlies can reconnect (after nearly a century of isolation) with bears from northwest Montana’s Northern Continental Divide population.

However, there is another crucial yardstick: making sure the management of grizzly bears in the future honors and continues the successful conservation legacy of the past. This critical factor hinges on the process that is currently underway to delist the Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species Act and transfer management to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Before I give you my take on the current state of the delisting process, let me first explain why I think it is so important to get this right. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is different. This is not Nebraska, Connecticut or California (no offense intended to those splendid states). This is the birthplace of the world’s first national park and of America’s commitment to conservation. It is one of the last places on the planet where wild nature still exists and is constantly on display. And the grizzly bear is the iconic symbol of Greater Yellowstone, the wild heart of North America.

We have carefully reviewed all of the state and federal proposals that will make up the management plan for a delisted Yellowstone grizzly bear. We have attended public hearings and numerous meetings of agency leaders where key provisions in this plan are being negotiated. Unfortunately, at the most recent meeting, we learned the states have no intention of honoring the past four decades of grizzly bear conservation. This became evident when representatives from Idaho, Wyoming and Montana proposed striking any mention of maintaining a stable population of grizzly bears from post-delisting management plans. This is categorically unacceptable.

The goal of maintaining a stable population of grizzlies has been an expectation from the outset. When in our nation’s history have we spent 40 years and more than $40 million to bring an endangered animal back from the brink of extinction only to intentionally drive the population downward?

If you care about bears, we urge you not to sit out this debate. We need to closely watch the process, hold the agencies accountable, and demand that, at a minimum, the states commit to managing for a stable population of grizzlies. We’re not asking for thousands of bears in Greater Yellowstone before delisting occurs. We realize most of the available grizzly habitat is occupied and that there will always be a need to manage bears, including removing individuals when they get into trouble with humans. But arbitrarily driving bear numbers down is not something the vast majority of the American public will support, and certainly not the many conservation groups deeply involved in this process.

I’m proud of how far we’ve come in my lifetime. Over the past 40 years, we have proven we can live with grizzly bears. Like many, I want my daughter to experience the thrill of being in grizzly country and watching bears in the wild. We don’t want our children to go back to a time when the ultimate symbol of wildness was rare, even in the wildest country. We can do better.