Scientists: Grizzlies expand turf but still need protection

Grizzly bears are slowly expanding the turf they roam in the northern Rocky Mountains, but scientists say they need continued protection; they have also concluded that no other areas of the country would be suitable for the fearsome animals

By MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press

March 31, 2021, 9:32 PM

• 4 min read

BILLINGS, Mont. — Grizzly bears are slowly expanding the turf where they roam in parts of the northern Rocky Mountains but need continued protection; on Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service released its first assessment in almost a decade about the status of grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S. According to government scientists who concluded that no other country areas would be suitable for reintroducing the fearsome predators. Except in Alaska, the bruins are shielded from hunting as a threatened species.

Grizzly populations have grown over the past ten years in the Yellowstone region of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, with more than 700 bears, and around Glacier National Park in Montana, home to more than 1,000 of the animals. The bears now occupy about 6% of their historical range in the contiguous U.S., up from 2% in 1975. Grizzly numbers remain low in other parts of the Northern Rockies, and scientists said their focus is on bolstering those populations rather than reintroducing them elsewhere in the country.


Conservationists and some university scientists have pushed to return bears to areas including Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and California’s Sierra Nevada. The 368-page assessment makes no recommendation on the topic, but scientists looked at the possibility of bears in more areas as part of an examination of their remaining habitat. That analysis showed grizzlies would not sustain themselves in the San Juans, the Sierra Nevada, or two other areas — Utah’s tinta Mountains and New Mexico’s Mogollon Mountains.

“They were looking for areas that could sustain grizzly bears as opposed to areas that would continuously need humans to drop bears in there,” said Hilary Cooley, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator. In each case, officials said, bears would face the same challenge — not remote enough, protected public lands, high densities of humans, and little chance of connecting with other bears populations to maintain healthy people.

An estimated 50,000 grizzlies once inhabited western North America from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains. Hunting, commercial trapping, and habitat loss wiped out most by the early 1900s. The bears were last seen in California in the 1920s, and the last known grizzly in Colorado was killed by an elk hunter in 1979. Grizzly bears have been protected as a threatened species in the contiguous U.S. since 1975, allowing a slow recovery in a handful of areas. An estimated 1,900 live in the Northern Rockies of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2019 to force officials to consider restoring grizzlies to parts of seven more western states. A U.S. District judge ruled last year that the government was not compelled to draft recovery plans for the bears in new areas. Protections for bears in the Yellowstone region were lifted under former President Donald Trump but later restored under a court order just as Idaho and Wyoming prepared to hold public hunts for grizzlies for the first time in decades. This week, five Republican U.S. senators from the region introduced legislation to strip protection from Yellowstone-area bears and put them under state jurisdiction.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso said in a statement that President Joe Biden’s administration had missed an opportunity Wednesday to declare restoration efforts in the region a success and lift protections. Biologists say Yellowstone grizzlies are “biologically-recovered.” But an appeals court last year said the government had not done enough to ensure hunting and other pressures don’t reduce the population size in the future to where the bears’ genetic health could be harmed.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Zaccardi said state officials, hunting groups, and the agriculture industry had too much influence on decisions about bears made under Trump. She urged officials under Biden to take a “less politically-motivated look at grizzly bear recovery.” Wyoming ranchers who want grizzlies under state control sided with the government in the legal dispute over where bears should be restored. They would oppose any attempt by the new administration to reverse course, said Will Trachman with Mountain States Legal Foundation, representing the ranchers.

“interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, co-sponsored legislation in Congress to increase bear protections and reintroduce them on tribal lands. When questioned during her February confirmation hearings, H”We hope they won’t roll over on their victory,” said. Aaland declined to say how she would approach the issue. “I imagine at the time I cared about the bears,” she said.

Tyson Houlding
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