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Timeline: A History Of Grizzly Bear Recovery In The Lower 48 States

Grizzly bear historic and current range.
Lisa Landenburger, USGS - Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Public domain. Sources: IUCN, M. Proctor, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
Grizzly bear historic and current range.

At their peak, grizzly bears numbered more than 50,000 in the Lower 48. They roamed from the West Coast to the Great Plains, from northern Alaska to central Mexico. Facing threats from habitat loss, hunting and conflicts with people and livestock, their numbers dwindled to fewer than 1,000 in the lower 48 by the time the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was implemented in 1975. Today, managers say the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide populations have recovered and are ready for delisting. Here's a timeline of the management actions, court cases and notable events that have shaped grizzly bear recovery since their ESA listing through today.

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Grizzlies In The Lower 48 Listed As Threatened Under ESA - July 28, 1975

The grizzly's range has dwindled to about 2 percent of historic habitat in the Lower 48. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publishes a rule listing grizzlies in the Continental U.S. as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. According to the rule, “it is now unlawful to kill, capture, harm, harass, import, or export a grizzly bear anywhere in the lower 48 states, or to sell any parts or products of grizzlies in interstate or foreign commerce.” But there’s one exception: the rule maintains sport hunting in Northwest Montana as long as no more than 25 bears are killed annually, through both management and hunting. The rule lists the most critical factor in the grizzly’s decline and recovery as conflicts with humans.


Committee Formed To Oversee Grizzly Management - 1983

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee takes shape to coordinate federal, state and tribal stakeholders in managing, researching and monitoring grizzlies and implementing the grizzly bear recovery plan.


“Augmentation Program” in the Cabinet/Yaak Begins - 1990

From 1990-1994, four female grizzlies with no history of negative run-ins with humans are captured in British Columbia and relocated to the Cabinet Mountains. It’s an experiment in increasing the dwindling grizzly population in the area. By the late 1970s, scientists estimated that fewer than a dozen bears remained in the Cabinets, and those bears weren’t reproducing, they were on the path to extinction.


Grizzly Hunting Ends in Lower 48 - September 1991

Hunting rifle.
Credit (PD)
Hunting rifle.

While grizzly hunts in Wyoming and Idaho ceased when the bear was protected under the Endangered Species Act, small hunts persist in Montana. According to the New York Times, the state continues to allow grizzly hunts in an attempt to reduce conflict with humans. Up to 14 bears – including at most six females – could be killed. Montana officials argue that hunting instilled the animals with “a healthy fear of humans.” A federal judge stalls the hunts just days before they were set to begin, claiming the Endangered Species Act only permits hunting threatened animals under extraordinary population pressures.


Recovery Plan Updated, New Era of Grizzly Management Begins - September 10, 1993

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signs a landmark update to the 1982 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. The document begins poetically – with a passage from famed conservationist Aldo Leopold followed by a paragraph from ecologist Stephen Herrero:

“The grizzly bear is a symbolic and living embodiment of wild nature uncontrolled by man. Entering into grizzly country represents a unique opportunity – to be part of an ecosystem in which man is not necessarily the dominant species.”

The document, for the first time, formalizes six different ecosystems suitable for grizzlies, each of which will be managed separately: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), the Bitterroot Ecosystem, the North Cascade Ecosystem, the Selkirk Ecosystem and the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem (CYE).

Grizzly bear recovery zones.
Credit Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee
Grizzly bear recovery zones.


FWS Finalizes Plan to Reintroduce Grizzlies Into Bitterroot Ecosystem - November 16, 2000

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces a final plan to introduce at least 25 grizzlies into the Bitterroot Ecosystem of Montana and Idaho. The bears will be released into nearly 6,000 square miles of wilderness that’s surrounded by more than 15,000 square miles of additional public land.


Bitterroot Reintroduction Plan Trashed - 2001

USFWS proposes scrapping its Bitterroot reintroduction plan under newly appointed Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The reintroduction plan had faced major opposition from the states, including a lawsuit from the Idaho governor. Norton’s proposal to scrap the reintroduction plan is never officially adopted, but Interior takes no further action to reintroduce bears to the Bitterroot.


FWS Proposes Delisting Yellowstone-Area Bears - November 15, 2005

When listed, an estimated 220 to 320 bears lived in the GYE. By 2005, that number is higher than 600. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says this means grizzlies in the Yellowstone area have recovered, and they propose removing endangered species protections for the GYE bears. “We are confident the future of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone is bright,” says Interior Secretary Gale Norton.


Yellowstone Grizzlies Delisted - March 22, 2007

Following nearly 194,000 comments from the public, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces it will delist GYE bears. Conservation and tribal groups quickly file suit.

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.
Credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. .


Federal Protections Restored - September 2009

In a 46-page decision, a federal judge in Missoula puts Yellowstone-area grizzlies back on the endangered species list. The judge says the government didn’t follow its own science in delisting the bears. In particular, the climate-change driven decline of whitebark pine – a key part of the grizzlies’ diet – poses an existential threat to the bears. The judge also says the conservation strategy in place to maintain protection of bears is largely unenforceable and inadequate.


The Feds Appeal - August 2010

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joins the state of Wyoming, the Safari Club International, and others in appealing the decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They maintain the Greater Yellowstone bears are recovered, face no threats to a healthy and growing population, and say the District Court’s ruling erodes public faith in the Endangered Species Act.


Grizzly bear population in the NCDE Expanding - 2011

More than 800 bears are estimated to live in the NCDE, and the grizzly population has been growing consistently for years. Data on recreation, industry, road use, and other factors in this year will prove crucial later, as environmental advocates and wildlife managers spar over what sort of habitat is necessary for a growing grizzly population. It serves as a baseline of habitat data for a time in which bears thrived.

Grizzly Bear Photographed in the North Cascades - July 2011

On a hike in the high mountains, 26-year-old Joe Sebille snaps a picture of a grizzly on a hillside. Scientists verify the photo is of a living grizzly bear, likely foraging for food to help it through the winter. The last verified sighting of a grizzly was in 1996. This is the first photograph in the more than 50 years of a living member of the species in the North Cascades.

File photo. Grizzly bear track.
Credit Jim Peaco (PD) / National Park Service
National Park Service
Grizzly bear track.

Appeal Overruled, Federal Protections Will Remain - November 2011

A three-judge panel for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sides with the District Court’s decision – they say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erroneously removed federal protections for Greater Yellowstone bears. “The Service’s delisting decision, the subject of this appeal, raises a host of scientific, political, and philosophical questions regarding the complex relationship between grizzlies and people in the Yellowstone region,” writes Judge Richard C. Tallman in his decision. The court says the whitebark pine decline does pose a threat to grizzlies. However, they reverse the District Court’s decision as relates to the management plan – the 9th Circuit says the recovery strategy is adequate. Grizzlies remain “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.


Grizzly Conflicts With Montana Ranching Communities Intensify - June 2013

Grizzly bears continue expansion from core habitat in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, venturing east of the Rocky Mountain Front. In a Hutterite colony near Valier, Montana, two collared grizzlies are found dead. Members of the colony claim the bears died of exhaustion as they were chased away. Community members say they didn’t report the deaths because they were terrified. The grizzlies’ collars are smashed and burned, while the grizzlies themselves are buried after a botched cremation attempt. The penalty for each of the two deaths could reach six months in prison and a $25,000 fine, but the involved parties reach a plea agreement.


Grizzly Bear Treks Nearly 3,000 Miles - December 2014

A female grizzly, nicknamed Ethyl, makes a long journey that takes her from close to Canada, near Missoula, through the Bitterroots, and deep into Idaho. In her travels, she’s rarely seen by humans and doesn’t get into trouble when she’s around livestock or property. State officials are optimistic that the bear shows evidence that grizzlies and humans can coexist without conflict.

The GPS route from Ethel's travels.
Credit USFWS
The GPS route from Ethel's travels.

Federal Effort Begins to Reintroduce Grizzlies in the North Cascades - 2014

The National Park Service announces it will start an environmental analysis that will serve as a first step in reintroducing grizzlies to the North Cascades Ecosystem. This step will take at least three years, and will involve extensive public input.


Emotions High Over Grizzly Reintroduction in Washington - June 2015

More than 3,000 people comment on federal plans to reintroduce grizzlies into the North Cascades. The document comes in at over 1,000 pages long, and includes passionate thoughts from grizzly advocates, people fearful of living with grizzlies, and just about every perspective in between. Officials expect to finalize plans by the end of 2017.


Tribal Groups Sign Treaty - October 02, 2016

U.S. and Canadian tribal groups sign a treaty advocating continued protection of grizzly bears and denouncing trophy hunting of the animal. Signatories cite a rich history of cultural and spiritual significance. Over the next two years, more than 200 tribes will sign the treaty. Chief Stan Grier of the Piikani tribe in Canada says it’s the first Native American treaty in a century and a half that extends across the country’s northern border.

Death Raises Questions About Recreating In Grizzly Country - June 29, 2016

While mountain biking outside Glacier National Park, Forest Service law enforcement officer Brad Treat collided with a grizzly bear as he turned a blind corner. Surprised, the bear mauled and killed Treat. The tragedy brings attention to the need for proper precautions for all forms of recreation – not just hiking – in bear country. These precautions include carrying bear spray, making noise and reducing speed in low-visibility areas. It came at the same time as state and federal measures that could expand mountain bike access in bear country.


Another Species, Another Court Case - August 1, 2017

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rules that Great Lakes gray wolves should remain under federal protection. The lengthy legal battle centers around, among other factors, whether the FWS can carve out a “discrete population segment” for the purposes of delisting it. The court says segmenting populations in this way is legally possible, but was improperly done in this case. “The Service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant,” writes Judge Patricia Millett. It’s a decision that will prove important to the outcome of later grizzly delisting decisions.

Gray wolf.
Credit iStock
Gray wolf.

Yellowstone Delisting, Take Two - June 22, 2017

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announces delisting of Yellowstone-area grizzlies. An estimated 700 bears exist in the ecosystem, and their range has more than doubled since the 1970s. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners,” Zinke says. Conservation groups and tribes file suit, citing a plethora of concerns.

NCDE Bears Expanding - 2017

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks hires a bear manager based in Conrad – about an hour’s drive east from the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s a testament to the grizzlies’ expansion well into the plains. Grizzly bear presence in the area has been documented for about a decade – and it’s part of their historical range. But more bears are finding their way near homes and into fields and stockyards. It’s the breadbasket of Montana, dominated by relatively flat, private agricultural land. Locals worry about grizzly impacts on livestock, grain, and the safety of their families.

Bear Management Specialist Wesley Sarmento runs through basic bear identification during a community meeting in Fort Shaw, MT, April 4, 2018. Sarmento and other bear managers are preparing locals for more grizzlies moving into the area.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Bear Management Specialist Wesley Sarmento runs through basic bear identification during a community meeting in Fort Shaw, MT, April 4, 2018. Sarmento and other bear managers are preparing locals for more grizzlies moving into the area.


Grizzly Hunts Set In Wyoming and Idaho - May 2018

Wyoming finalizes a hunt for up to 10 bears in grizzlies’ core habitat in the state, and another 12 in other areas. If one female is killed in the core habitat, no other grizzlies in the area can be hunted. Idaho proposes a hunt for one bear. Montana refrains from a grizzly hunt this year. The hunts in Idaho and Wyoming will begin on September 1. In total, up to 23 bears could be taken. State wildlife managers say this number poses no threat to the grizzly population, but local activists and photographers opposed to the hunt enter the lottery in an initiative dubbed “Shoot’em With a Camera.”

Habitat-Based Recovery For The NCDE - May 16, 2018

After legal challenges to its 1993 document, the USFWS releases a supplement to the 1993 Recovery Strategy that identifies criteria in habitat necessary for bears to flourish. It sets 2011 as a baseline year for data regarding future development of roads and infrastructure.

Grizzly Advocates Fret Over Hiker Threats To Cab/Yaak Grizzlies - July 2018

Land designated for the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail - starting on the coast of Washington and extending all the way to Glacier National park - slices through grizzly bear habitat in the Yaak Valley. Locals worry the human presence could threaten the area’s small number of bears. They cite overuse issues on other popular trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail.

Map of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic trail.
Credit National Park Service (PD)
Map of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic trail.

Augmentation Program In The Cabinet Yaak Continues - July 2018

The 20th grizzly is released in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem in a continuation of the population augmentation program that began in the early 1990s. The program is designed both to boost the population and to increase genetic diversity of grizzlies in the area. An estimated 55-60 grizzlies roam the Cabinet-Yaak area, a population growing a little more than 2 percent a year.

