In the Northern Rockies, grizzly bears are on the move
Keane had lived on the plains 16 miles north of Loma, Montana, for 14 years. He married into the farm and he and his wife grew wheat, canola, flax and hemp. They kept chickens, but not cows. To the best of Keane’s knowledge, the closest grizzlies lived some 150 miles west in Glacier National Park — certainly not in the wide-open ranchland of north-central Montana. He reasoned that the bear followed the Marias River, which flows east from Glacier County, near the Blackfeet Reservation, and runs along the edge of the Keane farm. “I guess he happened to smell the chickens and came up out of the river bottom,” Keane said.
At the time, Keane’s grizzly sighting was the easternmost in the United States in more than a century. He had heard murmurings around town that the bears were moving closer, “but you just don’t expect one to be in your backyard,” he told me. As the grizzly pulverized his poultry, Keane dialed up the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to report the animal. But before the officer could make it out to his farm to apprehend the grizzly, a neighbor drove by in a loud pickup. The bear took off, and Keane was left to assess the carnage.
When the state’s grizzly bear management specialist for the region investigated the scene, he surmised that the bear was a 3-year-old male that had been moving toward the area, traveling about 10 miles every day. The official set a trap next to Keane’s coop, but the bear was never caught.
After the encounter, the state official installed an electric fence around his coop to protect the ruffled survivors. Keane started carrying a pistol with him on his tractor. “I catch myself looking over my shoulder now,” he said. “It makes you think twice about what else is out there.” After the incident made the local news, Keane was criticized by others around town. “One guy said we should have known better to keep chickens, being in bear country and all. Well, we aren’t in bear country. But maybe we’re starting to be now.”
“I catch myself looking over my shoulder now. It makes you think twice about what else is out there.”
TODAY, KEANE’S RUN-IN would not be newsworthy. Just a year after his sighting, another grizzly was photographed in the Big Snowy Mountains, about 100 miles southeast of the Keane farm. In the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems, bears that have been isolated from one another for more than 100 years are venturing out of their respective regions, slowly reclaiming old territory.
The grizzly bear, despite what most people think, isn’t a species unto itself. Rather, it’s one of two living subspecies of brown bear found in North America, the other being the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) in Alaska. Grizzlies (Ursus arctos horribilis) once ranged as far south as central Mexico, where they were known as oso plateado, silvery bears, for their grayish fur. An estimated 50,000 grizzly bears lived in the contiguous United States when the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through in the early 1800s. But European settlers trapped and shot these bears until fewer than 1,000 remained. The southern edge of the grizzly’s range eventually contracted from Mexico to the southern border of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Grizzlies also disappeared from the Pacific Coast. In California in the mid-1800s, the bears were still so common that a $10 bounty was placed on their heads. Restaurants fried up greasy grizzly steaks and served them for less than a dollar. But by 1922, there were only 37 grizzly populations left in the contiguous U.S., and 31 would vanish within just 50 years. Survivors sought refuge in the remote forests of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.
The grizzly’s gains in recent decades are the result of swift human intervention followed by natural expansion. In 1975, all grizzlies living in the Lower 48 of the United States were protected under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later designated six ecosystems as the focus of recovery efforts: Greater Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, Bitterroot, Selkirk and the North Cascades.
Through taxes and donations, Americans spent millions of dollars to restore grizzlies — financing recovery planning, private land easements, and educational programs designed to teach people how to live with an animal capable of eating them. Critically, they also funded the relocation of bears. In the 1990s, scientists augmented the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population in northwestern Montana by transplanting a handful of Canadian bears into the ecosystem. The descendants of those bears are now wandering into the Bitterroot Range, near the Montana-Idaho border, which has been devoid of grizzlies for decades. Biologists had initially planned to move some Canadian bears into the Bitteroots, too. Now they think the grizzlies may repopulate the ecosystem without their help.
