Grizzly Bear, © John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk / National Geographic Stock

Are Grizzly Bears Ready for Delisting?

Erin Edge, Rocky Mountain Regional Associate 

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, grizzly bears are recovering in the Northern Rockies. So much so, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is progressing toward delisting of subpopulations in the Northern Continental Divide and greater Yellowstone ecosystems, two of the six official grizzly bear recovery areas in the lower 48 states. But are grizzlies really ready to lose federal protections in these two areas? This summer I’ve been taking a hard look at that question, carefully evaluating documents released by FWS to see how they will impact the future of grizzly bear recovery.


In June, Defenders submitted comments on proposed changes to the Yellowstone grizzly bear recovery criteria, including a new methodology for estimating the number of bears in the ecosystem. To some this may sound trivial, but the estimated number of bears partially determines if federal protections can be safely removed. We urge FWS to maintain a conservative counting method until problems with the new counting method are resolved.

Additionally, two major food resources for Yellowstone grizzly bears have declined significantly: cutthroat trout and whitebark pine. Without these food resources, grizzlies must roam farther to find food or adapt to eating different foods. This may lead to an increase in human-bear conflicts as grizzlies search for alternative calorie sources, particularly outside Yellowstone National Park boundaries. Grizzly bears that leave Yellowstone face many threats, including roadways and vast expanses of private lands that hold temptations such as garbage, chickens and livestock–all of which can lead to the death of bears.

Grizzly bear, © Eric SchmidtAlso, Yellowstone grizzlies are disconnected from other grizzly populations. Long term success of this population will require reconnecting it with other populations to increase genetic diversity. For these reasons we would like to see grizzly bears afforded protections in important connective habitats between Yellowstone and the Bitterroot and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Grizzly bears need secure lands between these ecosystems in order to expand, obtain high quality food, raise their cubs, find winter dens and continue down the road to recovery.

Over the next couple of months, we expect new scientific studies to emerge pertaining to Yellowstone grizzly bears. The more we understand about Yellowstone grizzlies and their current status, the better informed we will be to assess the eventual delisting proposal and make sure these concerns are addressed.


Grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) has been an amazing conservation success story to date. As a result, FWS intends to propose delisting this population in 2014, and we are currently reviewing a draft conservation strategy that will set the stage for cooperative agency recovery efforts beyond delisting.

Our top priority is to make sure that grizzly bears in the NCDE are given the opportunity to continue to expand their range if federal protections are removed.  The NCDE grizzly bear population has the potential to:

  • Recolonize portions of the Bitterroot recovery area in southwest Montana and central Idaho, which is currently devoid of grizzly bears;
  • Reconnect with the isolated Yellowstone population; and
  • Boost the small grizzly population found in the Cabinet Yaak recovery area in northern Montana and Idaho.

This will be a slow process, particularly if there are high human-related grizzly bear mortalities in lands between these ecosystems. So in order to effectively reconnect grizzly populations, habitats between them must be sufficiently protected to minimize risk to the bears.

NCDE bear map

Map from Draft NCDE Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy.

To accomplish this, FWS has proposed creating multiple management zones (as shown on the map to the right).We support the idea of continuing variable levels of protections for grizzly bears and their habitat in areas both within the Primary Conservation Area (PCA) and outside the PCA post-delisting. This framework has the potential to secure habitat protections into the future and allow for grizzly bears to connect into other ecosystems. However, there is room for improvement. To really ensure that dispersing grizzlies can safely move between these ecosystems, public land management agencies will have to take a hard look at the potential impacts to grizzly bears of open roads on these public lands.

It has been repeatedly shown that grizzly bears are more likely to die the closer they are to roadways. Further, human development on private lands is increasing, leaving patchy habitat, especially in expansion areas. If those seemingly “secure” patches are riddled with open roads and routes with lots of human activity, the chances of a grizzly bear safely crossing the landscape plummet. Maintaining adequate habitat protections on public land will help grizzlies navigate this maze of threats.

Click here to submit public comments on the Draft NCDE Conservation Strategy before August 1. We’ll be monitoring the development of this strategy closely leading up to a possible delisting sometime next year.

6 Responses to “Are Grizzly Bears Ready for Delisting?”

  1. Monika Koestler

    For heaven’s sake let’s be glad that we’re making progress and not stop here but keep on working at it.

  2. Teresa

    Keep them on the endangered list! Let us keep protecting them always”

    • Naman

      This is for Iris, We don’t have healthy elk puploations thanks to the wolves. I don’t know where you got your facts, but having grey wolves shoved into our deer and elk puploations does NOT make those numbers stay healthy. I go deer hunting nearly every year, and the past 2 years I haven’t seen ANY elk whatsoever in areas where we would see herds of 20 up easy, and finding a deer wasn’t so easy thanks to the wolves either.

  3. Aaron Hatch

    I didn’t read anything here stating who wishes to delist and why. Well i’m here to tell you that If you had grizzly bear moving into your back yard like some of us here in Wyoming you might understand. delisting doesn’t mean that the grizzly would be unprotected. It would just mean that the states would have more authority and tools to keep them in the wild places and out of the places American people are using for their livelihood and recreation. The grizzly is expanding territory to the point that officials are having trouble keeping them out of human conflict. You can check the Wyoming game and fish website for public record of all the grizzly bears that are having to be relocated each year from the same areas over and over. Bears are smart pretty much free to do as they please. Just moving them isn’t going to change their memory of having received grain from the farmhouse, steaks from the ranchers piggy bank or bird feed from grandmas bird feeder. Dangerous wild animals that learn to stray from the wild places need to be taken care of differently than just dropping them off in another part of the forest. Our traditional public recreation areas are being closed due to safety concerns and I’m talking about outside of the designated wilderness areas. I’m talking about the taxpayer maintained campgrounds just outside of town where mommy and daddy used to take billy and suzie in the family minivan to catch a fish and roast a marshmallow by the campfire. The bears have moved in so the people have to move out. I thought the national parks like Yellowstone and the Federally designated wilderness areas were set aside to be preserved for that kind of thing. Can the humans have a little piece of that nature to enjoy without having to teach our young children how to use bear spray or “play” dead when attacked etc.?
    When management is given back to the states you can rest assured that they will protect the grizzly population numbers in the range that is agreed to because there is no way state officials would want to give control back to the feds. Grizzly populations are greater than the original goal. There is no question that grizzly is a powerful and adaptive creature fully capable of surviving in wild places as long as humans choose to let them. The real question is how much of our public lands do we want to take from the American people and give back to the animals. I’m not sure if the people pushing for more expansion of the grizzly habitat have children or if they actually like to get out and enjoy nature in real life. However, I am sure of this… when the parks service is telling the public that they can’t camp in the public campgrounds because it’s not safe it’s time for the people to have more say in how our public land is managed! Our state officials are pushing to delist the grizzly bear because the people who they represent who live near the grizzly bear simply want to keep it that way. (NEAR the grizzly – not WITH the grizzly).

    • Andrew

      I live in Washington state and I am stoked that you guys won’t be able to hunt any weolvs regardless of species. Wolves are important to the ecosystem. Wolves are the reason that you all have a healthy elk and deer population to hunt. Call me a treehugging liberal all you want, but the weolvs need to be left alone.

    • Aeriel

      You are the one that moved into Grizzly bear habitat. It shouldn’t be “our” land. The habitat DOES need to be expanded. The public has plenty of land and I think your comment here is rather selfish when Grizzlies occupy 2% of their original habitat. Mankind has been destroying habitats and ecosystems since the beginning of settlement. That is not the bear’s or any other animal’s fault. Get your anthropogenic head out of your bum!

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