Grizzlies Confront Endangered Species Delisting


West of Augusta, Montana, along the Rocky Mountain Front, Haystack Butte rises prominently from the undulating prairies and basket-of-eggs topography sculpted by glaciers. On the east side of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the mountain’s limestone cliffs crash into a sea of rolling prairies. Winds roar off the mountains, stunting trees and massaging the tops of wheat fields. This biologically rich region is home to all the species that Lewis and Clark encountered on their expedition, save for big herds of wild bison; among them one of the state’s largest elk herds and bighorn sheep populations. Some people have referred to the area as the “American Serengeti.” It’s also one of the few places where grizzlies roam onto the prairie, something the region’s many cattle ranchers have mixed opinions about.

Andrew Bardwell and his wife manage three ranches here, encapsulating 30,000 acres of private and state land, with 1,200 head of cattle under the LF Ranch brand. Last year, Bardwell said they counted eight confirmed bear kills of their calves in a mere two weeks. On a given day in the spring, Bardwell said he might see up to a dozen grizzlies on a casual ride through his property. These “explorer bears,” as they’re called, travel between grizzly ecosystems, becoming increasingly more frequent as brown bear numbers grow and reach carrying capacity in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone grizzly populations.

Some call this a conservation win. Others, like Bardwell, see it as a threat. When his calves are killed, Bardwell says he calls Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for help determining which predator is responsible. If they can determine the killer, the predator will be removed, and the government will compensate Bardwell for his loss. But when officials can’t prove that a bear or wolf killed the calf, Bardwell isn’t compensated, and the predators remain on the hunt. Bardwell wants to go after the predators, but because grizzlies are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, he could face a $50,000 fine and a year in jail. “I’m all for delisting,” he told me one morning in March this year. “There’s got to be a better way to deal with some of these bears. I’m not talking about trapping and moving them. I’m talking lethal removal.”

Soon, Bardwell may get his way. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide on whether or not to delist grizzlies within the year. If affirmed, the federal government would turn over management of the populations to the states in which they reside. After petitioning for such action over the last two years, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are poised for the transition, with draft management plans that radically shift how humans would interact with the bruins when conflict arises. In Montana, stakeholders present anecdotal and scientific arguments on either side of the decision.

A grizzly bear crosses the road in Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JIM PEACO/NPS

“We’ve always believed that bears and humans must live in separate places and can’t co-exist. I think we can.” – Cecily Costello

According to estimated historical populations, as many as 50,000 bruins once strutted from the West Coast to the Mississippi River and from Alaska to central Mexico. But during widespread Westward Expansion driven by a dominant settler mindset, settlers nearly wiped out the species between 1850 and 1950, eliminating 98 percent of grizzlies’ original range. What bears survived after this period of slaughter inhabited only remote wilderness areas, like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

But even then, grizzlies faced extermination with numerous bear-human conflicts resulting from park features like open-pit dumps where people could view the bears. From 1968 to 1973, a minimum of 229 known bears were killed in Yellowstone after the dumps were closed.

In 1973, the Department of the Interior sought help managing grizzlies. The Department of the Interior formed the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), a committee of biologists responsible for long-term grizzly monitoring and research in Greater Yellowstone. The group is the first of its kind, including members from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribal Fish and Game Department, and state wildlife agencies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. This interagency team shares data collection throughout Greater Yellowstone with the mission of producing reliable science to inform the management of the species.

By this time, grizzlies were in severe danger from several threats, including reduced habitat from the growing human population, livestock grazing, logging, road construction, sport hunting, and a laundry list of other human-spurred events. In 1975, Yellowstone had fewer than 250 grizzlies left, triggering an investment in long-term research. That same year, grizzlies were placed on the Endangered Species List.

Because brown bears have slow reproductive rates, it wasn’t until the late ’90s that biologists saw grizzly numbers increase by 4 to 7 percent. In its 1993 recovery plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified six recovery zones in the Lower 48 States with sufficient habitat to support grizzly populations. Today, they boast estimated numbers that point toward a conservation success in several ecosystems: Greater Yellowstone (approx. 1,000), Northern Continental Divide (approx. more than 1,100), Cabinet-Yaak (approx. 55-60), Selkirks (around 80, including the Canadian portion). However, the Bitterroot-Selway and the North Cascades have no known populations, although there have been occasional sightings in the Bitterroot- Selway in recent years, likely originating from one of the occupied ecosystems.

The IGBST and other science teams have studied the potential connectivity between these isolated populations for genetic diversity, which hasn’t happened yet, though some metrics predict progress. The Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone populations are now less than 50 miles apart with the help of “explorer bears.” Biological islands like Yellowstone could connect soon if these bears remain allowed to wander. Now, just two years shy of their 50th anniversary under federal protection, the teeth of the Endangered Species Act have brought grizzlies back from the brink.

