Roaring Back

Yellowstone's grizzlies may be taken off the threatened-species list. Are officials being too bullish?

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AL GRILLO / AP

BREAKFAST: A brown bear catches a salmon

A close encounter with a grizzly bear in a bad mood is a terrifying thing. The monstrous beasts can weigh in at nearly 900 lbs. and stand more than 9 ft. tall when they rear up on their hind legs, brandishing their 5-in. claws. And unlike many wild animals, grizzlies are not more afraid of you than you are of them. Unless you're carrying a powerful gun when you meet one, there's a reasonable chance you will end up as lunch--as anyone seeing Werner Herzog's new documentary, Grizzly Man, will learn in particularly gruesome fashion.

But while it's no contest when a bear meets an unarmed human, the same goes in reverse when humans move en masse into bear habitat. That's why the grizzly, which roamed the American West by the tens of thousands before white settlers arrived--and which still has a population of several thousand in Alaska and Canada--eventually saw its numbers dwindle to just a few isolated populations of a few hundred bears apiece in the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. It's also why the bear was formally put under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Such a tentative clawhold on survival explains why environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are appalled that as early as this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is almost certain to call for taking the Yellowstone National Park population of grizzlies off the "threatened" species list (threatened means that a species is likely to become endangered; endangered means it's likely to become extinct). But one environmental organization actively supports the move. Says Tom France, a senior attorney with the National Wildlife Federation: "The underlying facts surrounding the health of the bear population in the Yellowstone area are pretty exciting." When the grizzly was first put on the endangered list in 1975, only 200 of the great bears lived in and around Yellowstone, which sits mostly in Wyoming but also nudges into Montana and Idaho. Today there are anywhere from 450 to 600 grizzlies.

Admits Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear-recovery coordinator for the FWS: "I never would have guessed we would be where we are today when I started working on this 25 years ago."

If the bears are thriving, why mess with a good thing? The biggest reason is that an endangered- or threatened-species label was not supposed to be a permanent thing. A long-term goal of the federal act was to get animals to the point at which they could be removed from the list. In the case of the grizzly, the outlook is even brighter than the population numbers suggest. The original bear-recovery plan put together by the FWS called for a minimum of 15 cub-bearing females every year. Yellowstone easily exceeds that, averaging 40 for each of the past six years. What's more, those mothers are not in just one cub-friendly part of the park but are dispersed throughout it, another important benchmark. Overall, the population has been expanding some 7% annually for the past several years, while mortality has been 4% or lower since 1996.

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