A Court Case and a Temporary Halt to the Hunt - August 30, 2018

With grizzly hunts scheduled to start in sections of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Wyoming and Idaho on September 1, District Judge Dana Christensen issues a restraining order on the hunts. He hears arguments from environmental and tribal groups opposed to delisting, and from the federal government. Many expect the judge to “rule from the bench,” meaning make an immediate decision regarding the delisting of GYE grizzly bears. But he opts to take his time, and carefully consider all arguments he heard.

Yellowstone National Park sign.
Credit (PD)
Yellowstone National Park sign.

Yellowstone Grizzlies Returned to the Endangered Species List. Again. - September 24, 2018

Judge Christensen issues a decision returning GYE grizzlies to the endangered species list and putting a stop to the postponed hunts in Wyoming and Idaho. The decision rests on three issues: the effect delisting could have on other ecosystems of grizzlies, how grizzlies could connect between ecosystems and how to compare different methods of counting bears.Christensen also specifically mentions Glacier-area bears, saying, “The Service’s approach – evidenced first by this delisting and by its proposal to delist the other significant population, the Northern Continental Divide population – does not square with the ESA as a matter of statutory interpretation or policy.” The Fish and Wildlife Service has not formally proposed delisting in the NCDE, but officials have long said grizzlies have met recovery criteria, and had announced plans to decide whether or not to remove federal protections by the end of the year.

An Unexpected Discovery - October 27, 2018

A grizzly bear is captured on a golf course near Stevensville – outside the Bitterroot Mountains, about a half hour south of Missoula. Bear managers consider the Bitterroot Ecosystem a key point of possible connection between Yellowstone and Glacier-area bears. But this grizzly is relocated north to the NCDE. The event draws attention to an often-overlooked ecosystem, and to the lack of clear plans for managing grizzlies when they set paw in the Bitterroot Ecosystem.

Stevensville Montana sits between three grizzly bear recovery zones.
Credit Google Maps
Stevensville Montana sits between three grizzly bear recovery zones.

Montana Limits Grizzly Bear Deaths - November 2018

A state rule passes that dictates mortality limits after NCDE bears are delisted. The rule says Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will manage for about 1,000 grizzlies in and around Glacier National Park. In order to delist grizzlies, the Fish and Wildlife Service must show adequate protections are in place to ensure the bear population never again faces threats that could return it to the endangered species list.

Record Mortalities in The Northern Continental Divide Ecosytem - November 2018

More than 50 grizzlies die or are relocated from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem – the highest number on record. Officials cite a spike in vehicle-related deaths as a primary cause. State bear biologists say the numbers are high, but not high enough to be of concern. Wildlife advocates say the numbers are worrisome, and indicate an upward trend in mortality as population and recreation pressures rise in the NCDE.

Known and probable documented mortalities of grizzly bears in the NCDE from 2004 to 2018.
Credit Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Known and probable documented mortalities of grizzly bears in the NCDE from 2004 to 2018.

NCDE Delisting Plans Stalled - December 2018

FWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley says the agency won’t propose delisting NCDE grizzlies in 2018, as had long been speculated. Judge Christensen’s decision throws a wrench in the federal government’s earlier plan to decide whether or not to delist by the end of the year.

Greater Yellowstone Delisting Appeals - December 2018

According to the Powell Tribune, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hilary Cooley tells Wyoming legislators, “My personal feeling is we would not be successful on appeal.” However, the FWS files notice to appeal the court decision blocking delisting in the GYE anyway. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and intervenors including hunting advocacy groups and the NRA also file notices. This does not mean the government will formally appeal, but does serve as a placeholder that grants the FWS more time to decide whether or not to do so.

Hilary Cooley, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, presenting at an annual meeting on grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, Nov. 20, 2018.
Credit Nick Mott / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
Hilary Cooley, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, presenting at an annual meeting Tuesday on grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Nov. 20, 2018

Cascades Reintroduction Stalled - December 2018

After numerous roadblocks including the resignation of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, federal officials say the North Cascades Reintroduction plan will not be finished by the end of the year. The government held six scoping meetings in 2015, eight public hearings and two webinars in 2017, and provided evidence at about 70 other meetings in the region. They’ve received more than 125,000 public comments on the draft plan.