A rancher examines a dead calf killed by a predator on Andrew Bardwell’s ranch near Augusta, Montana. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDREW BARDWELL
A fence cuts through a field on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. PHOTO BY STEPHEN SIMPSON, INC.

“There’s got to be a better way to deal with some of these bears. I’m not talking about trapping and moving them. I’m talking lethal removal.” – Andrew Bardwell

Many consider this one of the greatest wide-ranging conservation stories in the world. “It’s amazing we still have a healthy population of grizzlies recovered from almost- extinction,” said Frank van Manen, IGBST team leader. “We have the most southern population of brown bears in North America. It’s an iconic population, a real conservation success story. As a nation, we should be proud of what we accomplished in a landscape with this many people.”

For the USFWS to delist a species, they are required to determine if threats have been eliminated or mitigated. They also look to see if populations are stable and if there is plenty of quality habitat. They can “downlist” a species by reclassifying it from endangered to threatened if the agency deems it viable without ESA protections. Authorities call grizzlies “recovered” once they reach carrying capacity and spread from core areas. In 2007 and 2017, the Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted, but the latter decision was reversed after hunts were planned in Wyoming and Idaho outside park boundaries, essentially targeting “explorer bears” and thus preventing connectivity between populations.

On December 7, 2021, Montana’s most recent petition for delisting was advanced by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. “After decades of work, the grizzly bear has more than recovered in the NCDE, representing a conservation success,” Gianforte said in a press release. “As part of that conservation success, the federal government has accepted our petition to delist the grizzly in the [Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem], opening the door to state management of this iconic American species.”

Wyoming petitioned the federal government on January 10, 2022, and Idaho filed the petition on March 9, 2022. Idaho’s petition was denied.

After considering the states’ petitions to delist grizzlies from the ESA, the USFWS said the information presented in Wyoming and Montana’s petitions may indicate that grizzlies in both the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems may qualify for delisting. “The Service appreciates the states’ historical commitments and partnerships to recover bears, particularly through conflict prevention efforts that have effectively reduced human-caused mortality,” reads a USFWS statement issued on Feb. 3, 2023. “However, the impact of recently enacted state law and regulations affecting these two grizzly bear populations is of concern and needs to be evaluated. We will fully evaluate these and all other potential threats, and associated state regulatory mechanisms, in detail when we conduct the status assessments and make the 12-month findings.”

While ranchers like Bardwell and other regional stakeholders seek relief from their grizzly woes, FWP grizzly bear research biologist Cecily Costello purports that delisting won’t be the silver bullet many think it will be. “One of my fears about delisting is that many people think it will solve all our problems and lessen their conflicts,” she said. “Nothing much will change. State agencies, national parks and tribes do most managing now.” She says conflicts will always exist with growing human populations and grizzlies expanding their range.

“Seeing Montana being developed, and all the big valleys just covered with people makes me the saddest for the future of bears,” Costello said. And yet, she sees a future where coexistence is possible. “Working with grizzlies is fascinating because they’re constantly showing us more and more what they’re capable of doing,” she said. “We’ve always believed that bears and humans must live in separate places and can’t co-exist. I think we can.”

In this win-win scenario, though, Costello stresses that some of the onus must be on citizens, especially regarding scenarios that often produce human-bear conflicts—scenarios instigated mainly by humans. “It requires some level of commitment from the public to reduce attractants,” she said. “We can’t do all the work ourselves. The state cannot make the world perfect for bears.”

Indeed, the collision of humans and wild landscapes almost forces conflict, and those confronting grizzlies regularly want solutions. Among those collision points is the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana, says Tribal member and State Representative Tyson Running Wolf. He says he respects other tribal outlooks regarding grizzly safety and survival, but says many other tribes don’t live with them. “[Grizzlies] have sufficiently recovered in isolated pockets and should be managed accordingly,” Running Wolf said. “It’s hard when a law to save grizzlies is in place because many people don’t have grizzlies in their backyard daily.”

Folks like Bardwell and Running Wolf are witnessing increased grizzly movement spurred by expanding populations and environmental changes. In the alpine, blister rust and pine beetles, which are growing as temperatures warm, decimate whitebark pines, which provide nuts that are a primary food source for grizzlies. Fire may destroy what the fungus doesn’t, transforming forests into grasslands. Other food for the ursines, like army cut-worm moths, are increasingly less reliable, forcing grizzlies from the high country to neighboring ranches and towns in search of sustenance. Scientists question whether these events are static in time or are they climactic signatures that will magnify with a warming planet.

“We all need to be grounded in our approach to bears. They’re neither good nor bad. They’re bears with bear behaviors.” – Chris Bechtold

Twenty miles northwest as the raven flies from Bardwell’s ranch along Deep Creek, rancher Chris Bechtold also has a front-row seat to the bears’ evolving patterns. As the bears recover along the Rocky Mountain Front, he says he sees bears in places he never saw them before, moving up and down creek bottoms.

