The final tally: 593, down from the 602 recorded last year. Since the mid-1980s you could count on a yearly increase between 4 and 7 percent increase in the number of grizzlies in the area, so the U.S. Geological Survey showing a decline is a red flag for many researchers. One argument, put forward by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chris Servheen and reported by AP, is that the grizzly population has reached its natural peak: 19,000 square miles in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho cannot support more.
It’s true grizzlies are reported in many new areas, and it’s true there seems to be more grizzly-human interaction in the past few years than before; two hikers were killed this year by grizzlies, and campers just outside the park were subject to a horrific attack last summer. And at least one state estimates that the real number is closer to 1,000 grizzlies in the area.
Still, a figure of 593 bears being the natural limit seems a tad low when you consider there were more than 50,000 grizzly bears roaming around the Pacific Northwest during the time of the Lewis and Clark expeditions, according to the FWS; today that same supports only 1,400 or so bears total. Yeah, there are a lot more humans in the Pacific Northwest than in the days of Lewis and Clark, but there’s still room for support of a larger population: the FWS itself estimates that only 68 percent of suitable habitat within the Yellowstone National Park area hosts a grizzly population.
Whether this helps or hurts an effort to delist the grizzly as an endangered species remains to be seen. The FWS is seeking to remove protections, saying that the population is now stable enough to survive sans protections. A federal judge denied the move in 2009, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is expected to rule on an appeal of that judgement.
Photo by John Good, courtesy of the National Park Service.