JAN. 2, 2017 — When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on their legendary journey across the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase, they didn’t know what discoveries lay ahead. One was the grizzly bear, bigger and more fearsome than any bears they had seen before. In his journal, Clark told of an encounter with a “terrible looking animal, which we found very hard to kill.” He added, “I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had rather fight two Indians than one bear.”
At that time, some 50,000 of these formidable creatures roamed North America. Against a few men armed with primitive guns, they were hard to kill. But they proved no match for the onslaught of humanity that came with the white settlement of the West.
By 1975, with only about 800 left in the continental United States, they were classified as endangered by the federal government. They had been killed off in many places where once they were numerous, including the Dakotas, California and Arizona. The threat of extinction loomed.
Preservation efforts made all the difference. Since then, grizzlies have rebounded, increasing their number to about 1,800. People have come to value their existence. Tourists from all over the world travel to national parks in hopes of seeing them in the wild.
But the comeback, welcome as it is, carries risks to both bear and human. Most people want grizzlies in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. But no one wants a 600-pound apex predator on the patio. As the animals multiply, they show up more often in populated places, sometimes with regrettable results.
“Grizzlies make for troublesome neighbors and lousy houseguests,” writes Aaron Teasdale in Sierra Magazine. “The giant animals are routinely spotted chowing on orchard fruits and scavenging pet food and garbage. They’re omnivores that like to eat many of the same things people do — chickens and sheep, for example.”
The surprise is that even when they do migrate to places abundant in people, grizzlies are far less dangerous than might be assumed. Attacks on humans are rare. Montana wildlife biologist Stacy Courville told Teasdale that in developed areas they’ve become nocturnal, to avoid people.
Problem bears sometimes have to be killed or trapped for removal. But as grizzlies grow more numerous, people can also take measures to avoid attracting them.
Visitors used to throng garbage dumps in Yellowstone to watch bears feed, until the National Park Service closed the dumps. Backpackers have learned how to minimize risk in bear country: Travel in groups, make noise, secure food, carry bear spray. Town dwellers can keep garbage and pets where grizzlies can’t get them. Farmers and ranchers can install electrified fences to keep bears away from crops and livestock.
But older habits sometimes die hard. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the Yellowstone grizzlies from the threatened and endangered species list, which would open the way to trophy hunting outside the park — an idea that has drawn objections from the park superintendent, who fears it could damage the bear’s long-term prospects.
President-elect Donald Trump’s sons are both avid big-game hunters. His choice to run the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., has voted to remove wolves, lynx and sage grouse from the endangered species list. So the grizzly may face new threats in the next four years.
We hope Trump and Zinke appreciate that many Americans welcome the comebacks that a few species — wolves, mountain lions, eagles and these ursine marvels — have made, and don’t want that progress squandered. This is a key environmental issue on which the new administration will prove itself a good steward of nature or a handmaiden of big agriculture and other industries that often are at odds with conservation.
We urge more robust federal (and state) protection for America’s threatened wildlife while realizing that not everyone is keen on making modest sacrifices to allow more wild grizzlies to roam the land. What Stacy Courville said of local conflicts may also be true at a national level: “I don’t have a bear problem. I have a people problem.”