The Complicated Quest to Save the Grizzly

For the last 35 years, the nation’s first and only grizzly bear recovery coordinator has endured public scrutiny, death threats and the imminent extinction of an iconic species

By Dillon Tabish
Chris Servheen, pictured in Polson on April 26, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Last week, inside his office on the University of Montana campus, Chris Servheen wrapped up his 35-year career as the federal government’s first and only grizzly bear recovery coordinator.

The occasion on April 29 passed without fanfare as the 65-year-old worked quietly and alone, the final minutes winding down on a career as turbulent as it was influential.

As the foremost person tasked with saving a species as iconic as the grizzly bear, which teetered on the brink of extinction only 50 years ago, Servheen has been at the center of controversy and scrutiny for much of the last four decades.

When he started in 1981, he tried saving the species with the help of state, federal and tribal agencies while also trying to reshape society’s views of grizzlies and how Americans live and recreate in bear country.

As a result, he has been both reviled and revered. For someone who has stared down countless grizzlies in the wild, he has endured far graver death threats in person and over the phone from enraged environmentalists and ranchers.

“Chris Servheen is the worst person in the world,” an environmental blogger wrote in 2015.

At the same time, “Dr. Bear” is credited with leading the complicated quest to save a symbol of America’s wildlands, the second largest carnivore on the continent that nearly vanished from the landscape before Servheen took the reins of federal protections after they were enacted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 honored Servheen with the Department of the Interior’s second highest award for his efforts spearheading scientific research and conservation measures that greatly expanded the grizzly population over his tenure.

It has been with a dogged determination, perhaps best exemplified by his Teddy Roosevelt-like mustache that has shaded to grey after all these years, that Servheen has weathered the storm and forged onward, pioneering the nation’s landmark mission to help threatened and endangered wildlife.

“His entire career, he has been challenged by everyone,” said Jim Williams, a longtime wildlife biologist and the Region One supervisor of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “He has been in a lightning-rod position his entire career but he has always tried to do what’s best for grizzly bears. He’s had a difficult job but he’s done a fantastic job.”

Even as Servheen quietly bows out, he leaves amid turmoil.

On March 3, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published his final work: the proposed delisting rule that seeks to remove protections under the Endangered Species Act for the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone region. The proposed delisting would remove ESA protections for the population — estimated at 717 grizzlies in 2015 — but maintain research and monitoring. It would turn over management of the species to the states and allow for a hunting season, a controversial aspect that tribes, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai, oppose. Servheen’s proposal sets the threshold for the grizzly population at 674; any dip below 600 would halt any “discretionary mortalities,” such as hunting.

“There are checks and balances in place,” Servheen said.

When asked if he would buy a hunting license for a grizzly, Servheen responded, “I would never hunt a bear. It would be like hunting family.”

He continued, “But that doesn’t mean you can’t hunt grizzly bears and have a very limited take. Hunting grizzly bears is not something that will threaten grizzly bears if it’s managed properly. Some people have a different value system and I respect their values.”

As of May 2, with eight days left during the scoping period, the proposal had garnered 1,803 public comments.

Critics say delisting the bears would hurt any progress made over the last few decades. Many are against Servheen’s findings and claim food sources and habitat are declining and posing significant threats to bears.

“There is a clear pattern of bias in both what is presented and how it’s presented by government officials,” Dr. David Mattson, a retired wildlife biologist, stated in a comment on the federal register disputing Servheen’s proposal and opposing delisting. “This bias is unambiguously supportive of delisting the Yellowstone grizzly bear population with disregard for important environmental trends and scientific uncertainties. When such bias is exhibited by public servants, it is nothing less than a betrayal of the public trust.”

Critics and federal judges have centered on climate change as a serious threat to bears and other species.

Servheen counters this claim, saying grizzlies are resilient enough to handle the changing climate.

“The issue of climate change is real,” he said, adding, “The reason grizzly bears are going to disappear is because we kill them all or we take all their habitat away. Not because of climate change.”

To the bitter end, Servheen has held his ground, confident in his life’s work.

“The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to get animals off of it. The ESA works. We need to show that it works,” he said. “The future of the other grizzly bears and the future of many other species that need help under the ESA is dependent on delisting when we’ve reached our goals and we have good management in place.”

