Scientific Questions Still Unanswered, Long-Term Grizzly Bear Recovery Still Uncertain
Posted March 31, 2014
The Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee met this week in Jackson, Wyoming, to discuss the recovery of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. State and federal agency representatives continue to support the removal of Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone, despite the fact that most of the scientific questions about the status or trend of the population have not been answered since the agencies met last fall.
Even more concerning is the interagency study team’s proposal to change the way they count bears without allowing the public to weigh in. This new method would result in hundreds of more bears in its population estimate, which raises additional questions about the accuracy of these population counts. And, ultimately, if the population is at risk of declining in the coming years, it matters less whether the population count is 700 or 1000 bears today. The bigger question is: what’s the outlook for the iconic Yellowstone grizzly population over the long term?
Grizzly bears reproduce so slowly that any decline in their population size will have a big impact on their recovery. For long-term recovery to be successful, bears must be allowed to expand into suitable habitat to increase the likelihood of bears from the Yellowstone population mating and exchanging genes with the Glacier population. These are the two largest populations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48, and the longer they remain unconnected, the more they lose the genetic ability to adapt to changes in the ecosystem. The loss of whitebark pine seeds as a food source due to warming temperatures is the most recent example of a major ecosystem-wide change that Yellowstone area grizzly bears will have to adapt to. And with climate change and increasing development, you can be sure it won’t be the last.
There are outstanding questions and concerns that need to be addressed before we can move forward with removing Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
- Are enough protections (i.e., habitat, mortality, etc.) in place to encourage bears to travel back and forth between Yellowstone and Glacier and exchange DNA?
- What will the reported decrease in reproduction and increase in cub mortality mean for the long-term trend of the population?
- Are climate change and development affecting bear food sources in a way that puts the bears at greater risk?
- Is there enough guaranteed funding for the monitoring and management of this critical population of grizzly bears in the future?
Many people worked hard to help recover Yellowstone grizzlies from their population collapse in the 1970s, and these questions need to be answered before we can move forward with taking these iconic bears’ Endangered Species Act protections away. With all of the ground we have gained for this species, we cannot afford risking their future with inadequate protections.
(Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
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