Grizzly bears have long been the iconic symbol of the Western U.S. and while their numbers are rebounding after they were hunted to near extinction and landed on the endangered species list in 1975, their continued existence and population growth lies at the intersection of climate change and deeply divisive politics in the U.S.
Last week The Economist published a story entitled, “How the Culture Wars Came for Grizzly Bears,” which walks through the long and storied history of the grizzly bear, its iconography, and why it’s become a flashpoint for the ongoing politicization that has engulfed everything from culture to climate change. The story underlines how the future of endangered animals intersects with climate change, mis- and disinformation and politics.
As The Economist points out, “The bears’ success has reignited one of the longest-running battles in the American West: Republican states’ ideological war against federal environmental regulations.” The outcome could determine just how endangered species are handled, especially in the face of continued climate change.
Grizzly populations have rebounded since the 1970s when they were hunted down to an estimated population of 700 to 800 individuals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are now around 2,000 bears in the 48 contiguous states.
Their territory once stretched from Mexico, through Canada and up to Alaska but, today their range is much more limited in North America with small populations existing in areas like Canada, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Idaho.
Those areas have seen a rise in human population, thanks in some part to the Covid-19 pandemic which drove people from cities to rural areas, and which has in turn, lead to more human-bear interactions, as demonstrated by the uptick in bear videos on social media. The rise in these interactions, and resulting social media frenzy, has exacerbated a lot of fears, and fear mongering amongst those who see climate change as a political issue and a states right issue, rather than factual, scientific problem that needs collective, unified effort to solve.
The debate over grizzly bears vividly illustrates the political and factual divides surrounding environmental issues and climate change. The impact of climate change on grizzly bears is multifaceted and complex, affecting everything from their food sources and hibernation patterns, to their growing interactions with human environments.
For one, climate change impacts key food sources for grizzly bears. They are omnivorous, and eat mostly plants and berries, as well as fish, but one of their key foods is whitebark pine trees, according to the National Park Service. These trees are cold adapted, but their numbers have declined rapidly thanks to everything from beetle infestations and disease (white pine blister rust), fire and an increasingly warming climate, according to the USDA.
If you’re a regular reader of Climatebase Weekly, you know that we recently wrote about the updated USDA Plant Hardiness Map which shows how growing regions have changed across the US. Though the USDA does note that changes in zone are “not a reliable indication of climate change,” the temperature changes in the northern regions of the US could continue to impact the whitebark pine and grizzly bear's resilience.
Climate change has also impacted grizzly bears hibernation length. As the world warms and winters in North America become shorter, grizzly bears have had shorter hibernation lengths, just like bears that live closer to the equator–in some cases skipping hibernation altogether. The availability of food, influenced by climate change, plays a significant role in determining when grizzly bears enter and leave hibernation. Bears that live in Montana do not technically hibernate, they go into what’s called torpor from November to March. As the world warms, and autumns last longer, grizzlies may stay out of hibernation longer, impacting the health and safety of cubs and increasing human-bear conflicts.
Politics and partisanship also plays a major role in the equation. In places like Montana or Idaho where politicians have proposed bills to delist grizzly bears from the endangered list, supporters have argued that the issue is a “Tenth Amendment issue,” referring to states rights, according to The Economist story.
Environmentalists worry that should the U.S. end up with another Republican in the White House (whether it’s Trump or not), conservatives will gut the Endangered Species Act, to carve out exemptions for energy infrastructure projects, which would negatively impact the recovering grizzly population.
While some argue for the continued protection of grizzly bears due to these emerging climate-related challenges, others advocate for delisting the bears, seeing their population rise, and the growing human-bear interaction as a sign of successful recovery and a need for state-led management. These divergent views reflect a larger debate on how to balance conservation efforts with economic and land-use interests, and how to interpret and respond to the challenges posed by climate change.
But, as The Economist points out, there’s one bright spot in the debate. Missoula, Montana, is working on a project to get homeowners to install bear-safe garbage cans. A lack of food resulting from climate change frequently forces bears into populated areas because they are hungry, and increases their chances of running into humans. The city is also working hard to educate the numerous and growing number of transplants, visitors and long time residents to become bear smart and understand what to do when they come across a bear.
The ongoing discussions about grizzly bear management, against the backdrop of climate change, serve as a microcosm of the broader political struggles in addressing environmental issues. They underscore the importance of considering ecological science in policy decisions and reflect the complexities of reconciling different interests and perspectives in environmental management.
The Endangered Species Act celebrates 50 years on December 28, and there are plenty of debates continuing around how best to manage and support disappearing wildlife during the climate crisis. The Fish and Wildlife Service will decide the fate of the grizzlies living in the North Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in February next year.
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