Today, grizzlies number just below 2,000 in the Lower 48. Their population has more than doubled in half a century, and, as evidenced by Keane’s encounter, the bears are no longer content to roam within the boundaries we’ve contrived for them. Yellowstone’s grizzlies have tripled their range in recent decades and are now moving north out of the national park. Meanwhile, grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide recovery zone are heading south. The populations are now only about 50 miles apart, the closest they’ve been in more than a century. Scientists expect that the bears will join up in less than a decade — two islands becoming a continent.
The return of the grizzly bear from near-extinction is one of America’s unlikeliest comeback stories. The bears are among the slowest-reproducing mammals in North America; they require vast tracts of habitat (an adult male grizzly can have a home range of 600 square miles); and they kill people. Bringing back the grizzly required humans to overcome their fear of predators and champion the return of a known man-eater.
And the grizzly remains a fearsome animal. The bear is 800 pounds of muscle and fat, with sharp canines and 4-inch-long claws. It’s extremely defensive, always ready to neutralize a perceived threat. A human being is little more than a rag doll in its immense jaws. Though humans have protected the grizzly from extinction, public sentiment toward the subspecies remains divided: Only the wolf inspires more hatred and mistrust. And as grizzlies expand into places they haven’t inhabited in more than a century, they are crossing not only geographical and political boundaries but thresholds of tolerance.
By 1922, there were only 37 grizzly populations left in the contiguous U.S., and 31 would vanish within just 50 years.
I ENCOUNTERED MY FIRST Yellowstone grizzly outside a resort hotel near Jackson, Wyoming, in 2015. Next to the stone facade, a portly man wearing a furry brown onesie was waving at passing cars. The bear costume’s head was perched above his own, and two fangs protruded over his mustachioed face, almost as if the man had been partially consumed by the bear and was now helplessly peering out of its open mouth. In front of his chest, clasped between wooden claws, he held a placard that read: “I’m Worth More Alive Than Dead.”
I approached the bear, notebook in hand.
“I got this costume just for this event,” the man beamed, performing a small twirl. “Grizzlies are my absolute favorite species! I always feel more alive when I’m in grizzly habitat.”
Extending a paw, he introduced himself as Jim Laybourn, and said he had shown up on behalf of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation in the state. Inside the hotel, dozens of federal, state and tribal representatives were gathering to discuss the possible removal of federal protections from the Yellowstone grizzly population. If the states — Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — regained management authority, they were likely to legalize a trophy hunt.
The debate over Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears has dragged on for more than a decade. In 2007, when the population numbered more than five hundred, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared it recovered and removed protections. But environmental groups disputed the government’s assessment and took the agency to court, where a judge ruled that Fish and Wildlife had failed to adequately analyze the impact of climate change on whitebark pine, a key food source for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Average temperatures in the region had increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, and the greatest warming was occurring at elevations above 5,000 feet, where whitebark pine grows. (In 2022, the tree was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.)
Federal scientists launched their own investigation into the grizzly’s food sources. They agreed that whitebark’s precipitous decline had caused bears to forage at lower elevations, making run-ins with humans more likely. And reduced cub survival rates, which had begun to slow grizzly population growth in 2002, coincided with the whitebark decline. However, the scientists also found that Yellowstone grizzlies relied more on meat than other populations, and that many bears already lived in areas without much whitebark pine. They proposed that cubs and yearlings were dying not from a lack of whitebark pine but because too many grizzlies were crowded into too limited an area.
Federal officials had again recommended the removal of Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone grizzly population. Laybourn, a lifelong Wyoming resident, declared that despite his costume, he was not a “bear-hugger.” He was most concerned about the economic ramifications of a trophy hunt. “Our tourism economy here is based on bears. I work as a guide myself, and I’ve taken hundreds of people to see grizzly bears,” he said. Scientists funneled past us into the building, carrying hefty manila folders. Laybourn held the door open with his toothpick claws, an inadvertent ursine bellhop. “I want to make sure we have a robust population,” he continued. “Whenever we take people out to see the wildlife and geysers, every single person asks me, ‘Are we going to see a bear today?’”
