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Unsubstantiated Claims about Our Grizzly Bears by a Political Economist

by David Mattson

Terry Anderson wrote a recent opinion piece for the Washington D.C.-focused publication “The Hill” in which he made a number of unsubstantiated, even bizarre, claims about the past, present, and future of grizzly bears in the West. His assertions captured what seems to be an emerging narrative among those promoting removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for northern Rocky Mountain grizzly bears and the initiation of trophy hunting after a 25-40 year hiatus—a narrative being actively promulgated by a number of people in the Yellowstone region. Notably, Terry is a political economist who was founder and president of the right-wing think-tank Property and Environment Research Center. He sure ain’t no ecologist or grizzly bear biologist. Yet his claims have gotten wide circulation.

Unsubstantiated and Bizarre Claims

In brief, Terry’s claims—like those of many currently advocating removal of ESA protections—are that: (1) grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S. are no different than grizzly bears anywhere else in North America; (2) an isolated population of 500 bears is sufficient to ensure long term viability; (3) the Yellowstone population numbered only “136” at the time it was given ESA protections, thence increasing to 700 bears; (4) there are more grizzlies now than existed at the time of first European contact, e.g., the Lewis and Clark expedition; and (5) there were few if any grizzly bears in mountainous regions of the West. These claims are comprehensively wrong.

Tim Preso, Managing Attorney for the Earthjustice Northern Rockies office, rebutted Terry Anderson's equally extravagant claims about recent litigation that led to reinstatement of ESA protections for Yellowstone's grizzly bears. What follows immediately below is my attempt to correct Terry Anderson's misinformation, disinformation, and even lies(?) about the evolution, history, and ecology of grizzly bears.

Our Grizzlies are Unique

Grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains north and south of the U.S.-Canada border are, in fact, unique—evolutionarily, historically, and ecologically. Without being comprehensive, these bears belong to a unique genetic lineage found nowhere else on Earth other than as an isolate on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. This lineage, known by the arcane term ‘Clade 4’, bore the brunt of European-perpetrated extirpations between 1850 and 1950. Our northern Rockies grizzly bears are part of the surviving 5% of this Clade in North America. Grizzly bears in this region are truly threatened, even endangered, including bears in the neighboring Canadian province of Alberta.

We Need Thousands of Bears

Five-hundred bears are not enough to ensure long-term viability of an isolated population such as the one we have in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This number is an artifact of scientific history, not a reflection of current scientific consensus (see this document that includes a section covering the relevant science). Virtually all of the research produced since the mid-1990s has concluded that, in fact, we need thousands of bears—between 2,000 and 10,000—with the range depending on various considerations and contingencies. But not a mere 500.

Appling and Oranging Numbers

The much touted “136 bears” at the time Yellowstone’s grizzlies were listed is a minimum population estimate, not an estimate of total population size. If you consider the three estimates of total population size produced for the period 1975-1980, they average 260 with a bounding range of 183 to 350 bears. These latter numbers—roughly 2-4 times larger than the minimum population estimate—are the only ones appropriate for comparison with current estimates of total population size. This conflation of minimum and total population estimates clearly serves a political rather than informational agenda.

Yes, We Had Grizzlies in the Mountains

Terry bases his claim about numbers of grizzlies in the West circa 1800—as well as a putative lack of bears in the mountains—on a single estimate produced by an historian, who in turn, based his conclusions on a review of grizzly bear sightings by the Lewis and Clark expedition as they passed through the northern Plains and Rockies along linear paths spanning a two-year period. As any wildlife researcher knows, this isn’t any basis for making any claims about much of anything other than what Lewis and Clark happened to see. By contrast, there are ample contemporary and historical summaries of first-hand accounts by early explorers and settlers that definitely show there were, in fact, numerous grizzlies in mountains of the interior West throughout what is now the contiguous United States and Mexico. A few examples include Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis’s “California Grizzly,” David Brown’s “Grizzlies of the Southwest,” C. Hart Merriam’s companion publications from 1918 and 1922, “Review of the Grizzly and Brown Bears of North America (Genus Ursus)” and "Distribution of grizzly bears in the U.S.," Edward Warren’s 1906 “The Mammals of Colorado,” and so on, near ad infinitum. This historical record is augmented by contemporary research that correlates densities with habitat conditions. Garth Mowat’s work, in particular, shows that existing or potential densities of grizzlies are, or could be, quite high in our region.

Fake News?

Without intending to contribute to the inflammatory rhetoric that has come to typify our public discourse of late—if ever there was ‘fake news’, it is certainly Terry Anderson’s recent claims about all matters grizzly bear-related.

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