Recovery of grizzly bears, a lifelong concern

Recovery of the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been an intense interest of mine for most of my adult life. Yellowstone Park has been a refuge, inspiration and cause for me since I was a boy in Rexburg, Idaho, and my parents began to take me there.

The grizzly bear was put on the threatened species list in 1975. At the time there was thought to be between 200 -300 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, almost all of them inside Yellowstone National Park.

Despite the new protection from the Endangered Species Act, such as ending Wyoming’s grizzly bear hunt, the number of grizzlies kept going down. By the late 1970s, it was widely thought there were less than 200, perhaps fewer than 150.  Their extinction seemed more than a remote possibility in the Yellowstone.

Even though it is less than 20 miles south of Yellowstone, in the 70s and 80s there were no grizzlies Grand Teton National Park nor in the big valley at the feet of the Tetons, Jackson Hole.

About this time I began to explore on foot some wonderful deep wilderness country just to the south and southeast of Yellowstone Park. This was the Teton Wilderness. Don’t confuse it with the Teton mountain range or Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Wilderness embraces part of the volcanic pinnacles, castles, and high plateaus of the Absaroka mountains. The wilderness also includes the soft sedimentary Pinyon Peak Highlands that are the mountains on the northern end of Jackson Hole.

Beyond the Tetons-

I soon found myself backpacking and writing a guide to that Wilderness — Beyond the Tetons: A Backpacking Guide to Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness.  This was an exciting project. One reason for the thrill of undertaking this adventure was that a few grizzlies were known to wander out of Yellowstone into this wilderness area. Some might actually live there.

In 1974, I had not yet seen a grizzly bear in the wild anywhere. Thinking that I might see, or run into one made me shiver with excitement and some fear. Such an event seemed imminent as I followed the faint, disused trails through the deep forest in the western half of the wilderness — places like Arizona Creek, Rodent Creek, Colter Creek, Wolverine Creek, Gravel Creek, Pilgrim Creek.

Hundreds of miles backpacking and four summers later I finished my research. I had seen no grizzlies, only some piles of fresh grizzly scat high up in Cub Creek in the Absaroka section of the wilderness. The Teton Wilderness was much the same as Yellowstone Park. What was the reason for the lack of grizzlies? In retrospect, I think those migrating south to the wilderness were shot. There is no hunting inside Yellowstone, but until the mid-70s there was a grizzly hunt south of Yellowstone, including the Teton Wilderness.

With passing time, I learned a lot more about grizzlies, and I saw some in the Greater Yellowstone backcountry. In 1978 while in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, I crested a rise in a meadow. Perhaps 50 feet on the other side was a sow and cubs digging in the soft soil of late May.  Fortunately, I was standing by a lone Douglas fir, one perfect for climbing. I did very quickly. In 1980 we ran into a big boar west of the Park while deep in the Madison Range. About five years later I saw a grizzly lifting and dropping downed logs (to break them open) across the Falls River from me just south of the Park in the Targhee National Forest.

Hiking Wyoming’s Teton & Washakie Wilderness Areas

Almost 20 years later (1995) a different publisher asked me to redo the Teton Wilderness guide and add to it the Washakie Wilderness just to its east. I agreed, but I wondered if I really would be able to backpack the trails in the two wildernesses totalling 1.3 million acres when I was 50 years old. With a most capable partner it turned out I could. I teamed up with Lee Mercer, a very experienced wilderness traveller. He was 15 years my junior.

Lee Mercer fords runoff from Big Game Ridge. Teton Wilderness. 1996.
Lee Mercer fords runoff from Big Game Ridge. Teton Wilderness. 1996.

This time there was no shortage of grizzly bears. The Teton Wilderness was now much different — wilder to my viewpoint. The heavily forested western portion (Pinyon Peak highlands) had burned in the great fires of 1988. In addition, grizzlies had thoroughly reinhabitated the area. We even got a glimpse of the first wolf pack to call the Teton Wilderness home. There was grizzly sign in every drainage, and we saw them too, though all in the distance on the alpine plateaus. While camping in late spring snow, several times I found a grizzly had walked through camp during the night.