He continued, “We have hundreds of more bears today than I ever thought we’d have. We have bears in places where they haven’t lived in more than 100 years. We have bears living in places I never would’ve guessed they’d be living. I didn’t think back then that we would have the success we have today.”

Chris Servheen sits with a bear as she wakes up in the field. Courtesy photo
Chris Servheen sits with a bear as she wakes up in the field. Courtesy photo

As a boy growing up in Pennsylvania, Servheen vividly remembers seeing a grizzly for the first time.

It was the mid-1960s, a time when the nation’s grizzly population had quietly dwindled from several thousand across the West to pockets of only a few hundred, mostly in Montana. Those who most often saw grizzlies in the wild were either hunters or ranchers, both of whom shot the bears with relatively few regulations or scrutiny.

Grizzlies were far from the beloved iconic species they are today. The livestock industry and preponderance of sheep as a valuable commodity had pushed bears aside in terms of precedence. It was also the golden age of timber harvesting and roads increasingly pushed into national forest lands.

The best and most accessible place to see a bear was inside national parks, such as Yellowstone, where the populations were protected from humans but became habituated to man-made food sources. Federal officials would set up bleachers around garbage dump sites where bears would feed as a tourist attraction.

Very little was known about America’s grizzly population. Yet around this time, University of Montana wildlife biologists John Craighead and his twin brother, Frank, began conducting early grizzly research in Yellowstone, and a televised series of National Geographic specials aired nationwide documenting the work.

For Servheen, a teenager living on the urban East Coast, the images of wild mountains and animals were tantalizing.

He moved to Missoula and enrolled at UM in 1968, studying zoology and wildlife biology. He developed into one of the top students and earned a chance to join the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and help John Craighead in the field as a work-study student. Servheen’s attention eventually turned to eagles, specifically bald eagles, which were following a similar downward trajectory as the grizzly. After following his research to the University of Washington, Servheen was called back to Montana years later.

It was 1975, when the nation came to terms with its imperiled grizzly population and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the species under the protection of the newly established Endangered Species Act.

An emerging bear expert and advocate named Chuck Jonkel was leading a study called the Border Grizzly Project in Northwest Montana, a ground-breaking endeavor seeking to better understand the ecology of grizzlies and the impacts of logging, roads and recreation on the species. As part of his PhD, Servheen joined Jonkel and worked in the Mission Mountains as a biologist alongside Mike Madel and Dan Carney.

“Nobody really knew anything about bears at that point,” Servheen said.

At the time, an estimated 250 grizzlies roamed Northwest Montana. Even fewer existed on the Rocky Mountain Front. In Yellowstone, the estimates showed barely 136 grizzlies, including as few as 30 adult females. The bears had been eliminated from 95 percent of their historic range.

“There had been a gradual erosion of the population. People’s opinion was, ‘I think they’re out there, but I’m not too worried about them.’ Nobody really knew what was going on,” Servheen said. “There were very few bears.”

As research would later show, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks proved to be important refuges for the bears during this era and in many ways kept the species from completely vanishing.

“Without Yellowstone and Glacier parks, it’s fair to say we wouldn’t have had any grizzly bears left,” Servheen said.

While Servheen and others studied bears in Northwest Montana, the nation’s landmark environmental law — the ESA — struggled to produce actual results. States, including Montana, had strongly opposed listing grizzlies under the ESA, while other agencies, such as the Forest Service and National Park Service, considered recovery efforts outside their realm of responsibility.

Don Brown, of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, was tasked with writing a recovery strategy for the maintenance, enhancement and eventual recovery and delisting of the grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48 states.

Servheen, Jonkel and others from the Border project helped Brown with the plan, which was released in 1981. As part of the recovery plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the nation’s first and only specialist tasked with leading grizzly bear recovery efforts.

As fate would have it, around this same time Servheen finished his PhD, which included groundbreaking findings on grizzly food sources, primarily moths.

“It was a case of good timing,” Servheen said.

“It was a certainly a challenge but it was an honor to be asked to do it. It was a real privilege.”

As the new recovery coordinator, Servheen began studying grizzlies in earnest and leading collaboration efforts among agencies across the West, which proved difficult.

“It was very difficult to get anybody to work together,” he said. “We weren’t making any progress. They would say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ In the meantime, bears were dying.”

