It seems like everybody loves grizzly bears these days. They're one of the most recognizable emblems of Montana's rugged western culture. Just look at the shops in Missoula: Grizzly Grocery, Grizzly Hackle, Grizzly Liquor. The bear has been the University of Montana's mascot for over a century. UM even toted grizzly cubs to sports games up until the 1960s; now a person in a grizzly costume, the crowd-pleasing, back-flipping Monte, has replaced them.
Yet perceptions of the bears as ferocious, carnivorous beasts persist in parts of rural Montana, even though the idea of the grizzly as a man-eater is a gross exaggeration. It was western settlers who embraced that notion, followed by ranchers, hunters, and poachers, who used it to justify destroying the species. Some estimate that there were as many as 100,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 states in the early 19th century. Now, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, fewer than 1,500 remain.
That grizzlies are not already extinct is due in part to the change in conservation values that came about in the 1970s. In 1975, under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government listed the bear as threatened. Since 1983, a coalition of federal and state agencies, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, has overseen recovery efforts. The bears are now identified by five recovery zones—the Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks, the Selway-Bitterroot, and the North Cascades. One of them, the Northern Continental Divide, may be approaching the day when Endangered Species Act protections are no longer needed. And that has biologists drafting future management plans for the big bears even as some conservation groups and others fret about delisting them.
Grizzlies are "a success story in the making right now," says Jonathan Proctor, Rocky Mountain Region representative for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. "The population is expanding, protections are working, more and more people who live around the NCDE area are taking great steps to coexist with grizzlies...Everyone wants the grizzlies to recover to the point where delisting can occur. Obviously we do. The question is, is it at that point or not?"
Their numbers in the NCDE have grown by an estimated 3 percent a year for the last 10 years. There are now more than 900 grizzlies roaming Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and adjoining lands. Just over half appear to be females, biologists say.
That success has come about primarily because rural Montanans no longer fear the bears as they once did, says Chuck Jonkel, one of the state's most recognized bear experts and the co-founder of the Great Bear Foundation. Jonkel, white-haired and grizzled, has spent decades researching grizzlies along the Rocky Mountain Front. He still remembers when residents in small towns like Choteau would host anti-grizzly parades. Ranchers shot bears on sight. People spread stories about man-eaters. A grizzly anywhere near town was rare and unwelcome. Jonkel recalls the widely publicized Night of the Grizzlies, an incident from August 1967 in which two young women were killed by grizzlies on the same night in Glacier National Park, leaving Montanans baying for grizzly blood. "Two young, pretty girls in the same night couldn't possibly happen," he says. "Well, it did. Million-to-one that it would, but that really hurt the bear." Their numbers were already alarmingly low, he says. "Then that happened, and there was a lot of people just shooting grizzlies when they were hunting, thinking 'Night of the Grizzlies,' 'Night of the Grizzlies,' 'Night of the Grizzlies.'"
Decades passed before many visitors felt safe in Glacier Park. Gradually, discussions about safe co-habitation and the importance of conservation began to stick and fear dissipated, replaced by a recognition that bears have an important role in the landscape. Now, "people say, 'Hey, we saw a grizzly bear walk through our yard,' and they're amazed and pleased," Jonkel says. "It used to be, 'Come and kill that goddamn bear. It's going to eat my kid.'"
And now the bears are moving out of the mountains.
When the first grizzlies were spotted returning to the plains near Choteau, Browning, and Augusta, Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, figured it would take them 10 years to reach the Missouri River breaks, near Great Falls. Just a few years later, in 2009, a grizzly wandered 177 miles from the mountains, winding up north of Great Falls near Loma. There were more grizzly sightings on the plains in 2010, which Jonkel sees as proof that not only are people learning to live with big bears but also that grizzlies are learning to live with humans. "It's kind of like Montana ranchers," he says. "They see a shiny car two miles away and the dust cloud's a little too big. Well, 'I don't like that guy. The car's too shiny, the car's moving too fast.' Bears are the same way. They're as touchy as Montana ranchers."
