Grizzly bear protection under ESA needed

Federal Judge Dana Christensen threw out the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear and returned the bear to Endangered Species Act protection. The decision effectively precluded (for now) the hunting of the bear in Idaho and Wyoming.

The judge agreed with plaintiffs that the FWS had failed to consider how delisting would affect grizzly bear survival across the Northern Rockies. He wrote Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also acted arbitrarily and capriciously in analyzing threats to the Yellowstone bears.

What the FWS failed to do is sufficiently consider the basic ecology of the grizzly bear. It is one of the slowest reproducing species in our region, with females typically breeding at age 5 or older.

In addition, there are genetic concerns. Dominant male grizzlies do the majority of breeding so that in effect, the genetic diversity of the population is significantly reduced. This loss of genetic diversity is aggravated by the fact, that Yellowstone grizzly populations suffered a “genetic” bottleneck in the 1970s when their numbers may have been as low as several hundred bears.

Most population biologists believe that a minimum of 2000 grizzlies is necessary to guarantee long-term genetic viability as well as connections between various sub-populations like the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies and those in the Yellowstone area.

Compounding these problems for the Yellowstone grizzly is that some of its major food sources including spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout have declined due to the introduction lake trout that consume the cutthroats in Yellowstone Lake, as well as the loss of a grizzly bear stable, whitebark whose nutritious seeds were an important fall food.

While bear distribution has increased throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, some bear biologist suggest this Is partially due to the need to search more widely for additional food sources.

Christensen noted that the FWS effectively pandered to the state wildlife agencies that were ready to begin trophy hunting of the bear. He wrote the FWS had “illegally negotiated away its obligation to apply the best available science in order to reach an accommodation with the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.” And it relied on two studies supporting the Yellowstone bears’ genetic independence when both studies concluded the bears actually needed more genetic interchange from other populations.

One of the justifications used for delisting by proponents of hunting is that grizzly depredation of livestock has increased. Indeed, the killing of grizzlies for livestock depredation is the leading source of human mortality for Yellowstone grizzlies.

 For instance, more than 40 grizzlies have been removed from the Upper Green River grazing allotment area of Wyoming to appease ranchers using our public lands for their private profit.

Similar conflicts between bears and livestock exist in Montana where bears have been killed after preying on domestic sheep in the Centennial and Gravelly Ranges.

These are all the result of “problem livestock.” In other words, putting livestock on public land allotments with a minimum of human oversight is effectively leaving four-legged picnic baskets out for grizzly bears to consume.

It must be remembered that grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right, and any private use of public resources should only be permitted if they do not compromise the public’s use and enjoyment of these lands, which includes ensuring the long-term survival of wild grizzlies.

 One effective way to alleviate these conflicts is to terminate livestock grazing through grazing permit buyouts. There are private funds available from generous donors who believe that the voluntary removal of livestock is the best way to move forward.

We can grow cows in many parts of the United States, but there are only a few places like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where grizzly bears can thrive. It’s time to recognize our obligation to provide the bear with a safe and secure future.


  1. Hiker Avatar

    One problem with “grazing permit buyouts” is that it leaves ranchers unable to do business and thus more likely to sell their private land. That sell off might lead to sub-division and loss of habitat. Zoning laws to prevent that and money to buy that private land (with the goal of letting that land return to nature) should go hand in hand with buyouts.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      The grazing buyouts are voluntary.

      1. Hiker Avatar

        Yes, I know. Along with that, preventing large tracts of rancher’s private land from being sub-divided should be part of the solution.

    2. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      Only so much H2O for subdivisions.

      1. Hiker Avatar

        Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix. The West is literally filled with places that shouldn’t exist with local water supplies. Wells can be dug. Streams diverted. Ranchers themselves use massive amounts of water. It has already happened. It continues to happen.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine


          I don’t know that it can go on forever in arid landscapes.

    3. rork Avatar

      Perhaps we can buy out the rancher’s land as well. We buy stuff up near me (MI), or buy just the development rights. I’m on a botany team that’s going to assess some “new land” tomorrow, that has one of the tallest kames in the county (Stofer hill), that was going to become a gravel mine.
      Of course I’d like the rents to be more expensive as step 1. Just slowly force them out with the money. Yes, I’m heartless. Lots of the public land I wander came from farmers who slowly lost their shirts as the times changed.

  2. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    Work at the roots of the problem. Hunter/trapper control of our public lands prioritized to killing wildlife is underpinned by the funding structure of state and federal agencies -structured to be funded primarily on killing wildlife. Pittman-Robertson federal taxes on ammunition and weapons is allotted to the states according to how many killing licenses are issued. Funding on killing and the entire structure of hunters and trappers hired as scientists to support the agenda of the department to keep power exclusively in the bloody hands of those who serially kill millions of our innocent wildlife – is a big part of the problem. If we do not democratize the funding, the 95% citizens who kill nobody and want to hike and co-exist with wildlife peacefully have ZERO say because they do not fund or have any presence on “Natural” RESOURCE boards. Until we deal with the funding, we will be constantly dealing with new species under attack, and wiping out the last third of wildlife on planet earth.
    A new biomass study of earth shows that 60% of mammals on earth are now livestock being churned through slaughterhouses as fast as possible, 36% of mammals are humans and only 4% are all the wild mammals left. 70% of birds are poultry for slaughter and 30% all the wild birds left. It states that the Anthropocene will be characterized by a layer of chicken bones across the planet. STOP EATING ANIMALS AND ORGANIZE TO CHANGE THE FUNDING OF OUR STATE AND FEDERAL AGENCIES – DEMOCRATIZE AND END THE SUFFERING NOW before we destroy it all.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      It’s all about the $$$.

    2. ALEXIS FOXX Avatar

      Very well-stated, Patricia.

    3. rork Avatar

      Trying to drive the wedge between hunters and environmentalists, as usual, despite the fact that many hunters have come out against griz hunts. There is essentially no money in selling grizzly bear licenses. My DNR is not that influenced by hunter desires or we’d have crane shooting licenses already, and the people have blocked dove hunts – we are not powerless. Hunters like me lobby them to not rush to hunt newly recovered species. I’d welcome it if the public funded environmental departments more though, as St. Aldo taught us.
      And I do not want to co-exist with deer up to my neck, see them emaciated and dying, and a moonscape, with endangered plants, and other animals being extirpated by the deer tidal wave. I do not expect to have sufficient natural predators to fix that problem soon or even ever in some places, so hunting is essential.
      As usual I’ll add that me not buying meat does essentially nothing to decrease commercial animal husbandry. We need carbon taxes or direct disincentives to raising animals – laws.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    The rush to kill these bears was, to me, shocking. I’m glad of this decision.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I have to say that for the month of September, my calendar has Tom Mangelson’s famous photo of Grizzly 399 and her 3 cubs. What a gorgeous girl she is.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      So the prudent decision to relist is confirmed.

      Note that this bear was another female to add to the tally for 2018. This would have been in addition to the one that would have supposedly closed down the hunt.

  5. Nancy Avatar

    A dated but interesting video on ranching around grizzly bear populations

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Same area (a few years later)

  6. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Vote the arrogant, anti-ecological bullies out of office in November.

  7. Isabel Cohen Avatar
    Isabel Cohen

    As usual, there are too many hunters and not enough game left for them to slaughter! I am sickened that they would kill any bears as there are so few left today!


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner