Yellowstone Grizzly Delisting is a Welcome Announcement for Conservation

A Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by the Author

The delisting of the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear is a major win for conservation science. Following more than a decade of legal battles and deliberations, Secretary Ryan Zinke has listened to the scientific community and followed through with their recommendations. The Grizzly Bear will now go under the protections of state wildlife management agencies who will take over the responsibility of continuing a long term conservation plan to ensure the survival of the species.

The opposition to the delisting seems to have two prominent viewpoints: That the mere idea of a Grizzly being shot is heartbreaking, or that by delisting the species it signifies their imminent extirpation. I cannot speak to the response some people have to the idea of a bear being shot, but I can speak to fears many people may have regarding the delisting. As someone who has worked with and among state and federal wildlife agencies for many years, I can attest that there agencies are good at what they do.

Let’s break down the basics: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (a federal agency) oversees the endangered species program and its implementations. When a species is found to be in danger of going extinct, either by habitat loss or population decline, the species is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Once identified under the ESA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service must then develop a recovery plan. The USFWS is obligated to consult local agencies, native tribes, and development interests when creating a recovery plan.

When a recovery plan is agreed upon, the plan is then implemented. Unfortunately, not all species are treated the same. The service often dedicates more resources to charismatic megafauna like the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear than say the Northern Idaho herd of Woodland Caribou or the Kangaroo Rat. That is not to say that the USFWS values some species more than others, but that a mix of political and economic actors often influence the focus of the USFWS (more on that later).

Once a species reaches the goals of the recovery plan, the management responsibility of that species is (supposed to be) transferred to state and local agencies. State wildlife agencies have a long history of proper wildlife management because they have an economic incentive to do so. Wildlife brings tourism and hunting which in turn supports local projects and conservation efforts to improve wildlife habitat.

All states generally form their wildlife agencies after the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, championed by the likes of Aldo Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt. I won’t bog you down with details, but this model along with several important laws in the late 19th and 20th centuries put an end to market hunting and sought to recover all species following the decimation of wildlife due to non-regulated hunting in the 1800’s.

In the 1970’s, shortly after President Nixon signed into law the landmark Endangered Species Act, a team of scientists researching the grizzly bear found there was an isolated segment of just 136 animals in Yellowstone National Park. The population had high chances of inbreeding and was generally considered to be in threat of local extinction. The Yellowstone Grizzly Bear was listed in 1975 and the recovery plan developed.

In short, the recovery plan quantified the criteria for the species to maintain a successful self-sustaining population of animals within the Yellowstone ecosystem. That meant hunting would cease, a viable habitat boundary was established, and a community of scientists from federal, state, and local levels would focus on the recovery plan. After all, the ultimate goal of the animals on the Endangered Species Act is to recover them so they don’t get re-listed.

According to the original recovery plan for the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear, the species segment reached ‘full recovery’ and fulfilled ‘all recovery criteria’ in 2003. Yet, since reaching recovery the removal of the species from the ESA has been bogged down in legal battles. These legal battles do little for the well being of the species and do a lot to degrade the effectiveness of the ESA. And you can bet your bottom dollar there is legislation being drafted right now to reduce the authority of the ESA given that congress has a majority of vocal opponents. These critics of the ESA use the grizzly bear as the primary example for why the act has become too marred by polarization and should be abolished.

No doubt legal battles will continue even after today’s announcement from Ryan Zinke. For now, Secretary Zinke’s announcement is a welcome acknowledgment of the scientific community and a validation of the contentious Endangered Species Act at at time when the act itself is being called into question.