In the Blackfoot Valley, which is also in the NCDE, the bears might still be feeling touchy. On Sunday, May 15, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks opened a game range in the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area to hundreds of people hoping to find shed antlers. Within an hour, a Missoula man scared up a grizzly sow with two cubs. According to the man's story, corroborated by eyewitnesses, the bear charged to within eight yards of him before he fired at it with his sidearm and then fled. The sow pursued him another five yards. The man fired a second shot and downed the bear, then called FWP, which determined the grizzly was fatally injured and euthanized her. The cubs were taken to the state's wildlife rehab facility, in Helena, and will probably be sent to a zoo. "It's always a shame to lose a breeding-age female," says FWP biologist Jay Kolbe. "That's the most critical population segment and it's one we monitor for recovery...But she's one of many in the central Blackfoot."
Kolbe notes the man was not carrying bear spray.
As the grizzly population in the NCDE grows, expanding into historic grizzly habitat like the Blackfoot Valley, the upper Flathead Valley, and the Rocky Mountain Front, many are wondering when the bears will lose the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The big bruins seem ready, biologists say. But are people? And if the recent wolf wars are any guide, would that really be what's best for the bears?
The wolf precedent
In 1973, two years before grizzlies were declared threatened, the federal government listed gray wolves in the West as an endangered species. Despised by ranchers, feared as predators, the wolves had been persecuted alongside grizzlies for a century. They were trapped, hunted, and poisoned to the verge of extinction.
The ESA allocated millions of dollars toward preservation of the wolves, but that didn't stop poachers from slaughtering hundreds over subsequent decades. Restoration efforts ramped up in the 1990s, when 66 gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park as an experimental population. Others were reintroduced in central Idaho, and more wolves drifted south from Canada. Today it's estimated there are about 1,500 gray wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, making this the fastest recovery in the history of the ESA, some experts say.
The wolves were delisted in Montana and Idaho in 2008. Responsibility for managing them fell to the states, at a time when the wolves' numbers were growing by about 20 percent a year. And then the situation fell apart. In 2009, Idaho and Montana approved wolf hunts. That same year, 14 conservation groups sued to reinstate the wolves' endangered status, questioning the number of wolves necessary to declare the population recovered and the federal government's ability to delist wolves in some states and not others.
Last fall Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy, in Missoula, ruled in favor of the environmentalists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers parts of the Endangered Species Act, appealed Molloy's decision. The ensuing controversy and its outcome were ugly in many ways and ultimately could damage the wolves—leaving advocates for grizzlies unsure what the next steps for the bears ought to be.
The opposition to delisting gray wolves fractured earlier this year, in the midst of the appeal. Ten of the 14 groups tried to reach a settlement with the government. Molloy shot them down. Then, last month, Sen. Jon Tester attached a rider delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho to the congressional budget compromise.
Biologists winced at a species being delisted by political maneuvering. Montana, meanwhile, has proposed a hunting quota of 220 wolves for this fall, while several environmental groups are already challenging the constitutionality of Tester's wolf rider.
Chuck Jonkel's son, Jamie Jonkel, is carrying on the family business: He's an FWP bear biologist. The younger Jonkel says he doesn't have to look any farther than the Blackfoot Valley to see how the wolf debate is shaping discussions about the future of grizzlies. He's spent years building close relationships with landowners there in the hopes of reducing conflicts with bears. Ranchers were skeptical at first, he says, but they gradually became more open to measures such as bear-proof garbage cans and electric fences. They've shown that they're willing to help the bears coexist with people, but the controversy around wolves now gives them pause. "A lot of them were saying, 'Well Jamie, here we're doing all this good stuff to recover the grizzlies on the south end. I don't like living with them, but I'm willing to let them use some of my ranchland. I'm doing this because I'm hoping to see them get delisted someday.' They have this dream of someday being able to draw a grizzly bear tag so they can go hunting for a big male."
Jonkel's fears of eroding support for grizzlies on the Blackfoot have already been realized elsewhere. Down in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, bear reintroduction took a turn for the worse. Repeated court involvement in wolf recovery left some folks doubting the viability of the Endangered Species Act, says Servheen, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. It's one thing for state, tribal, and federal agencies to differentiate between wolves and bears and their respective challenges, he says, but their partners, landowners, don't necessarily make those distinctions; lately, many don't believe that the goal of a delisted population of big predators can ever be met. "The wolf issue has really contaminated our ability to put bears into the Selway-Bitterroot," Servheen says.
