The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is recommending that Yellowstone National Park’s iconic grizzly bear population be delisted as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. And just last year another classic American bear, the Louisiana black bear— inspiration behind the world famous teddy bear— underwent the same process. There’s been public outcry over the grizzly’s case, but according to wildlife experts and officials, there really shouldn’t be. Based on some serious surveillance efforts they claim both populations have reclaimed enough of their historic numbers and home range to be deemed recovered. And that’s a big reason to be celebratory—not upset—about the future of America’s bears.
But for animal lovers and some conservation scientists, the idea of meddling with the protective status of a species is scary. Many argue that most of the same threats that initially lead to bear losses are still very much at play today, like habitat loss or alteration and human conflict. And thanks to human development, from urban sprawl to industrial level farming, a large portion of both species’ former range no longer exists—even if there were enough bears out there to fill it.
Though we’ll never know with certainty the full extent of the grizzly’s range or past population stats, the best estimates place historic counts around 50,000 individuals, spread out across North America. Current estimates count only about 1,800 grizzlies and five distinct populations in the lower 48 states. And though the delisted Louisiana black bear has more than doubled its population in the 24 years since it was classified by the ESA as threatened, from 150 members to between 500 and 750, they haven’t really restored their former range. Once present throughout most of southern Mississippi, the entire state of Louisiana, and portions of eastern Texas, a vast majority of all of the bear’s today reside in four Louisiana hotspots.
So what precisely dictates when a species is to be considered recovered? How do we know when a once seriously threatened species is ready to make it on their own? And what’s the reality of protection efforts, monitoring, and research for delisted species?
Love Nature caught up with some of the people who work with the Yellowstone Grizzly population, as well as those involved in efforts to protect the Louisiana black bear. Here’s what they had to say about both bear’s recovery, and the work it took to get these massive mammals’ populations back on track.
Turning a grizzly situation around
When the Endangered Species Act was adopted back in 1973, grizzly bears were quick to make the list of species threatened with extinction on a national scale, designated in 1975. Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), explains that at the time the bears were facing massive population losses across the entire continental US. One reason was ironically based on the National Park Service’s decision to close open-pit garbage dumps, which over the years had become a fat-filled nutritionally diverse grocery store of sorts for various wild populations and species of park bears. Biologists began to worry about the role of these foreign trash-delicacies on the bear’s long-term health and prosperity. And as bears began to increasingly associate human areas with easy pickings and a full belly, human-bear conflicts became far too frequent for either species liking.
Logically, van Manen says, the Park Service wanted to move towards more natural courses of management. There were discussions over whether to abruptly close the dumps or phase them out gradually. ‘In the end they decided to impose the closures in a very short time timeframe, forcing lots of bears to move out and search for new food sources,’ he says. ‘This caused a large amount of human-bear conflict and induced mortality rates not sustainable for the long term if protection wasn’t provided.’
In 1973, after 5 years of massive grizzly losses documented in Yellowstone alone, the Department of the Interior formed the IGBST, combining the expertise and on the ground experience of the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, USFWS, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribal Fish and Game Department, and support of the three geographically involved states—Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. By initial counts, there were potentially only 136 grizzly’s left in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). And according to van Manen, the team’s data suggested the population continued to decline well into the 1980s, spurring the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) into action.
‘In the early 1980s there didn’t appear to be much recovery going on because of the very low survival rates of adult females—the engine of a population,’ says van Manen. ‘This information came from IAGST and as a result, the committee had the power to make decisions that would actually change things on the ground.’
In 1983 the committee released the first version of the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, laying out an action strategy to restore the bears status in the lower 48 states. The plan laid out a system to secure enough grizzly habitat to ensure a self-sustaining population at Yellowstone, establishing what is today a 5,894,154 acre large Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone that encompasses all of the GYE and bits of four surrounding National Forests. Most commercial and human activity was severely restricted if not outright banned in the recovery zone. A lot of the roads and other access points into these protected zones were closed, and many livestock or grazing operations in these areas were also shut down, retired, or denied license renewal. Food storage limitations were also put in place, explains van Manen, like bear-proof garbage dumpsters.
‘At the time, it was a very controversial to reduce access to the land, not a popular move at all,’ says van Manen. ‘These agencies had to make tough choices and work together.’
Thanks to a lot of effort, and most importantly, cooperation and long-term thinking, the plan—at least in Yellowstone—worked. In the late 1980s things began to turn around in terms of grizzly numbers, growing in population size between some four and five per cent annually. Today, the IGBST’s estimates put the Yellowstone grizzly population around 717 members strong.
The bear’s numbers have been relatively stable since the early 2000s, but according to van Manen, that is most likely because the population has reached the natural carrying capacity of their current range.
‘As a scientist, I can tell you from a biological standpoint that we’ve seen a recovery of the population here in Yellowstone,’ he says, the goals defined by recovery criteria, like mortality rates and distribution of females with young, having been met. ‘Anytime a species gets close to reaching the carrying capacity of its habitat it isn’t reasonable to expect the population to be able to grow beyond this point.’
The all-American fairy-tale of the Louisiana Black Bear
In November of 1902 the Governor of Mississippi invited the sitting President, Theodore Roosevelt, on a bear-hunting trip in his neck of the woods. After three days however, the President hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the region’s black bears, so at the risk of disappointing the man in charge, a subject was tracked down by dogs, injured, and then tied to a tree for easy shooting by members of the hunting party.
But when President Roosevelt saw the suffering, helpless animal, he deemed the whole thing distasteful, refusing to himself kill the bear and instead ordering it to be humanely put down. The story soon hit the headlines nationwide, inspiring a political cartoonist to depict the scene, which in turn, inspired a New York toymaker to brand his wife’s handiwork—with the President’s approval—as teddy bears. To this day teddy bears remain one of the most classic children’s toys, although those of us who still cling to them at night well into our later years may take issue with the terms ‘children’ and ‘toys’ in this context.