FROM THE THREE BEAR LODGE to the Beartooth Barbeque to the Running Bear Pancake House, businesses near Yellowstone rely heavily on the ursine theme. “Grizzly X-ing” mugs are well stocked at every souvenir stand. And bear claws — a sweet Danish pastry — are sold in almost every bakery within a 100-mile radius of the national park. But there are still those who long for an actual bear claw.
At his office in eastern Oregon, I met Steve West, the host of the TV show Steve’s Outdoor Adventures. West was huge in both height and girth — the kind of man who might stand a tiny chance against a grizzly in a fight. A trimmed sandy beard created the mirage of a jawline on his round face. On the day I met him, he wore a plaid shirt that pulled tightly across his chest and a camouflaged ball cap with his TV show’s logo on it. West explained that he had started out hunting for meat — deer and elk, mainly — and made his first foray into trophy hunting in the 1990s with black bears and grizzlies in Alaska. Part of what had made bears so attractive was the risk. “Grizzlies are hunted because they’re a challenge,” he said.
West was a connoisseur of charismatic megafauna, and had bumped off beasts around the world. Oryx in Namibia. Water buffalo in Australia. Musk ox in Canada. Exotic glass-eyed trophies decorated the wood-paneled walls of his office.
“Stalking a grizzly bear is completely different than going after anything else,” West observed as we moved through the halls. “There’s the man-versus-bear thing that comes into play. Yeah, I’ve got a rifle or a bow, I’m holding an advantage of weaponry, but there’s still an element of danger.”
West told me he supported a mix of management approaches to brown bears. He thought there should be places off-limits to hunters, like Brooks Falls in Alaska, where thousands of tourists can watch brown bears fish for salmon from wooden viewing platforms. At the same time, bear hunting is permitted in other parts of the state. “Alaska is the perfect compromise,” he said. I asked West whether he would hunt in the Yellowstone ecosystem given the chance. Without a pause, he replied:
“I’ll buy the first tag.”
“Grizzlies are hunted because they’re a challenge.”
IN 2017, following years of highly contentious meetings, the Yellowstone grizzly population lost federal protections for a second time. Then-Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the delisting “one of America’s great conservation successes, the culmination of decades of hard work.” Less than a year later, Wyoming and Idaho announced trophy hunts. The two states held lotteries for a total of 23 tags, each of which would enable the winner to bag a bear.
More than 8,000 people entered the lotteries, each paying a fee of less than $20. A few hunters gleefully anticipated killing the region’s best-known bear, Grizzly 399, who was often photographed ambling along park roads with two or three cubs in tow. World-renowned wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen entered the lottery, hoping to spare a bear’s life by winning a tag and then shooting with his camera instead of a gun. Miraculously, Mangelsen won a tag; Steve West did not.
Following the announcement of the grizzly’s second delisting, environmental groups and the Northern Cheyenne tribe sued the government, challenging the decision to remove protections from the isolated Yellowstone grizzly population rather than prioritize reconnecting populations across the West. Another lawsuit, filed by the Crow, Crow Creek Sioux and Standing Rock Sioux tribes and the Piikani Nation alongside other tribal leaders and societies, alleged that the federal government ignored legal requirements to consult with tribes about the decision. Since 2016, more than 100 Indigenous nations have signed the Grizzly Treaty, committing them to the restoration and revitalization of grizzly bear populations throughout North America.
“Our people have been separated from the grizzly since we were forced onto reservations, but we have not forgotten,” then-Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Brandon Sazue wrote to me. “In our genesis, it was the great grizzly that taught the people the ability for healing and curing practices, so the grizzly is perceived as the first ‘medicine person.’ … It is no coincidence that the spiritual reawakening of Native people on this continent has coincided with the modest recovery of the grizzly since the 1970s — a recovery that will end with delisting and trophy hunting in a return to the frontier mentality of the 1870s.”