Population growth and the spread of grizzly bears (or is it dispersal to find better sources of food?)-

The official figures show the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population growing rapidly from about 1982 to 2002 –4% a year. By then many reforms had been implemented to protect grizzly bears. By many accounts the population peaked in 2002 at 750 bears and, while this is controversial, it has been plateaued at about 750 ever since. Bears do keep showing up in new areas and they have firmly established residence in places where few ever thought they would be seen again. This now includes Grand Teton National Park and most of Jackson Hole. There is a great contest going on over bears in highly suitable habitat of the Upper Green River at the northern end of the Wind River Mountains. They arrived about a decade ago. Every year many grizzlies are shot in the upper Green.. The bears eat a number of the cows brought in for the summer. There is a lot of forage for livestock in the Upper Green too. Of course, what the cows eat could have gone to deer, elk, pronghorn, and moose.

The upper Green River at the confluence of the Roaring Fork. Copyright Ralph Maughan
The upper Green River at the confluence of the Roaring Fork. Copyright Ralph Maughan

Many say the spread of the grizzlies is due to a now overly large grizzly population (although count stays at about 750). Many say that Yellowstone and its near environs are full, so the bears are seeking out new territory in all directions. However, the same pattern can be explained by a grizzly population thinning out as Yellowstone’s food sources decline inside the Park and in parts of the rest of the Greater Yellowstone.

Since about 1990 the cutthroat trout population has crashed in Yellowstone Lake and its tributary streams, and even more important the whitebark pine nut crop has greatly declined due to whitebark pine blister rust, the mountain pine beetle and high elevation wildfires. The elk population in the Park is also only about half of what it was 20 years ago. The decline has been offset in part by the bears learning about the army cutworm moth sites high in the Absarokas. Now almost every Yellowstone Park eastside bear visits these safe, remote agglomerations of torpid moths in the alpine rockslides.

While the bears seem ingenious in finding new food sources to replace part of the loss described, one obvious method is to abandon the country and seek food far afield from Yellowstone Park. So, the bear that is in the apple orchard at Ashton, Idaho, might be there because there was not enough food for it anymore in Yellowstone.

I am happy to see the great bear inhabiting more of its former range in NW Wyoming, Montana, and Eastern Idaho, although I don’t know the true reason for the reoccupation of these lands. It seems to me that there has been growing human tolerance of the bears. There isn’t crazy talk about them like with the wolf. Many in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are proud to have them. They do not fear the bears. They respect them. Even people who have had a run-in with a grizzly usually do not say the bear should be killed. Instead they often say they accept the slight risk they took for hunting, fishing, recreating, or working in this fine country.  I like it when people show a little bravery and reject the propaganda of the extremists who have also crept in and inhabited grizzly country.

The U.S. government and the state governments have been saying the grizzly bear is no longer threatened. This has been their position for some time.  I disagree, but the success of any delisting  the grizzly depends on whether they accept the current population-geographic situation or whether they mean to role back to where grizzlies are allowed to live in just Yellowstone Park and its near boundaries. That would mean going from 750 bears to 200-300 again, maybe less. So what good was the effort and the sacrifice made by so many people for so long?

In recent days, some politicians in the state of Wyoming have been passing resolutions urging immediate delisting, and the federal government’s Daniel M. Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is talking about it again too. Ashe has been less than a friend of endangered species, a disappointment to most conservationists.

Corrected announcement.

The Yellowstone Ecosystem subcommittee (YES) of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) Fall Meeting meets November 3, 1:00 pm to November 4, 12:00 pm at Hotel Terra in Teton Village, Jackson, Wyoming.


Agenda for the meeting.


  1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Great article, Ralph! Thanks.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Glad you liked it.

  2. Zoe Berger Avatar
    Zoe Berger

    Ralph thank you for a great article and a tiny look into your past. Gorgeous photo too.

