The grizzly bear's historic range covered much of North America from the plains westward to California and from central Mexico north through Canada and Alaska. Today, the grizzly is found in only about 2% of its original range in the lower 48 states. It was listed as threatened south of Canada in July of 1975.
Currently, south of Canada, there are five grizzly bear subpopulations in Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Grizzlies are difficult to survey, yet it is generally agreed there are more than 500 in the northwest Montana Rockies, about 600 in and around Yellowstone National Park, about 50 in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington, and 30 to 40 in the Cabinet-Yaak area of northern Idaho and western Montana. Probably less than a dozen grizzlies survive in the North Cascades. There are about 22,000 grizzlies in Canada and more than 30,000 in Alaska.
Since 1983, grizzly mortality has declined and productivity has increased in this ecosystem, prompting the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to issue a revised Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan in 1993 that changed the criteria for delisting. Following a legal challenge by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 1995, a federal court upheld much of the plan but asked for further detail on recovery criteria, population viability, habitat concerns, females-with-cubs survey criteria, and livestock-related mortality. In October of 1995 the USFWS asked the court to reconsider its ruling. The court rejected this appeal, citing uncertainty about the way the quality and quantity of habitat is monitored and the way the grizzly population is measured. This decision has effectively taken delisting off the table for now.
Because it is completely isolated, the Yellowstone subpopulation is vulnerable to genetic problems, and the recovery plan talks about augmentation to maintain genetic health. Research on this issue is being sponsored by the Yellowstone Grizzly Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986.
In 1995, 17 grizzly mortalities were documented in the Yellowstone ecosystem: six resulted from management actions, four from illegal kills, three from humans acting in self-defense, three from accidental electrocutions, and one unexplained. Fifty-two grizzly/human conflicts were reported from the Montana portion of this ecosystem in 1995, resulting in 10 captures and five relocations. Wyoming reported 123 incidents, including 32 livestock losses and 12 relocations. Yellowstone National Park had no human injuries, but three property damage incidents were reported.
In 1995 the USFWS helped negotiate two landmark agreements that partially resolved long-standing logging and grizzly issues in the Swan Valley. One involved 296,000 acres of public and corporate lands administered by Plum Creek Timber Company, US Forest Service (USFS), and the State of Montana. In a separate but related agreement, Swan Valley residents developed land management recommendations for private landowners on issues involving sanitation, subdivision, road construction, and real estate disclosures. These agreements will facilitate grizzly movement between the Mission Mountains and the more secure Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and help reduce human pressure on grizzlies during the critical spring feeding period.
Other developments in 1995 included: (1) new USFS food handling regulations for wilderness areas; (2) standardized methods for reporting grizzly mortalities and incidents; (3) an information campaign to explain roading issues; and (4) development of a "draft conservation strategy" that describes how the grizzly and its habitat will be managed following delisting.
In 1995 the Northern Continental Divide population suffered 17 known mortalities: seven from management actions, three from illegal kills, two from train kills, three from natural causes, and two from unknown causes.
In the 1980s, only a few grizzlies remained in this area. In a first-time experiment with augmentation, the USFWS radio-collared and released four subadult female grizzlies from British Columbia between 1990 and 1994. None of these bears has caused problems and the initial effort has been judged a success. The ultimate success of this project will depend on whether these female bears survive, find mates, and reproduce.
Between 1986 and 1995, only 13 individual grizzlies were documented in this ecosystem. The USFWS plans to continue monitoring this small population.
This six million acres of unoccupied habitat is the largest unbroken expanse of roadless area left in the lower 48 states. The heart of it is in Idaho, but about 250,000 acres extend eastward into Montana. It is historic grizzly country, but the last known grizzly there was killed in 1956. The USFWS is preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) that will assess the possibility of reintroducing grizzlies to this area; a draft is scheduled for completion in 1996. Reintroduction could begin as early as the summer of 1998.
Because this grizzly reintroduction proposal is controversial, a new, collaborative approach is being tried. Four organizations -- Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation, the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, and Idaho's Resource Organization on Timber Supply -- are working together in an unprecedented way to foster grizzly recovery while maintaining the health of local economies. This coalition has developed an alternative for the EIS that would assign "experimental" status to reintroduced grizzlies and authorize a Citizens Management Committee (with minority agency representation) to guide overall management of the Bitterroot Grizzly Recovery Program.