Just before the trophy hunt was scheduled to begin, the judge presiding over the environmental groups’ lawsuit brought down the gavel. He ruled that the federal agency had exceeded its legal authority when it removed protections from the Yellowstone grizzly. The judge wrote in his decision that it would be “simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst” to not take into account the five other populations of grizzlies outside of Yellowstone. With the bears so close to closing the gap, losing protections would be an enormous setback for the subspecies. If the Fish and Wildlife Service was going to succeed in delisting the iconic bears, it would need to rejoin these island populations, creating genetic linkages that would ensure long-term survival. The trophy hunt was canceled, and protections were restored.
The ruling was a victory for the environmental groups and tribes who had fought hard to keep the animal protected indefinitely. For others living in close proximity to America’s growing grizzly population, it was anything but.
“Our people have been separated from the grizzly since we were forced onto reservations, but we have not forgotten.”
BLACK BART is the only bear Trina Jo Bradley doesn’t mind having around. The enormous jet-black grizzly, pushing 900 pounds, has lived on her ranch on Birch Creek for close to six years. He’s well-behaved, Bradley said, and keeps his brethren out: “Normally, we get bears coming through here pretty thick in March, heading out from the mountains down to the prairie. Since he’s been here, we’ve seen way fewer bears.”
Ranching is in Bradley’s blood. She was raised on a cattle operation some 16 miles south, near Dupuyer Creek in Montana. Her father was a hired rancher, which meant that Bradley and her brothers were put to work at a young age. They rode horses and herded cows. Any free time was spent mucking around outside — but always within shouting distance of the house, and with a guard dog. There were bears near Dupuyer, she said, even back then, in the 1980s and 1990s. Glacier National Park wasn’t too far away, and occasionally a grizzly from the Northern Continental Divide population would wander out and kill one of their cows.
Bradley went south to Casper, Wyoming, for college, where she studied agribusiness. At 22, a car accident forced her to return home to Montana, where, while recuperating, she met her husband. Instead of going back to school like she’d planned, she moved onto his family ranch, where she’s raised three daughters along with Angus cattle and quarter horses. When her father-in-law bought the Birch Creek land back in 1956, there were very few grizzlies in the area, she said. The first livestock loss happened in the 1990s when a bear killed a calf. Authorities promptly trapped and removed it. “That was the last bear they saw until I moved here. I’m pretty sure the bears followed me from Dupuyer,” she said.
As Montana’s bears grow in numbers and expand their range, they are spending more time on private land, leading to more encounters with humans and domestic animals. In 2019, for example, the state made more payments —$261,000 — to ranchers for livestock killed by predators than in any previous year, with nearly twice as many animals suspected to have been killed by grizzlies than wolves. In 2021, when ranchers reported 78 kills by wolves and 119 by grizzlies, payouts topped $340,000.
As Montana’s bears grow in numbers and expand their range, they are spending more time on private land, leading to more encounters with humans and domestic animals.
Bradley’s sage-green farmhouse is surrounded by some 3,500 acres of hayfield and private pasture, where she and her husband run about 250 cows. The house’s living-room window looks out over rolling hayfields, toward the snowcapped perimeter of the Rocky Mountains. From this vantage point, Bradley often watches the bears go by. “Grizzly bears are super cool, and I love seeing them,” she said. “But I don’t love seeing them in my yard or in my cows.”
Though grizzlies are around nearly every month of the year, her ranch hasn’t lost many of its domesticated animals to bears. Perhaps she has Black Bart to thank, or perhaps, she said, “our cows are just mean.” A neighbor less than a mile away, she said, loses between 15 and 20 calves to bears annually.
