A grizzly bear walks near Frying Pan Spring in Yellowstone National Park. (National Park Service/Jim Peaco)

CODY—For nearly five decades the grizzly population emanating from Yellowstone National Park has pulsed farther and farther outward, reclaiming old haunts where humans wiped out their forebears in the early 20th century.

No longer. 

A federal biologist presenting Wednesday to a part of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee for the Yellowstone ecosystem reported that the expansion into new habitat has ceased — and that their range has even retreated in places. 

“I think it’s suggesting that we are reaching the limits of even marginal habitat,” Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team Leader Frank van Manen told fellow members of the subcommittee. “There’s more human influence  [on the ecosystem periphery], and so we have a lot more human-bear conflict and higher [grizzly] mortality.” 

Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee meeting in Cody in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Grizzly distribution is measured by GPS data from the dozens of bears collared in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The locations of grizzly deaths are part of the equation, too. 

The data suggest that grizzly range was more or less stagnant over the last two years, van Manen said. It even retracted along the northern periphery of grizzly range in southern Montana, according to data he presented. Overall the reduction in range amounted to 142 square miles — about 0.5% of the species’ total distribution. 

The news wasn’t entirely unexpected by researchers who’ve seen clues in recent years that grizzly bears were reaching the limits of where they can reproduce and persist. From 2018 to 2020 there was an initial slowing of the expansion, van Manen said.

After decades of expansion, grizzly bear distribution, in pink, retracted by 0.5% over the last two-year period. (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team)

Decades of steady expansion preceded the stall with grizzlies reclaiming hundreds or even thousands of square miles every year. As recently as 2017, van Manen reported an 11% expansion over the course of just two years. 

Counting bears

Although managers measure grizzly distribution throughout their range, they only monitor and estimate numbers in a defined area called the demographic monitoring area. About 40% of grizzly range, however, falls outside the DMA, and grizzly numbers in these outskirt areas are unknown. 

Even within the DMA, counting bears is an evolving process. Van Manen announced a change in how the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team estimates numbers within the DMA. The Cody meeting marked the first time the research team has transitioned to an “integrated population model,” which he described as a “much more advanced” than the past method, which relied heavily on aerially counting females with cubs. 

At last count, the old method tallied 1,069 bears. Manager now estimate 965 DMA grizzlies under the new method. That’s the second time in three years that officials have altered how they count bears. The 2020 population estimate — two iterations ago — was 727 bears. Although grizzly numbers have swung by the hundreds on paper, it’s likely that numbers of flesh-and-blood bruins have more or less stayed the same. 

The growth rate of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is charted here over time using a new population model. (Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team)

The change to how bears are counted — known as recalibration — was one issue U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen cited when he rejected the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent attempt at delisting grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act. The worry was that revising the population estimate upward, without simultaneously adjusting population objectives upward, could result in more hunting and fewer bears.

Using the old estimate of 1,069 grizzlies, Wyoming could have hunted up to 39 bears if the states successfully regained jurisdiction over the species. It’s unclear what a hypothetical hunt would look like using the new estimate of 965 grizzlies. 

Containment

The end of grizzly range expansion in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem fits with Wyoming’s goal of constraining the large, hard to live with, omnivores to the Yellowstone region’s core. Last time the state had authority over bears, wildlife managers pitched a peripheral hunt as a tool to drive down the population. Such a regime would have mimicked the state’s two-tiered wolf management approach, which keeps wolf numbers outside northwest Wyoming as low as possible.

In the absence of people, much or all of Wyoming would be viable grizzly habitat. 

“In theory a lot of that sagebrush country could be suitable habitat, with much lower [grizzly bear] densities,” van Manen told WyoFile. “But there is a human influence on that landscape. There’s more agriculture, more roads, more towns, and that combined creates a different enough landscape context that it becomes much less suitable. Humans are part of what drives suitable habitat, it’s not just natural vegetation.” 

The Cody meeting offered a glimpse of the friction between grizzlies and humans. Curt Bales, of the TE Ranch, spoke of “tremendous” population density of bears on the land he manages up the South Fork of the Shoshone River. 

“Quite often we’ll have 11 to 13 bears, spring and fall both, coming in and out of our fields,” Bales said. “We’ll see [them] every morning. We’ve had conflicts already this year.” 

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. grizzlies are expanding their range due to increasingly impoverished foraging conditions in the minuscule “core recovery” zone. many early explorers and surveyors advocated for a park at least twice the size of present boundaries. the grizzly population is doing it for us. obviously the the park needs expansion to quell “trophy home” development(s)” and other bad deeds affecting all of yellowstone’s migratory wildlife.

