by Doug Peacock

The first Yellowstone grizzly bear I saw surprised me while I was soaking in a hot spring. I quickly stood up, nearly blacked out from effects of the hot water, and then smashed into the closest tree opening a two-inch gash in my forehead. Terrified, I scrambled up the pine that turned out to be no bigger than a Christmas tree. Fortunately, the mother bear and her cubs totally ignored me while I shivered in the 40 degree October temperature for half an hour--clinging to the upper boughs of the tiny tree, naked, blue and bleeding like some large species of silly bird. Those bears got my attention.

That was 1968 and I had just returned from Vietnam in the middle of my second tour as Green Beret medic. I was completely out of sorts and estranged from my own time. Not unlike a wounded animal, I crawled back into in the wilderness of the northern Rockies where I ran into the great bears who so dominated the physical and psychic landscape.  Self-indulgence is utterly impossible in grizzly country. This big bear is a thing of great beauty and mystery married to danger; they can chew your rear off anytime they want (but they almost never do). It was exactly what I needed—the grizzlies got me out of myself so I could reconnect the threads of my own humanity. I think they saved my life.

During those years, I learned that Yellowstone Park had fed bears at huge open-pit garbage dumps for decades. In 1968, the park had decided to close those dumps abruptly, in defiance of scientists who warned that grizzlies cut off cold turkey would wander into campground and nearby town sites in search of their accustomed food. As the dumps were shut down, the bears predictably prowled the towns and camps where they were shot or removed by managers. Within five years, at least 229 grizzlies were killed. By the mid-1970s, the Yellowstone’s grizzly population accordingly plummeted to 200 or so. I was lurking there all those years in Yellowstone watching from the tree line, sensing what the scientists were confirming: Yellowstone’s grizzlies were in a steep and dangerous decline and, without help, even on the road to extinction. As a result of the collective concern, Yellowstone’s grizzlies were listed in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a “threatened” species.

Recently, the Bush administration has proposed stripping the Yellowstone grizzly of this protection. The public comment period ended on March 20 (with 250 scientists signing a letter urging continued protection) and now the Secretary of the Department of Interior will decide if the grizzly bear will be removed from the endangered species list. The big bears, and the protection afforded their habitat under the ESA, are a lot of trouble for those who want to mine, log, explore for gas and oil, develop or road the public lands around Yellowstone. While the decision to de-list will be essentially political, the administration’s biological argument for removing Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the list remains frail and troublesome.

I now live 45 miles north of Yellowstone Park and an occasional grizzly wanders up the mountains and looks down on my house—a continuing possibility that buoys my spirits and sustains my hope. Indeed, since the 1975 listing under the ESA, Yellowstone grizzlies have expanded their range and rebounded in numbers. Today, as many as 600 grizzlies may roam what is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an area occupying Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and portions of six national forests. This is the core of the government’s argument that the Yellowstone grizzly has “recovered” and no longer needs the protection of the ESA: a large enough population and a sufficient amount of quality habitat to live in. The administration says it’s time to turn over grizzly management to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

There are problems with this argument: the size and quality of the grizzly habitat is steadily deteriorating. We chip away at the edges of occupied grizzly country every year; if delisting occurs, protective measures for roadless areas will evaporate. Also, the quality of major bear foods is seriously threatened: pine nuts, cutthroat trout and army cutworm moths all face potentially catastrophic declines.

Finally, the Yellowstone population is isolated genetically and geographically from other grizzlies. It is an island surrounded by an inhospitable human landscape of highways and towns.  Without linkage to other grizzly bears it is genetically doomed; all 600 bears are descended from those 200 or so grizzlies. The gene pool doesn’t get any bigger. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed addressing this impasse by helicoptering in an occasional female grizzly from Canada or maybe Glacier Park, managing the Yellowstone grizzly like a zoo resident.

To my mind, the tendency to manipulate our public wildlands as farms is a tragic misdirection. The Yellowstone grizzly has been preserved for all of us. Are we Californians or Montanans ready to give up on having wild, free ranging wildlife in our national parks systems? Witness the slaughter of Yellowstone bison when they stray beyond park boundaries and the intensive radio collaring and human handling of wolves. These same radio collars will be used to track grizzlies when they roam south into Wyoming where they will be tolerated only in “socially acceptable” zones. When the bears cross that human-drawn line, they will be shot or removed by managers.

Taking Yellowstone’s grizzlies off the Endangered Species list would be a grave mistake.

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