Originally published in Points West magazine
Last of the Wild West: the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear
By Charles R. Preston, PhD
It was warm for early spring, and a welcome, overnight rain had left a sparkling sheen on the limber pines and Douglas firs around our home adjacent to the Shoshone National Forest above Wapiti, Wyoming. It was the day before Easter, and I was spending my Saturday reading through a series of manuscripts sent to me for technical review by the editors of several scientific journals. Deadlines were fast approaching, and I knew the upcoming work week wouldn’t allow me time to tend to this task.
Rather than stay around the house to watch me perform this scintillating aspect of my work, my wife, Penny, took her visiting cousin for a ride along the North Fork highway between our home and the East Gate to Yellowstone National Park. The East Gate was still closed for the season to automobiles, and the North Fork highway seemed like our own private pathway through the forest this time of year. Bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and even a few bison frequent the open, grassy areas along this corridor during much of the winter, providing excellent opportunities for wildlife watchers and photographers.
On this Saturday, Penny and her cousin were exploring the North Fork highway for any signs that bears had deserted their winter dens to begin their spring foraging in the fertile grounds along the Shoshone River. When Penny burst through the office door, I knew immediately they’d discovered at least one bear. I soon learned that Penny’s cousin had stepped out of the truck to investigate some wildlife scat he noticed near the driveway to one of the guest lodges located along the highway. When he looked toward the lodge buildings, he was shocked to see a large grizzly bear lumbering toward Penny’s truck.
The bear was within 20 feet of the vehicle, still moving directly toward it, when another truck grabbed his attention. This second truck was driven by a Wyoming Game and Fish Department game warden. When the grizzly spotted this green truck, it immediately turned and ran back along the driveway toward the cabins and forest. The bear apparently recognized the game warden’s truck as something to avoid!
In the meantime, the warden tried to approach the bear to use some “aversive therapy,” but couldn’t get close enough to fire his gun loaded with non-lethal ammunition. When Penny related the story to me, we both knew the behavior of this bear suggested he’d learned to associate people with a food reward and was probably heading for trouble as a result.
Several days later, we learned that same bear had broken into some cabins after his encounter with Penny and her cousin, and had been subsequently trapped by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. This 5-year-old male grizzly, known as number 380, had been in trouble with humans before. He’d been harassed and relocated previously in hopes he’d stay away from humans and our dwellings.
But the lure of easy food was apparently too strong, and bear 380 was now deemed a persistent threat to humans and property and was sentenced to be euthanized. According to one account, the fate of bear 380 may have been sealed more than 12 months earlier. A tourist threw an apple toward the animal from a car window in hopes of getting a closer look and perhaps a photograph. As the cliché goes in our part of the country, “The fed bear became the dead bear.”
The story of bear 380 epitomizes the complex relationship between humans and “grizzly” bears, as we commonly refer to brown bears in interior North America. Oral traditions, historic written accounts, and modern sports mascots and commercial icons testify to the human fascination with grizzly bears across time and cultures. The great bear is inextricably linked with the realities and myths of the American West as a place of adventure and untamed landscapes.
Visitors to Yellowstone National Park consistently cite seeing a grizzly bear as one of the top objectives of their visit. Many people have even relocated to the Greater Yellowstone area in part to live in one of the last places of the lower 48 United States that remains untamed enough to support a viable population of grizzly bears. Fascination with and admiration for grizzly bears often gives way to fear and anger, however, when human safety, property, and livelihoods are threatened. Grizzly bears are large, powerful animals. They can be extremely dangerous when surprised or threatened, and are capable of breaking into buildings or destroying backcountry campsites if they sense a food reward.
Unfortunately for stock growers and bears alike (not to mention prey), the versatile grizzly diet sometimes extends to domestic livestock. Thus, the potential for various kinds of conflicts between grizzly bears and humans is high wherever the two species come into close proximity. These conflicts have escalated in the Greater Yellowstone area in recent years, as both grizzly bear and human populations have increased and expanded their range while, at the same time, untamed landscapes have shrunk.
For the grizzly, this expansion is a reclaiming of territory lost. However, for many human residents sharing space with grizzlies, the reclamation has gone too far. Some people feel there is no longer adequate room for grizzlies and humans to coexist in the Greater Yellowstone area. Further, some would argue that we humans shouldn’t compromise our activities in any way to make way for the bear.
The long-term destiny of the Yellowstone grizzly, and the wilderness it represents, depends on how we value these things and what steps we take in support of our values. If we attempt to foster a sustainable Yellowstone grizzly bear population, our success will largely depend on the extent to which we are able to minimize human-grizzly conflicts. To do that, it’s useful to know something about the recent history of human-grizzly relationships and understand some basic grizzly bear natural history.
The grizzly ranged through much of western North America at the time Lewis and Clark made their famous journey of discovery in the early 1800s. At that time, grizzlies occupied 17 states in the U.S., five Mexican states, and six Canadian provinces and territories. An estimated 50,000–100,000 roamed the western United States prior to European settlement.
