Return of the Grizzlies

October 7, 2016
KLEIN AND HUBERT—MINDEN PICTURES

Thanks to government protections, grizzly bears have bounced back from near-extinction. But can they survive in the wild without help?

Grizzly bears have all but disappeared from the continental United States (see map). But there’s one place where the top predators are making a comeback: in and around Yellowstone National Park. By 1975, the grizzly population had dipped below 140. Forty-one years later, that number has increased to about 700.

A grizzly catches a trout. Numbers of this key food source are declining.

KLEIN AND HUBERT—MINDEN PICTURES

Grizzly bears have all but disappeared from the continental United States (see map). But there’s one place where the top predators are making a comeback: in and around Yellowstone National Park. By 1975, the grizzly population had dipped below 140. Forty-one years later, that number has increased to about 700.

U.S. officials say these numbers show that the big bears in the Yellowstone area have recovered. They suggest it’s time to remove them from the endangered-species list. “The bears are occupying all suitable habitat,” Michael Thabault, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told TFK. “This tells us the population is stabilized.”

Tourists watch a grizzly mother and cub cross a road in Yellowstone National Park.

JEFF VANUGA—MINDEN PICTURES

Out of the Woods?

Conservationists argue that the bears still face many challenges in the wild. The loss of important food sources is one. Grizzlies eat the nuts of the whitebark pine. The tree’s numbers are declining because of climate change and infestation by a tree-killing beetle. Trout and elk, both favorite grizzly foods, are also dwindling. According to Thabault, the bears are adaptable and will eat whatever foods are available in order to survive.

Grizzlies often give birth to twins. In the wild, the bears live about 25 years.

PAPILO/ALAMY

The biggest worry for conservationists is that grizzlies will be hunted once protections are removed. The bears will remain protected within Yellowstone National Park, but surrounding states—Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—plan to allow hunting.

“[States] want to manage their own wildlife and not have the federal government tell them how to do it,” says Andrea Santarsiere. She’s a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that protects animal habitats. She says the government should recover historic bear habitat before even thinking about delisting.

Where are the bears? The map shows how widely grizzlies once roamed and where they can be found today.

MAP BY JOE LEMONNIER FOR TIME FOR KIDS

A Protection Plan

The decision on delisting grizzlies in the Yellowstone area could be announced by mid-November. States are creating a conservation plan in the event that they gain control over the bears’ management.

Biologist Kerry Gunther, of the National Park Service, believes grizzlies are ready for delisting. But he admits that the bears’ fate rests on the strength of each state’s plan. “The recovery of this symbol of the wilderness is a conservation success story,” he says.

Whether or not that story has a happy ending will depend on what happens next.