Nearly every day this summer, Kerry Gunther has found himself chasing traffic jams in America's oldest national park.
What interests the research biologist isn't automotive gridlock but the animals that cause it: grizzly bears. Here in Yellowstone National Park, grizzlies seem to be everywhere - good news for a famous population of wild bruins that a quarter-century ago seemed headed for a fast extinction.
"From what I've observed in the field, I'd say the Yellowstone grizzly population is the healthiest it's been in 16 years," says Mr. Gunther, known among rangers as the "chief bear babysitter."
But the bear's recovery is not without controversy. Its apparent proliferation has fueled proposals on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses of Wyoming , Montana, and Idaho to remove federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The ESA's very future may ride on the back of the grizzly, some politicians suggest, as the Clinton administration scrambles for success stories to justify funds for wildlife conservation.
If the process of delisting the bear does not begin as early as 2001, US Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming has warned that delays may dampen congressional willingness to fund endangered-species programs.
Conservationists, meanwhile, worry that delisting could make it impossible to enforce the protection of the bear's habitat.
As politicians tussle over the ESA's effectiveness, hunters and business groups would like access to the bear or its habitat.
Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer (R) has talked about restoring a trophy hunt of grizzlies, and commodity groups, including cattlemen and the oil industry, see the ESA as an impediment to economic progress.
Underlying all these policy issues is the more basic question of human tolerance for, and awe of, the bear itself.
The grizzly is both an icon of natural wildness and, for some, a dangerous menace. While it lumbers with undeniable beauty across the landscape and demands as much as 1,000 square miles for an individual bear, it also is capable of eating people. Just this week, two hikers were mauled by a grizzly in Glacier National Park. During this century the bears have killed about two dozen people.
Test of balance
Because of the fear factor, accommodating grizzlies represents a telltale challenge in a modern world perpetually pressing in on the borders of wild places.
In 1975, with the Yellowstone bear population in sharp decline, grizzlies here were classified as a threatened species, prompting federal and state agencies to adopt stringent habitat-protection rules, including banning a sport hunt.
Today, only 1,000 grizzlies inhabit the lower 48 states, with sizable populations in two corners of the northern Rockies - Yellowstone and the northern Continental Divide ecosystem (encompassing Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area).
Clearly, Yellowstone is a bellwether. Chris Servheen, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's national grizzly bear recovery coordinator, claims that 400 to 600 grizzlies now roam the Yellowstone ecosystem - up from perhaps 200 in the early 1980s. The agency is completing a new recovery plan that many politicians and bear managers believe will lay the groundwork for delisting.
The plan focuses on a primary "bear conservation area" measuring 9,200 square miles, slightly smaller than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It includes Yellowstone Park and nearby federal wilderness areas.
Louisa Willcox, a bear policy expert at the Sierra Club, says the recovery zone is too small, and moves to delist are premature.
"Ultimately, it doesn't matter if there are 100, 200, or 500 bears now, because habitat, not numbers, is the deciding issue," Ms. Willcox says.
"If grizzlies don't have an adequate home to sustain them in the future, they are destined to disappear, as they have from 99 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states," she says. "Plans for delisting are taking their cues from politics, not what is best for the bear."
The stakes are big for industry as well as wildlife. Oil and gas development is pending in two national forests on over half a million acres; the livestock industry wants cattle and sheep given priority over grizzlies; off-road vehicle riders are fighting plans to close hundreds of miles of old logging roads; and an influx of recreationists and residential development continues to nibble at bear habitat.
Those kinds of activities caused California's grizzly population, which once numbered 10,000, to vanish by 1922, and it led to the elimination of grizzlies from Colorado in 1979.
"The people who ensured that grizzlies are still with us in Yellowstone deserve a pat on the back, but the bad news is their job is not finished," Willcox says. "The bear is not safe and, in fact, because of development it is increasingly imperiled."
Return to 'Jellystone'?
Inside the protected border of Yellowstone, the atmosphere is far more sanguine. There's a growing positive buzz over bears among millions of tourists, and the atmosphere harks back to the 1950s, when begging roadside bruins gave rise to the park's "Jellystone" reputation.
But Gunther points to a profound difference. "In the 1950s and 1960s, bears were seen along the roadside eating Twinkies and Cheetos and peanut butter sandwiches," he says. "Today the descendants of those animals are foraging on plants and taking down elk calves. They are wilder than bears were 30 years ago."
And it is Gunther's job to ensure grizzlies stay that way. His challenge has shifted, in essence, from babysitting bears to babysitting people, preventing them from getting in trouble.
Gunther's limited staff of rangers is pressed to the limit trying to keep bears and tourists separated at grizzly-related traffic jams and handing out citations to people who violate Yellowstone's code against feeding wildlife.
Biologists routinely recite the mantra "a fed bear is a dead bear," and they know that even in a scattered population of 500 grizzlies, every bear counts, especially breeding females. The death of just five females a year can mean the difference between a rising or falling population.
According to veteran bear biologist David Mattson with the US Geological Survey, the bear's survival depends on three factors: ensuring they have secure habitat free of significant encroachment, that they have access to high-energy natural foods, and that humans exercise restraint when encountering grizzlies.
Mr. Mattson has drawn severe criticism from some government biologists for publicly raising concerns about troubling trends in bear food supplies. Of the four main staples that grizzlies rely on - the seeds of whitebark pine trees, cutthroat trout, Army cutworm moths, and meat from bison, elk, and moose - all have an uncertain future, he claims.
He points to a 25 percent decrease in the whitebark pine forest over the past decade, the potential loss of cutthroat trout (due to predatory Mackinaw trout illegally introduced into Lake Yellowstone), the vulnerability of migratory moths to pesticide spraying, and proposals to reduce the size of the Yellowstone bison herd to minimize the risk of bison passing disease to domestic cattle herds outside the park.
While some biologists say the grizzly would be doomed to extinction in Yellowstone if the four major foods were to all decline, Mattson says data show that if whitebark pine alone dips in abundance, it can have profound consequences. At present, Yellowstone's surviving whitebark pine forest is threatened by blister rust.
North of Yellowstone in Glacier, the deadly blight nearly wiped out whitebark pine. Mattson's research indicates that in years when whitebark seed production is low in Yellowstone, grizzlies are forced to aggressively disperse over wider areas in search of food, and that puts them in greater conflict with humans.
Charles Schwartz, who oversees the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, says the fate of the grizzly will be determined not by biology but human values.
"The jury is still out on whether our species will commit itself to sharing space with grizzlies," Mr. Schwartz says. "I'm optimistic. I think society will make the right decision."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society