Largely due to loss or fragmentation of habitat and conflicts with human enterprise, the grizzly bear has disappeared completely from its historic range in Mexico and all but about 1–2 percent of its historic range in the lower 48 United States. It continues to occupy most of its historic range in Canada and Alaska. Nearly all of the estimated 1,000–2,000 grizzly bears now living south of Canada are found in the Greater Yellowstone area or the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, in and around Glacier National Park.
In 1975, the grizzly bear was listed as “threatened” in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). About 200 grizzlies occupied the Greater Yellowstone area at that time. Today, due to protections afforded through the ESA, the Yellowstone grizzly population has increased to an estimated 600 bears. (Estimates vary greatly from 400 to more than 800 bears, but the official and most widely accepted estimate is 600.)
The increased number of bears and their reoccupation of some areas not used in recent decades have led to increased livestock losses and encounters with humans. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the Yellowstone grizzly from protections under the ESA, whereupon management of the species would be the responsibility of the wildlife management agencies of the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
While most people agree that Yellowstone grizzly numbers have recovered substantially since the 1970s and early 1980s, many critics argue that the move to delist is premature. They cite recent declines in grizzly food sources, especially Yellowstone cutthroat trout and whitebark pine nuts. A substantial proportion of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population feeds heavily on spawning cutthroat trout in spring, but cutthroat numbers have declined significantly in some areas due to predation by introduced lake trout. The lake trout spawn in deep lakes, rather than relatively shallow tributaries, and are not generally available to grizzlies.
Whitebark pine, an important source of grizzly food in fall, is declining through much of the Yellowstone region due to widespread attack by native bark beetles (populations bolstered by several successive mild winters) and a non-native fungus. Whitebark pine trees grow at high altitudes. When grizzlies cannot find enough pine nuts to eat, they often seek other foods at lower elevations where they come into closer contact and conflicts with humans. These conflicts lead to increased bear mortality.
Critics of delisting also point to increased human exurban sprawl, oil and gas development, road-building, and off-road recreation as factors that reduce habitat for bears and increase opportunities for human-bear conflicts. The opponents of delisting thus argue that protections under the ESA are still needed for the grizzly to survive these current and future threats.
Proponents of delisting counter that the ESA has worked in this case: The Yellowstone grizzly bear population has increased to a level that warrants—even demands—delisting, and the three state management plans are adequate to ensure long-term survivability of the population. In a public meeting held in January 2006 in Cody, Wyoming, both opponents and proponents of delisting—including ranchers, outfitters, hunters, and others from many walks of life—overwhelmingly expressed an appreciation for grizzly bears and a desire to see them survive and managed as a key element of the natural, “Wild West” heritage of the Greater Yellowstone area.
Regardless of the grizzly bear’s legal status, its long-term survival will depend largely on our willingness and ability to minimize human-bear conflicts. Some actions, such as using bear-proof garbage cans, placing bird and pet feeders out of bear reach, keeping bear-safe backcountry camps, and resisting the urge to feed roadside bears like bear 380 are relatively easy. Others, such as bear-proofing beehives and stock pens with electric fencing, or moving historic calving grounds, are more difficult and expensive, but may be supported by grants and other assistance from agencies and organizations.
In the long run, the most critical actions we can take to sustain a Yellowstone grizzly population and minimize conflicts between bears and people are to manage grizzly bear numbers and distribution effectively, ensure that adequate, high-quality grizzly habitat away from human enterprise remains in the Greater Yellowstone area, and develop habitat corridors to allow dispersal and gene flow between Yellowstone and Northern Continent grizzly populations.
If we are willing and able to take these actions, we will support large game and many other species of wildlife under the grizzly umbrella and maintain at least a vestige of the Wild West our predecessors experienced and that we celebrate through institutions such as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
About the author
Now Curator Emeritus and Senior Scientist, Dr. Charles R. Preston was the Willis McDonald IV Senior Curator of Natural Science and Founding Curator-in-Charge of the Draper Natural History Museum until his retirement at the end of 2018. Prior to that, his career path included Chairman of the Department of Zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and adjunct faculty appointments in biology and environmental science at the University of Colorado (Boulder and Denver); environmental policy and management at the University of Denver; and biological sciences at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
A zoologist and wildlife ecologist by training, Preston currently focuses on human dimensions of wildlife management and conservation in North America, especially the Greater Yellowstone region and the American West. His research interests are raptors and predator-prey dynamics, informal science education in society, and the role of scientists as public educators. A prolific writer, he has authored seven books and dozens of scholarly and popular articles on these subjects.
He continues to conduct research on the influence of climate, landscape characteristics, and human attitudes and activities on large birds of prey and other wildlife, and in 2009 established a long-term monitoring program focused on golden eagles nesting in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin.