THE BLOG
06/23/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Gone Too Long: It's Time to Return Grizzly Bears Across the American West

AFP via Getty Images

A symbol of great power and majesty, the grizzly bear is the centerpiece of California's state flag, the mascot for both the University of Montana and the University of California, Berkeley and namesake for a popular Brooklyn based indie-rock band.

But the ever-constant popularity of these iconic symbols of the American wild masks a disturbing reality about the bear's continued precarious status in the continental United States.

With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moving toward dropping Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears that live in and around Yellowstone National Park, few Americans likely realize the bears occupy a mere 4 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states.

And that's simply not good enough to make sure grizzly bears are around for centuries to come.

With their small, isolated populations in Yellowstone and elsewhere in the northern Rockies increasingly threatened by inbreeding, climate change and ongoing human population growth, grizzlies face an uncertain future at best.

To make sure the bears are given a fair chance of surviving these relentless pressures, I filed a legal petition last week on behalf of the organization I work for, the Center for Biological Diversity, calling on the Fish and Wildlife Service to greatly expand its plans for recovering grizzly bears.

The petition identifies 110,000 square miles of potential grizzly habitat in places like California's Sierra Nevada, the Gila/Mogollon complex in Arizona and New Mexico, Utah's Uinta Mountains, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona -- areas that have the potential to triple the bear's population to 6,000.

As many as 100,000 grizzly bears once ranged most of western North America, from the high Arctic to the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico and from the coast of California across most of the Great Plains. Within 200 years of European settlement, wanton slaughter had reduced populations to perhaps several hundred bears, mostly found in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana and Idaho.

With protection under the Endangered Species Act, grizzly bears have seen some recovery, now numbering between 1,500 and 1,800 bears, but this recovery has been limited to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and surrounding areas. In the other areas where bears survive, parts of northern Idaho, Montana and Washington, small bear populations continue to struggle on the brink of extinction, and nothing has been done to expand bears to the many areas in which they once occurred.

In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged its 1993 recovery plan for the bear was out of date and that there was a need to consider additional areas in the West for recovery. But rather than moving to develop a new plan, the agency has been working to remove protections for Yellowstone's bears and let states allow hunting of bears.

Such a fragmented approach to recovery in which protections are removed for parts of a species' range before the species as a whole has recovered has been a disaster for wolves, leading to aggressive hunting and trapping that has caused the death of thousands of wolves and is reversing decades of hard work towards recovery.

The reality is that bears are in too few places and in too little numbers to be moving toward removing protections and allowing hunting. Instead, we need a larger vision of grizzly bear recovery that gets these amazing animals into as many places with sufficient habitat in their historic range as possible.

Such an approach would benefit the many places that once had bears, which play a critical role in balancing ecosystems by regulating deer and elk populations that are their prey, by spreading seeds of many plants and by tilling soil when they dig for insects and roots. More bears in more places would benefit people, too, through opportunities to view an animal with no equal as a symbol of America's wild past.

We have a legal and moral duty to make sure grizzlies are part of America's future.

To make sure that's the case, we must right a historic wrong and restore bears across the West in sustainable numbers to make sure this stunning animal is emblematic, not of who we once were, as a country, but of who we are, right now.