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Living with Grizzlies
By Valerie Fellows
Photo Credit: USFWS
The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is the creature of folklore and legends as a symbol of power, freedom and invincibility. Grizzlies became the symbol of the untamed Wild West, to be explored and conquered by European settlers. The perception that grizzlies were man-eating monsters threatening human existence made hunting them a necessity for pioneers and an attraction to adventurers.
It took more than three decades of hard work to reverse the decline of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area brought on by these misguided perceptions. On March 22, 2007, the Service removed the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from the list of threatened and endangered species, heralding 30 years of robust population growth, intensive scientific research, State and Federal management efforts, and widespread public support for grizzly bear recovery. It is a success story that shows how far public understanding of grizzlies has come.
Historically, more than 50,000 grizzlies roamed much of North America, from the mid-plains westward to California and Mexico and northward to Alaska. By the early 1900s, settlers hunted the grizzly almost to the point of extinction, with only 1,000 bears left in the lower 48.
There are five ecosystems where grizzlies can be found today: the Northern Continental Divide; in and around Yellowstone National Park; the Selkirk Mountains in northern Idaho and northeast Washington; the Cabinet-Yaak area in northern Idaho; and western Montana; and the North Cascade mountain range.
"In the beginning, there was strong resistance from state agencies to consider grizzlies as a threatened species and getting the feds involved in management decisions," said Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, who has spent 30 years working toward the recovery of the grizzly. "In many places, I couldn’t even get in the door. I knew that in order for change to happen, I had to get high-level decision makers involved in the process."
So Servheen helped establish the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, composed of 11 federal and state agencies dedicated to implementing the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan by coordinating education, research and management activities to recover the grizzly bear. “Listing a species under the Endangered Species Act is not enough to recover it,” Servheen said. “We needed to dedicate the staff and resources to implement the tasks and actions identified in the recovery plan.”
When the Assistant Secretaries for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Interior signed the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee bear charter in 1983 along with the governors of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, they agreed that cooperation and participation amongst federal and state agencies was in the best interest of the grizzly. The goal of the committee is to engage top-level decision makers at federal and state agencies in coordinating research, policy, management and planning activities to facilitate the recovery of the grizzly.
The committee’s education campaign was specifically targeted to people who lived and worked in bear country. In addition, intensive education tools were also created to teach hunters and outdoor enthusiasts to recognize the signs of a grizzly, how to hunt elk and black bears safely in grizzly country, prevent surprise encounters with grizzlies and protective measures to take if a bear encounter is unavoidable. Also, teaching visitors of Yellowstone National Park to properly dispose of trash and food and keep a clean campsite helped minimize the number of conflicts with bears.
Today, there are roughly 600 bears in or around Yellowstone National Park, an extraordinary recovery from the original population of about 200.
Servheen has witnessed not only a change in bear numbers and habitat, but also a change of public attitudes. He recognizes that there will always be some level of conflict between humans and grizzlies, but he is determined to work with all the partners involved to build support and educate the public about living with grizzlies.
Valerie Fellows, a communications specialist with the Service’s Endangered Species Program headquarters office in Arlington, Virginia, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358-2285.
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