"The idea that wolves were put in there and now are recovered and doing fine, but the courts and the environmental groups continue to interfere with delisting those wolves, that just made people say, 'You know, we're not going to deal with bears. We're not going to even think about bears, because look what happened with wolves.'"
Servheen's fear that the wolf debate has even eroded public support for the ESA seems justified. The ESA has become a political flashpoint. Republicans in the Montana Legislature this year tried to nullify the act. Additional actions in Congress over the past four months—including a bill proposed by Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg to delist all wolf species nationwide—have threatened to politically weaken the ESA.
Meanwhile, others decry its politicization. "The ESA would be meaningless if we can just conveniently delist species based on politics instead of science," says Proctor, of Defenders of Wildlife. "We do need success stories—and we have success stories. The fact that most species that are on the endangered species list are still on earth is a success story. Species have been delisted. But if we start politically delisting species and then they go down the tubes or become extinct as a result of using politics instead of science, that's not a success story. That closes the door on potential success stories in the future."
'They wander just about anywhere'
The antagonists in the wolf wars are still working together on grizzlies. In Missoula, Defenders of Wildlife has circulated hundreds of leaflets about safe co-habitation with bears. They've installed bear-proof food storage lockers at state campsites such as Salmon Lake and the Blackfoot Valley's Russell Gates. And they've funded successful electric fence initiatives for livestock pastures and chicken coops throughout western Montana. Proctor estimates his organization has spent $435,000 on such bear projects since 1999.
"Defenders works incredibly well with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on grizzly bear conservation," Proctor says. "Not as well on the wolf issue. It has hurt our relationship, but the on-the-ground state and tribal bear managers around the NCDE are incredible. They do such a great job, they're so dedicated, and we continue to work with them as much as possible."
The Blackfoot Challenge has augmented Jamie Jonkel's efforts in FWP's Region 2. They spearhead a carcass pick-up program for Blackfoot Valley ranchers each spring to eliminate bear attractants. They organize phone trees to spread word of grizzly activity. The group's wildlife committee has led workshops, field demonstrations, and public meetings to ensure that bears and humans can coexist.
Defenders also has turned its attention to the Mission Valley, where grizzlies weren't seen much a decade ago. Residents once recognized grizzlies more as an animal that kept to the mountains, well away from crops, garbage cans, and livestock. Conflicts were few. Coexisting with the hulking omnivores was hardly a pressing concern. Now, environmentalists and government researchers are having trouble keeping up.
Stacy Courville, a tribal wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says he didn't need much equipment to track bear activity before 2005, when the tribe first started radio-collaring bears. Now grizzlies wander county roads by night, feast on fruit trees and chickens, and bed down on the valley floor. Courville's work requires on-site DNA collection and digital weight measurements. "Everything we needed to work bears used to fit in those two packs," he says, pointing into the back of his equipment-choked, government-issue rig. "Now it fits in the back of the truck."
His colleague Shannon Clairmont finishes the thought: "And in the front of the truck, and in the truck."
Courville is a heavyset man with a goatee who bears some resemblance to the animals he works with. On a recent spring day, he and Clairmont set up a remote wildlife camera to capture images of a nearby grizzly sow and her cubs. They hike along an irrigation canal, the Mission Range looming in the background.
"She's over in that brush," Clairmont says. "They bed down during the day, but at night, they wander just about anywhere."
Courville discovers a bear trail little more than a stone's throw from a dairy farm. It looks like a heavy truck drove through the damp grass on one wheel. Bear tracks litter the mud. From where Courville sets up the camera, you can see houses, barns and pastures. So can the bears.
"We've got more bears than Yellowstone," Courville says of the NCDE. (Yellowstone has just around 600 bears; the NCDE has more than 900.) "Granted, a third of them are in Glacier, but we've got a lot of bears."
Courville points west across the valley to what he calls the Moiese Hills. Last year, he says, a sow and her two cubs killed more than 20 dairy cows on a single farm there. CSKT tried everything, but never managed to catch her. Even culvert traps failed: The sow would simply keep her back leg out, grab the bait, and lift the trap door. "Free food," Clairmont says.
Courville says the sow eventually left the area when the tribe's traps became a nuisance.
On May 14, a farmer near Ronan said a two-year-old grizzly raided his chicken coop early in the morning, then returned to his property later that day. So he killed it. Wildlife officials with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said they're looking into what happened.