A few years ago, Bradley was appointed to Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, a state-run initiative with the aim of “listening to Montanans” and “following their interests while also conserving bears.” She was passionate about protecting agriculture, and wanted to ensure that farmers and ranchers got the assistance they needed to cope with the grizzlies in their midst. “Pretty much everybody here is just tired. We’re tired of grizzly bears. We’re tired of conflicts. We’re tired of not letting our kids play outside. We’re tired of having to sacrifice our paychecks for the public’s wildlife.” This was one of the most common arguments I heard from livestock producers: Liberal urbanites want predators back on the landscape, but they aren’t suffering the consequences of a grizzly in the backyard. “It’s not like camping or backpacking,” Bradley said. “We don’t have a choice. We have to go outside. We have to take care of our cows. And there’s probably going to be a bear there.”
As long as grizzlies remain under the wing of the Endangered Species Act, state wildlife managers are unable to relocate or euthanize bears that kill livestock without first consulting the federal government. Ranchers believe this limits their ability to get rid of the bears causing problems. (Environmental groups and scientists have long questioned whether grizzlies are responsible for as many livestock deaths as states allege.) State and federal officials have discussed removing protections from the Northern Continental Divide bears, but perhaps chastened by the Yellowstone debacle, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in 2021 that all grizzlies in the Lower 48 remain listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“Grizzly bears are super cool, and I love seeing them. But I don’t love seeing them in my yard or in my cows.”
Bradley disagreed with this assessment. “Grizzly bears no longer need to be protected. They’re not unicorns,” she said.
“How many bears do you think is enough, in an ideal world?” I asked.
“I think when the grizzly bears were put on the Endangered Species Act — there were only like (300 to) 400 bears in the entire state then — that was enough.”
Many ranchers want tougher punishments for encroaching bears. They want them removed from the population right away, not given multiple chances to redeem themselves after attacking livestock. They want more funding for conflict prevention measures. (In 2021 and 2022, Fish and Wildlife provided a total of $40,000 for grizzly-deterrent fencing, with the state chipping in $5,000.) Bradley had set up an electric fence around the chickens and goats in the yard, but it wasn’t feasible to put an electric fence around the entire ranch. For now, she’d have to rely on Black Bart to scare off the others.
“He’s the best guard bear there is.”
CHRIS SERVHEEN first laid eyes on a grizzly in the Scapegoat Wilderness, near Helena, Montana. He was in his early 20s, backpacking with college friends, when they entered a meadow and caught sight of a bear tearing up a huge stump, looking for insects. “We stayed there for a while, just watching him from the trees,” he said. “Grizzlies have this ability to burn into your memory so that you remember everything that was happening when you saw them. It’s really amazing how much you can remember, even years later. … That’s the magic of grizzly bears.”
Servheen is arguably the foremost grizzly expert in the United States, having served as the Fish and Wildlife Service national grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years until his retirement in 2016. He was the guy in charge of making sure bears didn’t disappear from the Lower 48, and evidently, he did a decent job of it.
Servheen grew up on the East Coast, but, inspired by the National Geographic wildlife specials that captivated him as a child, he moved to Montana to study wildlife biology. He began by researching eagles under the mentorship of famed biologist and conservationist John Craighead. Servheen pivoted to grizzly bears for his Ph.D., three years after the subspecies landed on the endangered species list. After finishing his doctorate in 1981, he accepted the newly created position of grizzly bear recovery coordinator, but he wasn’t optimistic about the bear’s prospects: There were only about 30 breeding females left in the Yellowstone population. “It’s important to recognize we were really close to losing grizzly bears at that point,” he said.
For more than three decades, Servheen was a constant presence at bear meetings. Whether in Yellowstone, the North Cascades or the Cabinet-Yaak, his nearly bald head stood out among the Stetsons. In 2015, still working at the agency, he maintained that the Yellowstone population, and possibly even the Northern Continental Divide population, should be delisted. The grizzly group had met its ecological recovery goals, and, provided the population was managed carefully after delisting, the bears were guaranteed to be around for a long time.
