MISSOULA — The grizzly bear answers to a lot of names.
Biologists call it Ursus arctos. They also describe it as an “ecological engineer” or “keystone predator.”
Wordy members of the general public call grizzlies “charismatic megafauna.” Others call them “vermin.” While running for president in 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain famously derided studying grizzlies as a classic example of “Washington, D.C., pork.”
McCain later apologized for misunderstanding the value of Montana grizzly bear researcher Kate Kendall’s DNA hair analysis. Kendall’s unlocking of grizzly genealogy, diet and movement from strands of fur had a huge impact on what we know about grizzlies in the continental United States. It’s part of the evidence the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relies on as it considers removing grizzly bears from the “threatened” list of the Endangered Species Act.
If that happens, the grizzly faces a fateful moment.
Americans once thought it was socially acceptable to shoot every bear on sight, in the interest of protecting life and livestock. Even as we memorialized grizzlies on the California state flag and the University of Montana’s athletics program, the actual animal followed the Rocky Mountain gray wolf, jaguars of the Southwest and Florida panthers onto the list of critters we really didn’t want to have around.
After 30 years of research, relocation and rhetoric, are we ready to share the landscape with a creature that occasionally considers us as a food source?
Almost half of the Lower 48’s grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, around the junction of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The Fish and Wildlife Service expects to publish a delisting plan this fall, eventually turning those roughly 700 bears over to state management. That potentially means creating a hunting season for an animal that’s been federally protected since 1975.
Almost 1,000 more grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, reaching from Missoula’s northern fringe to the Canadian border. A delisting plan for those bears could be ready by late 2015.
“Bear habitat is more than just space on the ground,” said FWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen in Missoula. “It’s the level of human acceptance that exists for them.”
Bears deep in the forests of the Bob Marshall Wilderness get a different level of attention than the grizzlies showing up on the urban fringes of Missoula and Kalispell. And it appears the more we see them, the more we want reassurance there are tools handy to control them.
“Our ability to accept bears is based on our ability to manage bears when they come into conflict with people,” Servheen said. “So it’s important we have that response system in place. It’s built. It exists. We coordinate among all the agencies involved, so that when the average person that lives in bear habitat calls, someone responds.”
That’s important, because while millions of people have opinions about grizzly bears, a tiny fraction of that number has to deal with a 500-pound omnivorous invader tearing up the chicken coop. What’s it worth to have such animals roaming the landscape?
Duke University biologist Norm Christensen studies how animals and fire disturb ecosystems in places like the Rocky Mountains. He sees big challenges ahead as human society pushes ever harder on the remaining places where grizzly bears can find isolation.
“If you look at the Wilderness Act, did we know what we wanted in 1964?” Christensen asked. “Did we get what we wanted? In 1964, nobody understood the issue of scale. We made a lot of arbitrary decisions, like a wilderness area had to be at least 5,000 acres. That’s the territory of a single bear or wolf pack.”
“Arbitrary boundaries don’t correspond to ecological boundaries for predators or fire,” Christensen continued. “You can see the western boundary of Yellowstone from space. It’s a straight line. And that just magnifies the management issues. You can’t just walk away and say it’s going to function on its own and we can do whatever the hell we like. I don’t know how one gets around that.”
But that’s what managers like Servheen have to work with. FWS proposed transplanting grizzlies into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border in the 1990s, but public opposition kept the plan on the shelf. Tiny populations of grizzlies hang on in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of northern Montana, the Selkirks of northern Idaho and possibly the Cascade Mountains of Washington. They remain so isolated, FWS and state wildlife agencies relocate bears from bigger areas there in an attempt to expand genetic diversity.
Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm said that model may become the norm for preserving fragile species in our expanding human world. He recalled the reintroduction and rescue of Florida panthers in the Everglades over the past two decades.
“There was a lot of discussion about whether to allow it to go extinct, and whether we could rescue the population genetically,” Pimm said. “That was a really controversial and carefully thought-out intervention, yet they’re probably going to have to do it again every 40 or 50 years. That’s probably going to be inevitable.” And it’s a cost Pimm said he’s willing to bear to keep such animals as part of our world.
“These populations aren’t going to make it otherwise, and it would be an enormous tragedy if grizzly bears and wolves and mountain lions were absent from the landscape. These ecosystems developed in the presence of large predators. I’m first-generation American, and I remember watching the ‘Wizard of Oz’ for the first time with my two daughters – ‘Lions and tigers and bears/ Oh my!’ Whatever the ecological argument I might make, it’s a spiritual thing how we pass on our rich natural heritage. I want to be able to take my grandchildren to see elk and grizzlies and other spectacular wildlife.”