The bear Roosevelt saved that day in the woods was a Louisiana black bear, one of the 16 subspecies of American black bears that exist. The major difference between Louisiana black bears and all others are notably their home range (of course), plus their longer, flatter, narrower skulls and big molars. Relying on large spans of uninterrupted bottomland hardwood habitat, the bear’s decline began when European settlers arrived and began clearing land—not to mention generally shooting any threatening animal they encountered. By the mid-19th century the sub-species had been extirpated from all but two locations in Louisiana, and by 1980, 80 percent of the bear’s habitat had been altered or destroyed. When counts found there were likely only between 80 and 120 bears left in Louisiana in total, the movement to get the bears listed with the ESA began. By January 1992, Teddy’s bear had been listed as threatened, just like the grizzly, and the race to return the population to its home range began.
USDA State resource conservationist from Louisiana, John Pitre, says he takes a lot of pride in how the recovery effort went. He began his career right when the Louisiana black bear was listed with the ESA and was still on board when the species was successfully delisted last spring.
‘In my mind, the story of Teddy’s bear came to be a symbol of ethics,’ says Pitre. ‘Now it has also become an iconic symbol of conservation success—an example of how to bring a species back from the brink of extinction.’
Pitre explains that the reason the recovery plan worked so well was because it came at the right time. Throughout the 1970s and 80s most of the bear’s habitats were ploughed to make way for massive soybean crops, but when the market for the legume went bust, so did many of the farms who relied on it.
In 1990 the USDA launched a new Farm Bill conservation project called the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and by 1992, had rolled out pilot versions of the programme in nine states, including Louisiana. The WRP offered farmers help restoring their land, both financially and technically, with long-term easement plans.
‘A lot of lands being foreclosed could take advantage of the programme,’ says Pitre. ‘And while we thought it would only benefit the bears later on, once the trees on these plots had grown up to offer protection, we saw black bears occupying and reproducing almost immediately after croplands were turned over.’
In the end, the WRP has been an unbelievably efficient programme, over the past two decades converting 485,000 plus acres of primary Louisiana black bear habitat across their former range. The bear’s namesake state now leads the nation in conservation easement enrolment. And according to Pitre, the WRP may be one of the largest private-land conservation projects in the world.
Today the future for Louisiana’s state mammal looks much brighter than it once did. Its met the goals laid out in 1995’s recovery plan, increasing the three known populations in Louisiana and forming budding new subpopulations in other regions of the state as well as Mississippi. And there’s now thought to be between 500 and 750 of the bears out there all in all, with some nearly 850,000 acres of prime habitat available to them—acquired, protected, or restored collectively by all those working on the bear’s behalf.
‘The delisting [of the Louisiana black bear] was proposed last year in May and this March Fish and Wildlife announced the official delisting,’ says Pitre. He adds they’re meeting soon to discuss what, if anything, should change going forward post-delisting.
‘We’ve had some people ask—well does the delisting change anything?’ says Pitre. ‘But even though they’ve been delisted we’ll still be practicing conservation, acquiring and protecting land going forward not only for the sake of our black bears, but also those continuing to face big losses like the interior forest birds and really all other species living in the habitat.’
A hopeful future built on a successful past
Ultimately, the intention of listing a species as threatened or endangered with the ESA is to reach this precise point in time—the point of recovery based delisting. And there’s every indication that the USFWS will go forward with the decision…this time. In 2007 the same proposal to delist Yellowstone grizzly’s was squashed, primarily, says van Manan, because it was ruled that the impact of lost and altered food sources hadn’t been thoroughly enough demonstrated.
‘We were tasked with investigating the issue further, in 2012 expanding the team,’ says van Manen. ‘It is actually during this process that we realised the population was very likely approaching or at carrying capacity.’
The team also found that the diet’s of the study bears was far more varied than had ever been imagined, consisting of some 200 plus individual foodstuffs. Of course not all these different sources are created equal when it comes to nutrition, claims van Manen, but by relying on a such a wide range of edible items the bears have been able to be incredibly flexible, capable of changing their diets from day to day, season to season, decade to decade, and even bear to bear. While both bits of new information gave important insight into the future of the population, it also gave deeper perspective on their current status.
‘The data, with no preconceived notions, paints a picture of a resilient animal who has come a long way in a fairly short time period,’ says van Manen. Yet just because the group’s ready for delisting, doesn’t mean conservation efforts come to a halt. That includes continuing to run a suite of different monitoring and research projects, from using radio-collars to map distribution and habitat use to studying the interactions between grizzly’s and other top predators they live alongside.
‘The population will always depend on protection because of how sensitive it is to human-induced mortality,’ says van Manen. ‘Not a whole lot about the team’s role will change going forward.’
And in an email to Love Nature, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s wildlife and water communications representative, Justin Fritscher, writes that the awesome recovery stories of the Yellowstone grizzlies and Louisiana black bear aren’t stand-alone cases. He says they demonstrate the power of aligning private, public, and government interests and commitments.
‘The Oregon chub recovered…delisted last year largely because of wetland restoration work in the Wilamette River valley. This became the first fish in the history of the Endangered Species Act to be delisted because of recovery,’ he writes. ‘Improving rangelands in Montana led to the rebound of the Arctic grayling. Better forest management in the Northeast led to the rebound of the New England cottontail. The Louisiana black bear is just one of many wildlife success stories that have taken place in the U.S. over the past few years because of stewardship-minded landowners stepping forward to conserve habitat.’