By 1983, the situation worsened to the point where Reagan administration officials and state leaders from Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming banded together and created a new interagency task force that would lead recovery efforts. It was called the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and it is credited today with launching the grizzly bear’s true comeback.

“At that point, everybody thought the grizzly bear was going to disappear from Yellowstone Park and they didn’t want it to happen on their watch,” Servheen said. “There was a feeling of, ‘We can’t avoid it anymore. We have to do something.’”

Over the next 30 years, Servheen earned a reputation as a strong-willed coordinator guiding research and management, raising awareness and crafting a strategy for saving grizzlies. He supported the creation of state bear managers in the 1980s, which put biologists such as Madel and others in positions devoted to overseeing recovery and relocation of the bears. He also spread awareness about changes that needed to occur in bear country, including one of the biggest challenges of getting people living in and visiting grizzly habitat to change their behaviors, including the disposal of their trash and cleaning up backcountry camps.

With every step, Servheen faced scrutiny from either the public or many state, federal and tribal governments.

“For his entire career, he has always been very focused on his work and was very mission oriented, that being to understand and recover grizzly bears,” says Tim Thier, a longtime state wildlife biologist. “To say he was a workaholic is an understatement. Some perceived his efforts as being overly aggressive, but when dealing with a multitude of agencies, tribes, politicians and (non-governmental organizations), and thousands of individuals from across four western states and two Canadian Provinces, you have to keep moving forward and sometimes toes got stepped on.”

Thier continued, “He would simultaneously get sued for doing too much for grizzly bears and not enough. Finding the necessary funding to achieve grizzly recovery was a monumental effort in itself. Quite honestly, I don’t know how he managed to maintain his sanity after all these years.”

Servheen’s exit marks the end of an era for grizzly bear research. Jonkel, the bear expert and mentor for many managers and biologists, including Servheen, passed away weeks ago.

“We all came together because of Chuck. The fact that we’re all here doing this is because of Chuck,” Servheen said.

The decision to retire seemed like the right one, Servheen said. Publishing the proposed delisting rule was a major step forward, he said, and now was the time to step aside and join his sons on backpacking trips into the wilderness. Wayne Kasworm will become acting recovery coordinator until a permanent FWS replacement is tabbed.

Looking ahead into the future, Servheen sees private land development as the greatest threat to the nation’s grizzlies. Further development could cut off connectivity among populations and disrupt vital habitat, he said.

There are six designated areas throughout the Northwest with grizzly populations: the Cabinet-Yaak area in northwest Montana; the Selkirk area in parts of Idaho, Washington and British Columbia; the Bitterroot in western Montana; the Northern Continental Divide, including Glacier National Park and nearby wilderness areas, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

In Northwest Montana, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem is approaching 1,000 grizzlies, another milestone achievement for a population that struggled decades ago. It is in line for proposed delisting in the coming years.

“Honestly, if there is any one sole individual responsible for grizzly bear recovery, at least in the NCDE, it is Chris Servheen,” said Madel, the state bear manager and former colleague of Servheen’s in the Missions.

“Chris has been exemplary at initiating guidelines and policies to see that the grizzly bears are protected and conserved.”

Litigation and criticism have hounded Servheen from the get-go, forcing him to develop “thick skin.” The constant backlash was the most difficult part of his job, he says. After receiving death threats against him and his family, he had his number taken out of the phone book. He became used to facing enraged residents on a regular basis.

But as he exited amid more heavy scrutiny, he remained steadfast that it was all worth it.

“The opportunity I had to make a difference in something that was very important, it was a responsibility but it was a privilege to have that responsibility,” he said. “I wanted to do the right thing and see if I could make a difference because nobody else was going to do it. In the end, I’ve done my best.”

A History of Grizzlies

1800s — An estimated 50,000 grizzly bears roam much of North America from the mid-plains westward to present-day California and from central Mexico north throughout Alaska and Canada.

Spring 1805 — Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery report seeing their first grizzly bears, including one estimated to weigh 600 pounds, along the Missouri. A “most tremendous looking animal, and extreemly hard to kill,” Lewis wrote in his journal on May 5, 1805. Clark described the grizzly as “verry large and a turrible looking animal.”