“The objective of the Endangered Species Act is to get a species to the point where protection is no longer required,” Servheen told me at the time. “The purpose is to fix the problem.” In the case of the Yellowstone grizzly, he believed it had been.
During Servheen’s final years as the grizzly recovery coordinator, he began to worry that the federal government was bending to the will of the states rather than serving the grizzly’s best interests. As the agency prepared for the second delisting, Servheen had written some guidance on how best to manage grizzly deaths once the population lost protections, essentially putting safeguards in place that would stem any future population decline. If too many bears died, for example, these measures would ensure that the population regained protections. But his document came back with such safeguards removed. This, he felt, eroded the credibility of the recovery program and made delisting “biologically incredible and legally indefensible.” Knowing it would be up to him to defend such a plan in the face of a lawsuit — which was all but guaranteed — “I quit.”
“Grizzlies have this ability to burn into your memory so that you remember everything that was happening when you saw them. It’s really amazing how much you can remember, even years later. … That’s the magic of grizzly bears.”
It wasn’t the triumphant ending to his career that Servheen had imagined. “The grizzly bear recovery program is one of the most successful stories in the Endangered Species Act. They’re a challenging species to recover, and we did it,” he told me, “but all the political bullshit that happened right at the end kind of spoiled it.” Now, rather than spending his retirement fishing, Servheen had made it his mission to bring attention to the risks confronting grizzlies. I asked him if he thought grizzlies should still lose federal protections.
The answer was a decisive no. “For years, I was an advocate for delisting,” he said. He believed that the agency had gotten Yellowstone’s bears to the point where protections were no longer needed. And he hoped states would take on this responsibility with maturity and grace. But lately, “the actions of Montana’s Legislature have proven that the states are no longer able to be trusted when it comes to managing large carnivores.” Servheen pointed to a disconcerting trend in the West that he dubbed “anti-predator hysteria.” The Montana Legislature, for example, had approved a spring hound hunting season for the state’s black bears — a practice that had been banned in Montana for a century. Servheen perceived this as the state sliding backwards into a Manifest Destiny mindset. “It’s really horrifying to me to see this. If they weren’t still (federally) protected, one can only imagine what Montana would do to grizzlies.”
I asked Servheen how many grizzlies he thought the United States could feasibly handle. Some conservation advocates believed we could happily live with as many as 6,000, and lobbied for the bears to be returned to California, the Grand Canyon and the Southern Rockies. Then there were people like Trina Jo Bradley, who wanted far fewer bears than there were now. Most people weren’t willing to give a numerical answer, focusing instead on the genetic health and connectivity of the populations. However, Servheen — the scientist — was ready with an answer: 3,000 to 3,400 grizzlies, at least 1,000 more than estimated to now be living in the Lower 48.
The Yellowstone ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide, he explained, could support 2,000. The Bitterroot could hold 300 to 400. The Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak could take another 150 bears. And the North Cascades could support up to 400 bears — though there were none present at the moment. But Servheen warned that, amid anti-predator sentiment, we could begin to see an overall population decline, not an increase. “Grizzly bears are special animals,” Servheen said. “They have low resilience. They live in special, remote places. And if we’re going to maintain grizzly bears, we have to behave and treat them in a special way.”
In February 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would again review whether to remove federal protections from the grizzly bears in both Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystems. Whether or not grizzlies continue to grow their numbers in the Lower 48 — and, eventually, close the gaps that exist between populations — depends now on our behavior and our politics.
Excerpted from EIGHT BEARS: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future, available July 11 from W.W. Norton.
Author Gloria Dickie, a former High Country News intern, is a climate and environment correspondent for Reuters. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.
Copyright © 2023 by Gloria Dickie. Used by permission of Gloria Dickie, care of The Strothman Agency LLC. All rights reserved.