Lessons From the Last Grizzly

Here’s how not to manage a population of grizzly bears. California had its own subspecies of these awesome animals before they were hunted to extinction less than 100 years ago. But the extirpation of its grizzlies didn’t stop the state from proudly adopting the bear as its official animal in 1953. After all, the California grizzly had been featured on the state flag since 1911.

It’s well known that the model for the bear on the flag was a real California grizzly, called Monarch, who was captured in 1889 at the behest of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Here’s something almost no one knows: Allen Kelly, the Hearst journalist who was responsible for Monarch’s capture, joined the Sierra Club as a charter member a few years later. Later still, he wrote a book (Bears I Have Met) with a whole chapter on the tragic story of Monarch. You get the impression that, if he had it to do over again, Kelly might have let the grizzly go. Instead, Monarch spent 22 years in captivity in San Francisco. He was last publicly on display — stuffed — in 2012 as part of a California Academy of Science exhibit on, of all things, climate change.

In theory, California didn’t need to eradicate all its grizzlies. Even now, the state has enough suitable habitat to support a viable population. That’s not how people thought back then, though, so we’re incredibly fortunate that any U.S. grizzly bears survived outside Alaska. By the time grizzlies in the lower 48 states were protected in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act, the species was hanging by a thread — down to just 2 percent of its original range. In one of the best and largest remaining grizzly habitats — the Greater Yellowstone area, which includes both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks — fewer than 150 bears remained.

By ending hunting seasons and developing a conservation plan, we offered the bears a second chance. And the bears grabbed it. The Greater Yellowstone area now supports, it’s believed, about 700 grizzlies. Whatever the exact number, the bears are definitely in better shape than they were 40 years ago, and that’s led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose they have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be protected. The grizzlies of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would be “delisted.”

That would be a mistake — both because of what we do know and what we don’t know.

Start with what we don’t know. We don’t know that the bears are truly out of short-term danger. We don’t actually know exactly how many grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone area or how stable that population really is. It’s notoriously hard to count grizzly bears due to their solitary nature and aversion to humans.

Compared with other predators like wolves and mountain lions, grizzlies reproduce very slowly — they have young only every three years, and studies show an increasing number of cubs are not surviving to adulthood. Plus, even as the bears gain some ground, they are facing new challenges. For instance, climate disruption has already begun to affect many of their food sources, and we still don’t know how well they can adapt.

Here’s what we doknow: If the Yellowstone grizzlies are delisted, then bears that range outside national park boundaries will be at the mercy of hostile state-management policies. That means bears would once again be subject to trophy hunting. It also means that bears could be eliminated from some areas where they currently live, when in fact grizzlies need to expand their range so that populations in the Greater Yellowstone area can mix with those in the northern Rockies to establish a viable long-term breeding population. Even within the Greater Yellowstone area, Wyoming’s management plan would leave grizzly bears in the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway — which is the connector between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks — completely unprotected from hunting.

Finally, we know this: The wild places that grizzlies inhabit would be changed forever, and for the worse, without these incredible animals. Yes, there are challenges to managing any predator in a world dominated by humans. For the most part, grizzlies have learned the hard way that they should steer clear of humans, but we’ll always need to be vigilant in working to prevent conflicts to protect bears, people, and livestock. We can do that, though, while still protecting the species.

In the near term, delisting would result in fewer grizzly bears limited to an even smaller portion of the Yellowstone region. In the long term, it could jeopardize the full recovery of this magnificent creature. It would be a sad day if the last grizzly in the lower 48 were poor Monarch, forever alone on the California flag.

It’s not too late to stop this from happening. Tell the USFWS that it’s too soon to delist Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.