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Are the Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone Still Endangered?

Are the Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone Still Endangered?

​One of the coolest things about visiting Yellowstone is that it is one of the few remaining places in the Lower 48 United States to see a grizzly bear. Before our visit to Yellowstone National Park, we had lots of questions. Are grizzly bears endangered? How many grizzly bears are in the park? How are they being managed?

Fortunately, while staying in Cody, Wyoming prior to visiting Yellowstone from the East Entrance in 2016, we had the opportunity to attend a free Public Talk at the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum.

Dan Tyers, the Forest Service GYE Grizzly Bear Management Coordinator for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, gave the talk. It was all about the Grizzly Bear Management Program in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Before we explain what that means and what the study team does, we have to go back in time a bit.

Grizzly bears in the greater yellowstone ecosystem

Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone: The Problems Begin

​In 1872, Yellowstone National Park became the first National Park. With regard to grizzly bears, they had a naïve start.

Yellowstone bears were seen as a spectacle, and as such, they were fed regularly by people visiting the park. As was bound to happen, injuries started to occur as the bears associated people with food. At the time, rangers didn’t know what to do about this. They even probably encouraged it to bring more city slickers out to the National Park.

Bears were eating from the dumpsters, taking food right off of picnic tables, out of car windows, and more.   

grizzly bears in yellowstone old photo
old photo of grizzly bears in yellowstone
grizzly bears in yellowstone old photo
old photo of grizzly bears in yellowstone with car

Craighead Grizzly Bear Study

This problem spurred a research project by Frank and John Craighead now called the Craighead Grizzly Bear study. It went on from 1959-1971. They marked the bears, put radio collars on them for monitoring, and collected quantitative data about the bears. They ​pioneered advances in wildlife ecology and conservation, including the development and use of radiotelemetry, anesthetization and handling, and population dynamics modeling.

grizzly bear study

Grizzly Bear Attacks

However, the research wasn’t fast enough.

In 1967 in Glacier National Park, two different bears killed two different people in 2 different locations on the same night. It was the worst bear incident the area had ever had. The park authorities believed they had to do something about it. ​

Based on the research they HAD acquired, the Craighead scientists knew that the open garbage dumps were a crucial food source for the bears.  They cautioned that too drastic of measures may severely impact the grizzlies’ ability to survive. 

​But the Federal Agencies couldn’t have people dying in the National Parks. They implemented very strict bear regulations in the parks. Almost overnight, policies changed to include no feeding, mandatory bear-resistant food storage, and a quick severance of garbage dumps. Officials replaced the old accessible garbage dumps with steel, bear-proof ones which cut them off as a food supply.

Grizzly Bear Die Off

In 1967 there were 245 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. By 1974 — not even ten years later — there were only 136. 

​Many bears couldn’t adapt to the loss of their primary food source. Officials deemed many others too dangerous to be among people and so destroyed them.  ​

Are Grizzly Bears Endangered?

Due to the severe decline of the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, in 1975 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Grizzly Bear as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List.

“On July 28, 1975, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, as amended, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed four distinct populations of grizzly bear in the lower 48 states as “threatened,” in part, because the species was reduced to only about 2% of its former range south of Canada. Five or six small populations were thought to remain, totaling 800 to 1,000 bears. The southernmost—and most isolated—of those populations was in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), where 136 grizzly bears were thought to live in the mid-1970s.” 
–NPS.gov

​The goal of an Endangered Species Act listing is to recover a species to self-sustaining, viable populations that no longer need protection. To do this, the federal and state agencies set up the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. It is an interdisciplinary group of scientists and biologists responsible for long-term monitoring and research efforts on grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Population Increase: Back from the Brink

​In 1975 there was an estimated 136 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. When we spoke to Dan Tyers after his talk, he told us that while they don’t have a definite number, the population is now up to around 700 bears.

Their territory is expanding out of Yellowstone National Park and into Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding National Forests on all sides. 

map of grizzly bear habitat in yellowstone
Map of expanding territory and Study Team boundaries. Source: usgs.gov

Removal from the Endangered Species List?

In 2007, advocates attempted to delist the grizzly bears in Yellowstone from the threatened species list. But, that decision was overturned for a couple of reasons. The Interagency Committee continues to work toward their delisting, as well as ensure that a sustainable conservation plan is in place to reduce human-bear conflicts, preserve their habitat, and eventually connect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems with other populations for further restoration.

grizzly bear study
Photo credit: www.livescience.com

New Challenges

​Now, there are more bears, and more visitors who want to see bears. 

grizzly bears in yellowstone
Source: nytimes.com ​

The Park Service and other agencies are expanding their campaigns of spreading bear awareness to keep humans and bear conflicts down. These efforts include making sure people have bear spray with them, know the proper food storage methods, and never hike alone.

avoid bear attack graphic

Bear Camping Safety

Because of the bears’ expanding territory, many of the National Forest Campgrounds just outside the park have been designated “Hard-Sided Campers Only.” This means no tents or soft-sided campers allowed. More than $1MM has been invested in the 164 campgrounds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for campsite bear boxes, locking dumpsters, locking trash cans, and gate closures.

Grizzly Bear Food Shortage

Another challenge is a new threat to one of the Grizzly Bear’s top food sources. This threat is one of the reasons that delisting was overturned.

grizzly bear major foods

Whitebark pine seeds are a high-calorie food resource available to grizzly bears during late summer and fall. Whitebark pine seeds are high in fats and proteins. When available, they allow grizzly bears to build up fat reserves during fall in preparation for hibernation. Grizzly bears harvest these cones by raiding seed caches of red squirrels.

Since 1980, whitebark pine cone production throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been monitored annually. The data show that mature, cone-producing whitebark pine trees in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have experienced substantial mortality. This is primarily due to a mountain pine beetle outbreak that started in the early 2000s but also from white pine blister rust and fire.

pine beetle
Source: fs.usda.gov
mountain pine beetle damage
Source: fs.usda.gov

Luckily, the grizzly bear is an opportunistic omnivore, which means that in that timeframe, they have been able to shift their diets. The Forest Service is trying to combat the mountain pine beetle outbreak, which will hopefully help keep this food source for the grizzly bears in Yellowstone.

Entering Bear Country

As we were about to enter Yellowstone National Park and this awesome animal’s territory, it was so amazing that we had the opportunity to learn about this program from the man who leads it.

IF we saw a grizzly, it would be more than just seeing a huge, majestic, and extremely dangerous wild animal; we’d be seeing 30 years of restoration success.

And we would most definitely be carrying bear spray!


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Dawn Campbell

Friday 1st of January 2021

When I was 12 yrs old my family visited Yellowstone. This was, coincidentally enough, in 1967. Two of my most vivid memories are of bears. One was a black bear with a bacon wrapper in its mouth running through the middle of a very crowded campground. The other is of pushing marshmallows through a crack at the top of my window to a patiently waiting grizzly who sat outside. Bears lined the Firehole River road like hobos waiting for a handout. We were so ignorant back then. When I returned to Yellowstone about 15 years ago the only grizzly I saw was a sow and her 2 cubs on the other side of a large roadside meadow. Strangely enough I'm so happy about that. I hope you were blessed with the opportunity to see these majestic creatures.

Mortons on the Move

Sunday 3rd of January 2021

Wow great story and a good reminder to us even now! We did get to see a mom and cub and hope they will continue to flurish!

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