"Up on the Flathead and all around western Montana, more and more people are raising chickens," says Proctor, from Defenders of Wildlife. "And they're becoming a major issue for grizzly bear security because grizzlies are learning that chickens are an easy meal. They're killing hundreds of chickens, particularly on the Flathead. Unfortunately, grizzlies are being killed because of chickens."
Delisting probably won't change the reactions to such conflicts. While the ESA requires the involvement of the Fish and Wildlife Service in all grizzly deaths, those operations are typically left to the state and tribes if they don't involve a clear case of illegal activity, so local managers are already dealing with the brunt of them.
As long as the bears aren't conflicting with humans, "we leave them there and start working with the folks on the landscape," Jamie Jonkel says. "Already I'm working with people in the Avon area, the Elliston area, the Deer Lodge area, the Georgetown Lake area, the Rock Creek area—and it's because the grizzlies are already showing up there...as long as we can keep ahead of the eight ball and build the social acceptance of these bears, everything will work out fine."
All or none
Grizzlies have already felt the heat of courtroom battles and debated scientific findings. The Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the endangered species list in 2007, after it neared 600 bears. As with wolves, the decision quickly wound up in federal district court in Missoula. Environmental groups including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Alliance for the Wild Rockies argued several points. For starters, they said, a conservation strategy 25 years in the making had failed to account for the impacts of climate change on white bark pine in Yellowstone National Park—a staple food source for those bears. More importantly for grizzlies throughout the West, environmentalists contend that delisting a distinct population segment violates the conditions of the ESA. To them, it's delist all or delist none.
"Our position has always been, they were listed as one population," says Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Michael Garrity. "They weren't listed as a Yellowstone population, a Northern Continental population, a Kootenai population. And we don't think they should delist it until that entire population is recovered."
Judge Molloy ruled in favor of the environmental groups. The case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Chuck Jonkel, the bear expert, also says that removal of ESA protections would be a terrible mistake, in Yellowstone or for any other population that might appear to have recovered. Until he sees a guarantee that the state will maintain adequate funding for bear management, he says, he won't be changing his mind. The population of the U.S., he contends, doesn't really care about "a million here and a million there for bears and wolves. It's no hurt to them. It would be a huge amount of hurt to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming...We can't afford the wolf and the grizzly bear...Where's the money going to come from at the state level?"
The state has yet to discuss a public hunt for grizzlies in the NCDE, with the revenue that could bring. The pieces of the delisting puzzle are still falling into place, with agencies looking to the Yellowstone conservation strategy as a model for post-delisting management in the NCDE. But Jonkel doubts the money the state could get from grizzly hunting license sales could float adequate management funding for the species. And he's far from alone in questioning how close Montana is to seeing a fully recovered, delisted grizzly population.
"It's premature," says conservationist and author Rick Bass. "I am concerned that we're not even asking the right questions. One political interest is in such haste to delist that every piece of information, every piece of data, looks to them like part of the answer they already know they want rather than being used the way good science can be used, which is to lead scientists to ask 20 more questions." Simply counting bears "is so 20th century," Bass says. "I have a really bad feeling that we're relying on ancient, outdated, simplistic, so-called science in this day and age, and with a species of such utter importance as the grizzly."
Servheen, of Fish and Wildlife, finds the skepticism about delisting in Yellowstone and elsewhere frustrating. Many environmental groups have helped out with numerous on-the-ground initiatives, he says, including The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife. Although Defenders opposed wolf delisting, they supported the removal of Yellowstone grizzlies from the ESA. But other groups simply want to cast stones, Servheen says. It's the old adage that it's easier to kick down a barn than it is to build one. "I don't even know who those people are," he continues. "I never see them. They never come to meetings, they're never involved in our recovery activities. But they can take a lawsuit to a judge in Missoula and stop 25 years of conservation efforts in the Yellowstone ecosystem."
State and federal agencies, landowners, and environmentalists have built what Servheen calls a "gold-plated" post-delisting management plan for Yellowstone grizzlies. Implementation would cost roughly $3.4 million per year. Ten percent of the bear population would be monitored with radio collars. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee secured restrictions on site development, livestock allotments, and road density for 85 percent of the grizzly habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. "We can't make everyone in the Yellowstone ecosystem move out, and we can't treat everywhere that grizzly bears are like it's Yellowstone National Park," he says. "That's what some of these people want. There's got to be a graded level of management...that's what we put in place. That's what the public will accept."
