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Montana Grizzlies on the Road to Recovery
Photo credit: Erwin and Peggy Bauer, USFWS
While the Yellowstone grizzly bear population (Ursus arctos horribilis) is well known, the largest population in the lower 48 states actually lives in northwestern Montana, on the border of Canada. Here, you can find close to 1,000 grizzlies living in several national parks and wilderness areas.
The grizzly bear, an iconic species evocative of the rugged landscapes of the Wild West, once roamed much of the western and midwestern U.S., from the northern border down to Mexico. Grizzlies can reach 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) and 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall when standing on their hind feet. Despite their intimidating size and speeds of up to 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour, most grizzly bears are shy and elusive. Their varied diet includes plants, roots, berries, insects, and occasionally small mammals and fish. The flexibility of their omnivorous diet has allowed them to survive and adapt to changes in their food sources over time.
In 1800, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears lived in the western United States, but by the 1930s, only a few hundred survivors remained. The species' decline was the result of human intolerance of bears, aggressive killing campaigns, and relentless habitat encroachment. For years, the survival of the population hinged on a few remaining bears in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, which provided a refuge for grizzlies to persist as habitat disappeared until 1975 when they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). By then, only six out of the 37 grizzly populations existing in 1922 remained in the west.
The species has recovered to more than 1,700 wild bears in the U.S., despite naturally low reproductive rates. Today, grizzlies occur in five populations spread across Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Of these areas, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, located in northwestern Montana, is home to the largest number of grizzlies. The Northern Continental Divide grizzlies are thriving—growing approximately three percent each year. Grizzlies here have even begun to move outside the designated recovery zone.
For the past 32 years, Dr. Chris Servheen, with perseverance akin to that of the bear itself, has spearheaded conservation efforts as the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Servheen coordinates the efforts of a diverse team of partners committed to grizzly bear conservation, including the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, several Tribes, and provincial authorities from British Columbia and Alberta. Conservation efforts have included successful habitat management, research, education, and outreach programs.
As the Northern Continental Divide population moves closer toward recovery and delisting, we recognize the remarkable results that effective protection measures and conservation efforts carried out under the ESA can achieves. On the verge of extirpation in the lower 48 states just 35 years ago, grizzly bears are now slowly and steadily re-populating some of their historic range.
As grizzlies rebound, Servheen explains that the "challenge for the future is balancing the needs of bears with the needs of people." Human-bear conflicts have risen as bear populations expand and human activity in bear habitat increases. Americans will need to keep their grizzly-IQ high to enable a successful and permanent recovery of one of the nation's most iconic animals.
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