Yellowstone grizzly ‘no longer endangered’
After decades of population growth, one of America’s favourite animals will be taken off the endangered species list. What does this mean? And why are conservationists unhappy?
Given how rapidly wildlife populations are declining, it is big news when one species bucks the trend. This is what the Yellowstone grizzly bear has done.
Last week, the US government announced that the bear will soon lose its protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Of the thousands of species which have been listed under the act, it will become one of only a few dozen to be delisted.
The species’s population has grown from 135 in 1975, when it was listed, to around 700. After a 15-month review, the government has decided that this is healthy enough. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
This comeback is due to a number of policies implemented under the ESA. Since 1975, it has been illegal to harm or kill the grizzlies. Their habitat has been cleaned up. Some of them have been tagged and tracked, giving scientists important information on their eating habits.
Once they are delisted, the bears will no longer enjoy these benefits. Management of the population will return from the federal government to the states. Crucially, this could mean that hunting the animals becomes possible again (outside Yellowstone National Park).
Conservationists are unhappy. They believe that climate change could cause great ecological instability in the coming years, leaving the bears vulnerable. This, and the threat from hunting, makes them opposed to the delisting. Some groups have vowed to sue against the decision.
Native Americans have also reacted with anger. The grizzly bear is sacred to them, and they are firmly opposed to hunting. A coalition of 125 tribes has petitioned the government to consult fully with them before making its decision — something they claim has not happened.
On the other hand, industry figures have expressed concerns about the ESA. Development is restricted where listed species live. So the delisting of the bears could open up land for oil, gas and timber companies.
The grizzly bear’s recovery is indeed big news. But is it really the success Zinke claims?
Absolutely, say some. Critics are exaggerating the risks: the bears are adaptable to ecological change, and hunting will be banned if their number falls below 600. Conservation law is an emergency measure — it should be lifted once its job is done. That is what has happened here. We should rejoice.
Not true, reply others. Unfortunately, the job of protecting animals is never over. When a species is not listed, we get complacent about it, and its population plummets before we know it. This is especially true of grizzly bears, who reproduce very slowly. We must keep them on the list indefinitely.
- Is it ever OK to hunt animals? if so, when?
- Are some endangered species more deserving of protection than others?
- As a class, list words that you associate with bears.
- After finishing Activity 1, discuss how you think the grizzly bear’s image has affected the debate around its protection status.
Some People Say...
“You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals.”— Paul McCartney
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The ESA was enacted in 1973. It currently lists over 1,600 species as endangered; a further 350 are up for consideration. The law is popular: according to one poll, 90% of Americans want to keep it. Yet lawmakers — mostly Republicans — have tried to undermine its power or declare it unconstitutional multiple times. They tend to argue that it imposes unfair constraints on businesses.
- What do we not know?
- The effectiveness of the ESA has been debated ever since it was enacted. Due to limited funds, not all species get the same protections as the Yellowstone grizzly bear. One report found that the populations of over half the listed species are still declining. The ESA’s supporters reply that very few have gone extinct — more certainly would have if the law did not exist.
- A 2016 report by the Zoological Society of London and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) concluded that global wildlife populations have fallen 58% since 1970.
- Yellowstone grizzly bear
- There are also protected grizzlies living around Montana’s Glacier National Park. The delisting of the Yellowstone bears does not affect them.
- At the start of the 19th century, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears scattered across the western USA. Their population was decimated by hunting and human encroachment on their habitats.
- Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It is up to them to permit hunting; they have indicated that they will not do so for the time being.
- Yellowstone National Park
- The federal government’s protections still apply to bears within the park, but the Yellowstone population extends beyond its limits.
- Supporters of delisting say that the bears make use of around 265 different food sources.
- Reproduce very slowly
- It takes them two or three years to rear a litter of cubs, making them the second-slowest-reproducing land animal in North America, behind the musk ox.