  3. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    When did we humans attain the lofty position of deciding how many of which non-human species should be allowed to exist? 7 billion industrialized humans on this planet, causing more damage and destruction than any wild animal ever could or ever will, need to be managed–not wildlife.

  4. Patrick Avatar

    Ralph, just curious. What is your understanding of the number of bear hunters out that way? Has it declined over the years, or has there been an uptick of interest? I wonder too whether the spread of wolves has improved food options for Grizzlies in and out of YNP? Keep up your advocacy for the Wild West!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I don’t know much about trends on bear hunter numbers, but those in a grizzly bear hunt would likely get a permit through a draw.

      The spread of wolves has definitely helped the grizzlies. They steal from the wolves. Bears of all kinds are now more likely to take down elk (calves primarily).

      It isn’t sustainable though because elk numbers have dropped by half due to a long drought (now over), wolf and bear predation.

      1. Patrick Avatar

        Thanks Ralph!

  5. Salle Avatar

    Hi Ralph,

    According to YNP stats on grizzly bears (as of spring 2015)there were approximately 150 with home ranges wholly or partially in park and as of 2014, 674–839 individuals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

    They are indeed migrating out of the park and mostly to the South East areas outside the park. The density within the ecosystem is said to be 870 home ranges with the majority outside the park; 757 with extended range outside the park. So there are more grizzly bears outside the park in the ecosystem than inside the park. There is said to be 2.2% annual growth in population being the highest recorded and .03% annual growth being the lowest and they are said to be “at capacity” within the park.

    Also, the average life expectancy for Grizzly bears inside YNP is 20 – 25yrs where outside the park it is only 15 – 20yrs.

    An accounting of who gets hurt by the bears and why is basically the fact the even though bear spray has been studied and overall said to be 94% effective in warding off major injury by bears, only 13% actually carry it as of studies conducted into 2014. The numbers of those being injured by bears are: 51% hiking solo; 42% hiking in pairs (2 people in the hiking party); 7% in groups of 3 persons or more; 0 for groups on horseback . Of these 70% have minor injuries while 85% get hurt fighting back.

    I would argue that their fate is dependent upon human acceptance/tolerance more than any other factor.

    I was told that according to one geneticist, whose name I can’t recall without making some phone calls, said that the entire population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is derived from four individual sows which makes a good argument for not delisting until there is a confirmed and thriving intermixing with another gene pool outside of the GYE… that means a connecting corridor with an outside population. Without fresh genetic input, this population should not be delisted. It’s that pesky “best available science” thing that is mandated in the ESA.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Thanks for all this good information.

      THe GYE population of grizzly bears is the least genetically diverse population in North America (discounting very small one such as the Selkirk grizzlies).

  6. Nancy Avatar

    “Christensen wrote in his order that the effects of road construction on wildlife were “insignificant” because of the project’s proximity to West Yellowstone”

  7. Peter Kiermeir Avatar
    Peter Kiermeir
    1. Nancy Avatar

      + 1 Louisa Willcox

    2. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      And thanks Peter for the link.

  8. David Rohm Avatar

    Great article, very well done, thank you Ralph

  9. monty Avatar

    Thanks for the article and comments.

  10. Theo Chu Avatar
    Theo Chu

    Thanks for this clear eyed discussion Ralph. Regarding genetics as I recall the Yellowstone population although perhaps having relatively low diversity compared to other populations was still believed to be safely diverse. I also recall that geneticists believed that introducing one or two males from another populations would solve that problem essentially for all time. Bears rarely make long distance dispersals like wolves and waiting for the Yellowstone population to bridge to the Northern Continental population may take far longer than any managers will wait to delist the species if all other delisting criteria having been met. Expansion of the range of the Yellowstone grizzly population has been slow and incremental as opposed to aggressive immigration, again as we’ve seen numerous examples of with wolves.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I don’t know what happened to the proposal for bringing in a bear or two every decade to restore genetic diversity to the population, but I think a politically easier method would be artificial insemination.

      1. Theo Chu Avatar
        Theo Chu

        You hold the sow (as in here hold my beer – watch this!) while I take pictures.

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan


  11. Kevin Jamison Avatar
    Kevin Jamison

    Wow, exceptionally insightful and interesting. Sir, you have some very intelligent and educated readers.
    I’m reading “Wilderness Warrior”, a bio of Theodore Roosevelt. The Col. passionately loved all living beings from the Great Sequoia of California to the tiniest bird, especially birds, but of the Grizzly of Yellowstone he was particularly passionate. He also wanted to shoot one, for research of course. I don’t know if he ever did. (Not far enough along in the book) but I doubt it. He was very disturbed by the whole Mississippi “Teddy Bear” hunt fiasco. He did want to bag a Griz, but always intended it to be outside the park since he was staunchly against any hunting inside. Also sheep & cattle ranching, timbering, mining or any other exploitive activity.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Kevin Jamison,

      I have always been so pleased that we attract folks who want to discuss and share scientific data and personal experience more than sharing vitriol.

      It did take frequent moderation though in the early years of the Wildlife News.

    2. Nancy Avatar

      Kevin – might add to your reading list Beyond Words/ Safina

      “Throughout, he demonstrates a keen grasp of the scientific literature across a range of disciplines and a refreshing skepticism about the terms of debate. “Only humans have human minds,” he concedes. “But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons.”

  12. Immer Treue Avatar

    I was always fascinated by the work the Craighead bothers did with grizzlies. Here is a clip that shows both the danger, and just a touch of humor toward the end. They were pioneers.

  13. Leslie Avatar

    The YES committee meets in Jackson next week Nov. 3-4 at Teton Village, Hotel Terra. Main item on the agenda is delisting! Below is the agenda

  14. Patrick Avatar

    This study on YPE Grizzlies was released today. Thoughts?

  15. Yvette Avatar

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one, Ralph. As I was reading I questioned why we would allow hunting to ‘control numbers’ when this species only recently recovered from near extinction.

    Last summer I was visiting with the owner of a cafe in Seeley Lake, MT. He was talking about how he wanted to hunt grizzly to ‘control their numbers’, stating there were now too many of them. He made it sound like they were being overrun with grizzlies in the front yard. He was a nice guy and certainly seemed sincere. It does make me wonder about peoples’ perceptions. Plus, I didn’t know anything about grizzly populations in that area.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I think the grizzlies around Glacier NP, the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Great Bear Wilderness are doing better than the GYE bears. Their genetic diversity is better. They haven’t suffered the loss of major food sources either. They are expanding out onto the plains. I stand to be corrected, but think their numbers really are increasing in NW Montana.

  16. Jim Davis Avatar
    Jim Davis

    I grew up in the early seventies on the Northfork of the Shoshone River west of Cody and working in the upper Thorofare area southeast of Yellowstone. Mr. Maughn must not have made it to these areas in his pursuit of grizzlies in the seventies. They were there then as they still are today. In those days you could still bait for black bear generally using a dead horse as bait. The entertainment was not in shooting a black bear, but instead watching the grizzly bears come in and eat up the bait. The notion that there were hardly any grizzly bears outside Yellowstone in the early seventies is wholly incorrect.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Jim Davis,

      I spent all my Absaroka time in the Washakie and Teton Wilderness. I have never gone at all into the North Absaroka. From hearing from lots of folks over the years, reading reports, etc., I know you are correct about the North Fork of the Shoshone River.

    2. Leslie Avatar

      Jim, maybe you saw grizzlies in the early 70s up the Northfork, but the official number of bears was less than 200 in the ecosystem in 1975, and the actual count was only 125 bears! Of course, the Park itself helped to contribute to the loss of bears by 1975 as they were killing them after they eliminated the dumps. Yet people who worked with bears in the Park even the the 80s were convinced bears in the GYE were going extinct and would not make a comeback.

  17. Leslie Avatar

    Ralph, you say in your post that there is a YES meeting in Bozeman on the 7-8 of Nov. but I think that was last year’s meeting. This year’s meeting is in Jackson on the 3-4th.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I better correct that!! Thank you.

      I have the correct information now.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan