Wildlife Biologist Says It’s Too Soon To Delist Yellowstone Grizzlies

Proposing to remove Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the Endangered Species List is a “strictly political” decision and their supposed recovery is based on a small sample of cherry-picked data, says grizzly bear scientist David Mattson.

“You’ll hear claims we’ve achieved all our recovery criteria,” Mattson said during a recent conversation at his home near Livingston, Montana, “but only a couple of metrics that are only loosely relevant to why they were listed in the first place.”

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed the delisting in early March and opened a 60-day public comment period after the proposal was published in the Federal Register.

Mattson, who worked as a researcher on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team for 14 years from 1979 to 1993, cited a couple of examples of the metrics used by the UWFWS to show that the bear is in a recovery mode: the bears adapting to other food sources, and the fact that the bears now occupy a larger territory across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

For example, it’s well known the seeds of Yellowstone’s whitebark pine trees have been an important part of the grizzly’s diet and that the trees have been decimated by factors linked to climate change. The loss of a key food source (the others are bison, cutthroat trout, and army cutworm moths) should be a concern. But well-meaning wildlife researchers observed that without whitebark pines, grizzlies just eat more meat, Mattson said.

“Eating more meat” may sound like a useful adaptation—but is it?

“When bears eat more whitebark pine nuts, they had less conflict with humans and less death,” Mattson says in talks he has presented in Jackson, Wyoming and Livingston.

Eating more meat puts grizzlies in closer proximity to hunters and ranchers, which increases their risk of a fatal encounter with humans.

And eating meat is dangerous for female bears with cubs because a large meat source, such as an elk or bison carcass, can attract male grizzlies, which are known to attack and kill cubs. It’s believed males kill cubs in order to provoke estrus in a female bear, increasing the male’s chances of breeding with the female.

A second food source, the army cutworm moth, is also threatened. The moths feed on alpine flowers and gather under rocks on talus slopes near 10,000 feet in elevation, Mattson explains on his website, www.allgrizzly.org.

But the moths are both an at-risk and a risky food source for grizzlies. The moths feed on alpine wildflowers, which are at risk from climate warming. And the moth is found mostly on talus slopes (cliffsides where lots of scree—fallen rocks—has built up over time) around the park’s eastern boundary, where it’s an easy downslope walk to where cattle are being raised.

“Most bears die in Wyoming. The causes that are skyrocketing in absolute and proportional terms all arise around meat-eating,” Mattson said. “The vast majority of dead bears are found on an arc to the east and southeast of the ecosystem.”

Mattson points out the USFWS’ assertion that grizzly bears now occupy more territory than they did in the 1970s indicates a stable bear population. But Mattson says more bears are now found at the periphery of the range, especially around the park’s eastern and southeastern boundaries—again, right into the livestock areas of Wyoming.

And connectivity to other bear populations in northwestern Montana, near Glacier National Park, and maybe even establishing a population in central Idaho, is critical to the bears’ long-term survival and genetic diversity. There’s no plan to encourage connectivity, Mattson said.

State management

Mattson says the idea of allowing the park’s surrounding states to implement a grizzly bear sport hunt is “insane.”

“The main reason it’s such a bad idea to delist the Yellowstone [grizzly] population is because the alternative is state wildlife management. It would contribute to the security of this population if we reformed wildlife management at the statewide level,” Mattson said.

“Right now the (state agencies) are hardwired to serve the interests of a very small minority of a people living within a state’s boundaries. It’s 90 percent white males, basically. Everybody else is pretty much disenfranchised. It’s really to serve the purpose of provisioning sport hunting opportunities for a bunch of white guys—and not all that many. It’s a despotic system. It does not serve the public trust and it disenfranchises a national population.”

Mattson continued, “The Endangered Species Act empowers and gives a voice to people living everywhere in this country. And they should have a say in something as iconic as Yellowstone grizzly bears. With delisting, that goes away. The only people who have a voice live within these square lines and moreover, only those who basically hunt and fish. God help you if you’re a woman speaking up for animal welfare and wanting that to be reflected in any way, shape, or form in wildlife management.”

In his many years in the field with wild grizzlies, Mattson said he came to understand that grizzlies are beings capable of thought and learning. He said it’s annoying that scientists take such a hard stance against anthropomorphizing animals that clearly have as rich an emotional life as, for example, a pet dog.

“Bears are emotional, sentient beings,” Mattson said.

Treating wild animals as non-sentient beings over which humans are mandated to hold dominion is a worldview that dates back to the 1800s.

“I’m convinced it’s rooted in among other things a fear of death, and something like a bear feeds into that death anxiety. And if you perceived yourself to be dominating the world, there’s no better way to feed that sense of domination than to be killing stuff—that’s the ultimate act of domination. And if it’s a potent, powerful predator that you’re killing, it imparts probably that much greater sense of power and potency to you,” Mattson said.

“Other (worldviews) are more generous and accommodate an ecologistic aesthetic, that nature is primarily a place of beauty and health and wholeness,” he added.


The U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service opened a 60-day public comment period on delisting on March 11. Comments will be accepted until May 10. The link to make comments may be found here.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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