  2. What a farce. The bear population is way above the reported numbers. The “Federal Scientists” are reporting what they “want to report”….not the facts. A grizzly was video’d just outside of Thermopolis WY the other day and it was all over Facebook and I could bring up many many more examples of grizz being outside of the recovery zone. I love the grizzly bears and want them to thrive, they are majestic and intimidating and beautiful. They cache and eat what they kill for the most part. They fight for territory and dominance….which has and will contunue to lead them to expand territory. With as many bears as there currently are…..they have to continue to expand territory in order to find food sources….other than white bark pine, moths, etc etc. Without managing population numbers, there is absolutely zero chance of them “staying put”. Plus, when collared grizz roam outside recovery zone boundaries, get in trouble in populated areas, or feast on livestock, etc etc….they get trapped and relocated. Many many bears get trapped and relocated…..they never relocate the grizz outside of its “zone”….they always relocate the trapped bears well inside its “zone”. Also, I began going into the grizzly bears territory outside of Yellowstone 28 years ago. I’ve been in its territory every year since and have paid close attention to the bears. 28 years ago, you may see a bear maybe not when riding horseback or camping inside the Washakie Wilderness….and other parts of the grizzly bears home inside the recovery zone. Fast forward to 2022…I stayed in a high country basin for 3 days and saw 9 grizzlies….in 3 days in a smaller high country basin. Especially in the last few years, their population has boomed. Its impossible to know the country they roam and the current population numbers and to think they are just “staying put”. Its impossible. They are being trapped and relocated….and being “put back where they belong” by the feds…which keeps them in their recovery zone for the most part…..if they travel outside of the recovery zone, its not long before there’s trouble reported…then they are euthanized or trapped and relocated. I’m fine with the grizz, I love em’….but quit falsifying the facts….and making up your own science to push agendas….then reporting it to the world and some people believe it. The grizzly bear trappers around Cody are very busy….and getting busier every day.

  3. I lived in Jackson 1974-1996. I saw the expansion……first griz sighting was near the Jackson Lake Lodge. A employer was mauled during his morning run. Then a few years later a griz was sighted on Signal Mountain and there is a crazy vid of a griz running through the parking lot, guests getting out of their vehicles for a wedding at Signal Mountain lodge. They freaked but the bear was heading to the campground and ran like they were not there.

    Fast forward to 2019 when I returned for visit. Griz are now all through Jackson Hole. Bear spray is now sold at most stores in Jackson, the NPS recommends everyone hiking should carry it. Bear spray was carried by a few back when I lived in Jackson but the local advice was….it basically just pissed them off so not many carried it. lol

  4. In other words, we either have no clue as to how many griz there are, or the number has to be revised down to keep control and keep the research dollars rolling in.

    1. No, that is not true, we do have a reasonable count. The old way had a confidence of say 50%, now we see confidence perhaps greater than 80%. That is significant advance. Unfortunately, states (MT, WY, ID) are ill-equipped to reasonably manage wolves and grizzlies, let alone their exiting public land.

  5. More propaganda to fit the politically driven narrative to delist the Grizzly guised as conservation. If you also follow Vital Ground, you would know this isn’t truth. This is about land grab vs allowing connectivity. Gordon, Giantforte and Little all want to corral the grizzly then claim they’ve outgrown their habitat and have a season on them with their backdoor/under the table politics push of special interest groups!! Then you have the ignorance of Hageman who asks why does it matter how many are dead or killed every year?!!! Really Representative Hageman???!! How un-compassionate can you get? The grizzly has one of the slowest reproductive rates of mammals, 50% of cubs won’t survive their first year and yearlings face the same perils. 2.5 – 3 and 4 year olds trying to find their way face the perils of Game & Fish. Let’s see how long Felicia’s newly released cubs survive Game & Fish. 610’s didn’t in 2021, 399’s daughter, Luna didn’t in 2021, 399’s quad 1057 didn’t in 2022..and more! THIS ISN’T ABOUT CONSERVATION!!

    1. You are absolutely right. Another thing that is not mentioned by F&G officials is that although they have changed the counting method and adjusted the numbers, the base numbers they provide have remained the same since 2010 when they first came out. In other words, the grizzly population has plateaued. There is plenty of prime grizzly habitat available in Wyoming and the Northern Rockies if the bears could only reach it. The connectivity envisioned by organizations such as Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative will never happen under the current political conditions in the Northern Rockies, where being ass-backwards is considered a badge of honor. Kudos to Vital Ground for all of their work. As Doug Peacock told me a few years ago, “Keep fighting.” I encourage you to do the same.

    2. States are ill-equipped to reasonably manage grizzlies and wolves.
      State are not sufficiently equipped to reasonably manage their existing natural resources.

    3. I agree. It’s not about conservation at all. It’s about killing bears. G & F on average kills 50 bears a year. Add 39 more killed for hunting which is nothing more than all about the money and our bear population will be decimated.

    4. I respect ur input Michelle, Carol too. I am from Montana, guess who we have as 1 of the 3 Governors who want to Delist THE Grizzlies to specifically/ ONLY TROPHY HUNT/ KILL THEM ? Yep, Gianforte! Shame on Haagland, The Political Bubble got to her! I like Frank Van Manens expertise, like Todd Wilkinson and Chris Servheen with there meeting/ video Feb. 1st, 2023, What’s The Real Future for The Grizzly Bear? Years Of study/ knowledge/ writings! Listen to the experts!!!
      Who would know better? Those who have studied these bears FOR YRS., common sense! Keep THE POLITICIANS OUT OF THIS!! They HAVE TOTALLY A DIFFERENT AGENDA and NOT THE BEST INTEREST FOR THESE BEARS AND HONESTLY WILDLIFE, PERIOD! GO BOWLING!!!