Yet the legal wrangling over delisting the Yellowstone population has strained the relationships that made the conservation strategy possible. Servheen is struggling to hold the show together in the park. Other agencies seem primed to walk away from the effort, having invested much and gained nothing. If the federal government fails in the appeals process, Servheen says, "the cooperative efforts to recovery grizzly bears will fall apart."
Just one bear
The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwestern Montana and northern Idaho contains one of the smallest and most vulnerable grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies. Estimates in the last decade place the total number of bears around 35. Unlike Yellowstone and the NCDE, the grizzly recovery zone here doesn't have a national park at its core. The mountains are rich in silver and copper deposits. Several mining companies, including Revett Minerals and Montanore, have been struggling for years to get permits to drill under the wilderness. Resource extraction would bring road expansion, developments, and people to the area. That means more garbage, more chickens, more conflicts, and, inevitably, more bear deaths.
Bass, the author, has lived in northwestern Montana for more than two decades and serves as a board member with the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Many of his books and articles have drawn national attention to the Cabinet-Yaak region. Bears here, he says, are the weakest link in the recovery chain. "I'm not seeing as many grizzlies in the Yaak," he adds. "I'm not seeing as much sign of grizzlies in the Yaak. And most troubling, I'm not seeing grizzlies in the Yaak where I used to see them."
The Cabinet-Yaak and the nearby Selkirk ecosystem are fragile enough that they merit full-time Fish and Wildlife staff. In any given year, Servheen estimates, the grizzlies have only three females with cubs. If just one of those sows is hit by a car or killed by a poacher, the population could be devastated. And if area landowners don't see grizzly recovery working elsewhere in the West, that too could be the end of the bears.
Recovery hasn't always run smoothly here, but it's gotten better thanks to the same kinds of efforts that paved the way for the NCDE grizzlies. "I can remember 15 or 20 years ago having public meetings up there and having people really mad that bears were around and that we were even talking about bears," Servheen says. "Now I think we've gone way beyond that. I mean, the county commissioners are in favor of grizzly bear recovery, of augmentation, of putting more bears in there."
This is also where Kate Kendall, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in West Glacier, has turned her attention this year. She spearheaded the grizzly population study in the NCDE in 2004, using elaborate hair snags to collect DNA samples and gather data on individual bears. Now she hopes to apply her experience with NCDE grizzlies to obtain more detailed data on grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak. Kendall says Lincoln County Commissioners invited her to give a presentation on her NCDE study last winter and liked what they heard. The county found public support and funding for the project, then asked Kendall to lead it. That level of interest and cooperation usually takes years to nurture.
Servheen fears those public investors in bear recovery will walk away if initiatives to delist grizzlies in Yellowstone—and, eventually, the NCDE—fail. The populations there were never as small as that in the Cabinet-Yaak, he says. Failing with a larger segment could make success with a smaller segment appear impossible. "They're watching Yellowstone right now," he says.
There is also a third perspective out there when it comes to grizzly recovery and delisting, one that takes a wild curve away from what environmentalists and government biologists are working on now.
Montana naturalist Doug Peacock, who has lived up close with grizzlies for months at a time over the past four decades, believes the entire question of threatened or endangered species recovery has become irrelevant.
Peacock credits the agencies and their recovery efforts in Yellowstone. They really brought the population back from the brink, he says. But the bears still don't have much of a chance.
Peacock has written three popular books on grizzlies. In Grizzly Years, he chronicles the way the bears helped him heal after he served as a medic in the Vietnam War. Now he fears the animals that gave him back "elements of my own humanity" will disappear as climate change alters the Montana landscape. And for him, the first step in that direction is assuming grizzlies can survive without the Endangered Species Act.
"Nobody could see global warming coming on in 1975, when they started to draw up all the management plans," he says. "Under such radically changing habitat conditions, the bear should technically never be delisted. This is not fair to anybody, but they're never going to be recovered. The habitat is going to change so fast in the next 20 years that the grizzlies are going to need three times as much habitat as we've already chosen to give them, just to maintain their current numbers. I don't think our culture is up to that level of tolerance and generosity."