Roaring Back

7 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

A close encounter with a grizzly bear in a bad mood is a terrifying thing. The monstrous beasts can weigh in at nearly 900 lbs. and stand more than 9 ft. tall when they rear up on their hind legs, brandishing their 5-in. claws. And unlike many wild animals, grizzlies are not more afraid of you than you are of them. Unless you’re carrying a powerful gun when you meet one, there’s a reasonable chance you will end up as lunch–as anyone seeing Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Grizzly Man, will learn in particularly gruesome fashion.

But while it’s no contest when a bear meets an unarmed human, the same goes in reverse when humans move en masse into bear habitat. That’s why the grizzly, which roamed the American West by the tens of thousands before white settlers arrived–and which still has a population of several thousand in Alaska and Canada–eventually saw its numbers dwindle to just a few isolated populations of a few hundred bears apiece in the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. It’s also why the bear was formally put under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Such a tentative clawhold on survival explains why environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are appalled that as early as this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is almost certain to call for taking the Yellowstone National Park population of grizzlies off the “threatened” species list (threatened means that a species is likely to become endangered; endangered means it’s likely to become extinct). But one environmental organization actively supports the move. Says Tom France, a senior attorney with the National Wildlife Federation: “The underlying facts surrounding the health of the bear population in the Yellowstone area are pretty exciting.” When the grizzly was first put on the endangered list in 1975, only 200 of the great bears lived in and around Yellowstone, which sits mostly in Wyoming but also nudges into Montana and Idaho. Today there are anywhere from 450 to 600 grizzlies.

Admits Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear-recovery coordinator for the FWS: “I never would have guessed we would be where we are today when I started working on this 25 years ago.”

If the bears are thriving, why mess with a good thing? The biggest reason is that an endangered- or threatened-species label was not supposed to be a permanent thing. A long-term goal of the federal act was to get animals to the point at which they could be removed from the list. In the case of the grizzly, the outlook is even brighter than the population numbers suggest. The original bear-recovery plan put together by the FWS called for a minimum of 15 cub-bearing females every year. Yellowstone easily exceeds that, averaging 40 for each of the past six years. What’s more, those mothers are not in just one cub-friendly part of the park but are dispersed throughout it, another important benchmark. Overall, the population has been expanding some 7% annually for the past several years, while mortality has been 4% or lower since 1996.

Much of that reduced mortality has come from minimizing the interactions between bears and humans. Sheep-grazing rights once brought lots of food into grizzly territory on National Forest land, for example, but grazing allotments have been all but phased out. Garbage dumps and piles of entrails left behind by elk hunters lure grizzlies into areas where they are more likely to be hit by cars or run into people who have to kill them in self-defense. But again, many dumps have been shut down, and the Wyoming game and fish department is working with hunting groups to make sure kills and their related waste products aren’t left lying about.

None of those protections are likely to go if the grizzly is delisted, says the FWS. What may vanish are the strict limits on timber cutting, mineral exploration and other development that the Endangered Species Act requires. Still, that doesn’t mean the bears would find themselves in a free-fire zone. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have no immediate plans for a grizzly-hunting season. If one is established, says France, “it’s going to be like the ones they set up for bighorn sheep and moose: very few permits and a very close monitoring of the population.” Indeed, if the bear population begins to plummet, that automatically triggers a review by the FWS, which could lead to relisting the bears.

But none of that, say opponents of de-listing, is good enough. “The grizzly may be out of intensive care,” says Louisa Wilcox of the NRDC, “but it’s too early to send it home from the hospital without adequate precautions.” In particular, she suggests that the states won’t spend enough money to monitor the bears, that efforts to make hunters clean up after themselves won’t work and that the trigger mechanisms for relisting the grizzly are inadequate–they don’t, for example, kick in when the bears’ favorite food supply, the seeds of the whitebark pine, succumbs to disease or insects. “[The FWS does] do reviews,” she says. “There’s nothing that says they have to do anything to respond.”

Before the grizzly officially comes off the list, the FWS will get an earful of such concerns. The announcement later this month will be just a draft proposal, followed by 90 days of public comment at which opponents will be encouraged to speak up. Only after that will the plan be finalized. By early next year, the Yellowstone grizzly could join the bald eagle in vindicating endangered-species protection–by graduating from it. –Reported by Pat Dawson/Bozeman


Some bears are thriving to the point where they can still be hunted; others are wobbling on the brink of extinction

POLAR BEAR Weight: 440 to 1,760 lbs. Length: Up to 8 ft. 5 in. Range: Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada, Alaska How dangerous: Extremely. The polar bear will stalk humans for food Status: It could be extinct by the end of the century, as global warming reduces the ice it roams in its hunt for seals, its primary food

AMERICAN BLACK BEAR Weight: 130 to 660 lbs. Length: Up to 6 ft. 3 in. Range: Much of Canada; 32 U.S. states, mostly in the Rockies, Appalachians and Ozarks; northern Mexico How dangerous: Not especially. The black bear avoids humans but can’t resist garbage dumps; will attack if cornered Status: Thriving throughout most of its range

GIANT PANDA Weight: Up to 275 lbs. Length: Up to 6 ft. 4 in. Range: Mountainous areas of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in western China How dangerous: Not. The giant panda is extraordinarily shy and will avoid contact with humans at all costs Status: Highly endangered; no more than 1,000 remain in the wild

SUN BEAR Weight: 60 to 145 lbs. Length: Up to 5 ft. Range: India, Burma, Laos, southern China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia How dangerous: Quite. Will attack humans without provocation Status: Unknown, because of insufficient field data. Poaching and habitat destruction have conservation experts worried

GRIZZLY BEAR/ BROWN BEAR Weight: 300 to 860 lbs. Length: Up to 9 ft. 6 in. Range: Western Canada, northwestern U.S., Alaska, Russia; tiny remnant populations in Europe, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, China How dangerous: Very. Won’t usually attack without provocation, but it doesn’t take much Status: Thriving in Alaska, Canada, northern Russia; recovering in the U.S.; in danger of extinction in much of the rest of the world

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at