National Forests Coordinate Bear Management Strategies -December 28, 2018

In the midst of the government shutdown, Flathead National Forest puts its first new forest plan in more than 30 years in the federal register, along with amendments that will coordinate grizzly recovery strategies across all National Forests with land in the NCDE. Those lands compose about 60 percent of land within the ecosystem, and Flathead National Forest alone accounts for nearly 40 percent. In order to delist bears, the government must show that adequate plans are in place for the continued health of the population without ESA protection. Critics worry the plans abandon efforts to decommission old, unused roads. They cite scientific studies that say even unused roads pose barriers to grizzly expansion.


Feds File Appeal To Delist Yellowstone-Area Grizzlies - May 24, 2019

The Trump Administration asks a federal appeals court to remove Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stripped federal protections for those bears in 2017, but a federal judge in Missoula returned the grizzlies to the endangered species list last fall. That move cancelled what would been the first grizzly hunts in the lower 48 in decades, scheduled in Wyoming and Idaho.


Bitterroot-area Bears Will Have Full ESA Protections - January 22, 2020

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials released a letter to National Forests in the Bitterroot Ecosystem clarifying a longstanding question-mark over the status of grizzlies in the Bitterroots.

A Clinton-era plan would have reintroduced an "experimental" and "nonessential" population of grizzlies there, meaning that population wouldn't enjoy full protections under the ESA. That plan was scrapped in 2001. But until this week, the legal status and protections of grizzlies in the area were never formalized.

Pioneering Grizzly Bear Spotted East Of Great Falls - June 10, 2020

A grizzly bear was sighted nearly 80 miles northeast of Great Falls Sunday, according to state wildlife officials. The area near Big Sandy where the bear was spotted is the farthest a grizzly is known to have ventured toward the eastern plains of Montana from either the Yellowstone or Glacier area populations.

FWP says it shows that bears are continuing to recolonize the prairies they haven’t inhabited for decades.

Map showing the state of Montana
Credit Google maps
A grizzly bear was spotted 80 miles northeast of Great Falls in June 2020. At this time, it's the farthest a grizzly is known to have ventured toward the eastern plains of Montana from either the Yellowstone or Glacier area populations.

The agency suspects the grizzly near Big Sandy is a young wandering male. The bear got into dog food and killed a couple of chickens. Wildlife officials are educating the area’s residents, who aren’t accustomed to bears, about how they can reduce conflict.

Appeals Court Maintains Yellowstone Grizzly Protections - July 8, 2020

The roughly 700 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park will remain federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Yellowstone grizzlies in the summer of 2017. In the fall of 2018, a federal judge in Missoula returned protections to the bruins. The USFWS, along with Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and several pro-hunting organizations, appealed that district court decision.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court that delisting Yellowstone bears was “arbitrary and capricious.” The court said the agency did not rely on the best available science, and needs to have concrete, enforceable plans in place to maintain the genetic diversity and health of grizzly populations. It also affirmed the need to make sure new methods of estimating the size of the population of bears don’t falsely inflate grizzly numbers in the area.

However, the Ninth Circuit overturned one, small part of the district court’s opinion. The USFWS maintained the district court required them to do too much analysis on what removing protections for Yellowstone bears means for grizzlies elsewhere. The Ninth Circuit agreed. They said while the agency does need to conduct some review of what delisting would mean for remaining, protected bears, that review does not need to be as rigorous and lengthy as initially required.

The latest ruling marks the second time the federal government has tried—unsuccessfully—to delist Yellowstone-area bears.


Grizzly Bears Will Retain Threatened Species Protections - March 31, 2021

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday recommended continued federal protections for grizzlies in the continental U.S. Federal officials say the bears still face threats from human population growth and habitat loss. But the report doesn't rule out removing protections for bears in specific regions in the future.The recommendation released in a 5-year review said grizzly bears in the lower 48 states should retain threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

Credit iStock

Grizzly Bear Population Estimates By Ecosystem - January 2020

  • Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem: > 1,000
  • Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: > 700
  • Selkirk Ecosystem (including British Columbia): 80
  • Cabinet/Yaak Ecosystem: 50
  • North Cascades Ecosystem: < 20
  • Bitterroot Ecosystem: 0?

*Data from

Explore the places where we come together and fall apart. The Wide Open brings nuanced reporting on under-covered environmental issues. Our deep storytelling provides context to the forces shaping our lives — with plenty of adventure, wildlife and rich sound along the way.

Josh Burnham is MTPR's digital editor. He works on the news team and as a content strategist managing the station's website, podcasts, email newsletters and social media.
Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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