Bechtold manages 500 bison on a 34,500-acre ranch underneath the shadows of Castle Reef Mountain. Below the sharp relief, Douglas firs and limber pines grow stunted from the wind’s constant pressure. Sprawling golden pastures with winding coulees extend east toward rippling plains.

Bechtold lost one animal last year to grizzlies, but as he sees it, that’s just part of ranching in this setting.

“If you want a ranch with no grizzly bears, I hear ground’s going cheap in Kansas,” he joked. His approach focuses on how he can manage his livestock rather than how he can manage the bears. He suggests ranchers could calve in the late summer when bears are typically up high, rather than in the spring when bears are starving and hungry after hibernation. Locating the “dead pile,” or deceased livestock, and hauling it away from the herd is also a proactive step, he offers. “Most of ranching is common sense,” Bechtold said. “It’s where you are calving and putting your dead pile. Most wildlife management is people management.”

He thinks aggressive grizzly management is based on fear rather than science. “There’s a vocal minority constantly beating the drum that bears are everywhere and destroying our livelihood. Oh, my God, it’s the end of the world, and they will pull the kids off the front porch. I don’t subscribe to that,” Bechtold said.

“We all need to be grounded in our approach to bears. They’re neither good nor bad. They’re bears with bear behaviors,” he said. “We’ve become politicized in our general wildlife management and approach to wildlife. We have to decide how we want to live with them. They’re not the bloodthirsty animals that everybody makes them out to be. Ninety-nine percent of the bears people see are standing on the edge of meadows eating grass. Let’s not make them good or bad. They are what they are. They’re not hard to live with.”

Twenty-five miles due east of Bechtold’s ranch, Mark Fellows, a second-generation rancher, grew up where Spring Creek feeds into the Teton River south of Choteau. He and his brother manage 500 cattle on 6,500 acres of their parent’s ranch, which primarily deals in cattle and hay. His family deliberately calves in August and September to reduce bear conflict. Come spring, when bears come out of hibernation hungry and looking for easy meals, Fellows says the calves are bigger and can take better care of themselves. He frequently sees bears on the ranch but says he doesn’t have depredation and avoids bears rooting around garbage and pet food because of proper storage. Rather than push them out, Fellows wants to create a conservation area where bears can come on his property. “I have a soft spot in my heart for the bear,” he said. “What are the bears going to do? Habitat is constantly shrinking.” Fellows’ ranch is also in part locked in a conservation easement. He feels it would be hypocritical to take the conservation easement money from the Nature Conservancy for the ranch but not accept the bear.

A grizzly bear traverses below Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park. PHOTO COURTESY OF GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
A grizzly sow hangs near Roaring Mountain in Yellowstone National Park with her yearling. PHOTO BY NEAL HERBERT/NPS

Beyond the expanse of ranches, and in federal offices, the USFWS faces a weighty decision that the state’s proposed management plans will greatly inform. Though state officials author the plans, they have their critics.

“I used to be for grizzly delisting until a few years ago,” said Chris Servheen, former recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 35 years. “Montana’s proposed plan does not emphasize conflict reduction or coexistence.” The plan talks about reducing grizzly numbers and their range by killing bears outside their recovery areas deemed “threatening,” a term which is never defined in the plan.

“Montana’s draft management plan provides a ruthless approach to grizzlies outside recovery zones,” Servheen said. “It allows the killing of non-conflict bears just because they exist on public and private lands outside the recovery zones. This is such a departure from how Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks used to do things in the past.”

In the last few years, Montana state’s legislature passed several bills allowing wolf snaring, expanding wolf trapping seasons into the period when grizzlies are out of the den, and using hounds for hunting black bears. All of these acts also infringe upon grizzly safety, according to Servheen. “In the past, there were good regulatory mechanisms that are now being eroded by legislation and politicians getting into wildlife management,” Servheen said. “Now, we got these new politicians in office who are pandering to the most extreme anti-grizzly bear elements, like we’re back in the 1800s. I don’t think it reflects the population of Montana. We don’t live here to exterminate all the predators, wolves and grizzlies and drive them into small pockets. Politicians shouldn’t be making wildlife policy.”

In this arena of challenge for grizzlies over the next year and beyond, citizens, state officials, scientists, and politicians must consider a world in which humans aren’t going anywhere, and many hope neither will grizzlies.

Benjamin Alva Polley is a place-based storyteller with stories published in Outside, Adventure Journal, Popular Science, Field & Stream, Esquire, Sierra, Audubon, Earth Island Journal, Modern Huntsman, and other publications at his website He holds a master’s in environmental science and natural resource journalism from the University of Montana.