1850-1930s — The grizzly bear is vigorously killed by settlers, trappers and others in the United States. The livestock industry takes off and commodities, like sheep, take precedence over predators. Bears are poisoned and killed across the West, except for two specific locations. Unregulated hunting and killing and the perception that grizzlies threatened human life also become leading causes of the animal’s decline. Glacier and Yellowstone national parks become safe havens for grizzlies.

1915 — Yellowstone National Park allows private automobiles to tour the park, leading to heightened visitation. At the same time, hotels and lodges in the park dump garbage in designated sites where grizzlies begin to commonly feed. It becomes a popular tourist attraction to watch the grizzlies eat at the sites, and Yellowstone officials set up bleachers allowing for more spectators. Grizzlies become increasingly dependent on the food dump sites.

1930s — The grizzly bear population in the Northern Rockies dips below an estimated 300, and at one time may be as low as 100, according to research. Montana has the largest remaining population of grizzlies in the West.

1965 — Brumo Weiss of Redondo Beach, California, kills a large grizzly bear during hunting season in the South Fork Flathead River. The bear is the third largest on record in the state and scores a 23 14/16 on the Boone and Crocket Club system. It scores slightly better than the grizzly killed by T.H. Soldowski of Flathead County in 1963.

1967 — After decades of unregulated hunting, the State Legislature passes a law creating specific grizzly bear trophy hunting licenses. Previously, a resident or non-resident with a valid big game license was permitted to kill either one black bear or grizzly bear per license. A special $1 grizzly bear license is now required. When a hunter kills a grizzly bear, he or she can file an application for a Grizzly Bear Trophy License with a fee of $25. Cub grizzly bears or female grizzlies with cubs at their side may not be taken. Grizzly bear seasons are confined to the general big game hunting seasons. From 1947 through 1966, the estimated annual killing of grizzlies during hunting season ranged from 20 to 60 grizzlies. A total of 1,022 Montana residents and 143 non-residents buy grizzly licenses in 1967.

Aug. 13, 1967 — Two young women are separately attacked and killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park. The deaths gained national attention and were the first recorded fatal grizzly attacks in the park’s history.

1969 — A total of 1,638 people buy grizzly bear hunting licenses in Montana. Of those, 33 apply for trophy licenses that allow them to display the head and hide.

1970s — Between 1800 and 1975, grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states decrease from estimates of more than 50,000 to less than 1,000. The bears are eliminated from 95 percent of their historic range. The southernmost population of grizzlies — and most isolated — is in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where an estimated 136 grizzly bears exist. As few as 30 adult females exist in this region.

1975 — Two years after the Endangered Species Act is signed into law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the grizzly bear as a threatened species, meaning it is considered likely to become endangered unless protections are enlisted. The recovery effort begins to develop a self-sustaining population.

1981 — Chris Servheen is named the nation’s first and only grizzly bear recovery coordinator, tasked with developing a strategy for helping restore grizzly populations. Servheen is stationed at the University of Montana.

1983 — The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is formed to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the lower 48 states through interagency coordination of policy, planning, management, and research. The IGBC consists of representatives from federal, state and tribal agencies.

1991 — A federal judge halts Montana’s hunting season for grizzlies, which had been allowed in a limited basis despite ESA protections in 1975.

1993 — The first grizzly bear recovery plan is released and implemented with three specific recovery goals that have to be met for six consecutive years.

2000 — A Draft Conservation Strategy for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is completed.

2002 — The conservation strategy is approved after a public comment period. A total of 16,794 comments are received. The strategy will be implemented after the grizzly is removed from the threatened species list.

2005 — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes removing the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the threatened species list.

2007 — The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population segment of grizzly bears is removed from the threatened species list. Conservation strategy is implemented. Several groups file lawsuits challenging the decision.

2009 — A federal district judge overturned the delisting ruling, placing grizzly bears back on the threatened species list claiming the conservation strategy is unenforceable, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the impacts of the potential loss of whitebark pine nuts, a grizzly bear food source.

2011 — An appeals court rules the grizzly bear should remain on the threatened species list. The court determines that the conservation strategy did in fact provide adequate regulatory mechanisms were in place. But the court upheld the lower court ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not sufficiently address the potential impacts from reduction of whitebark pine and other foods.

March 3, 2016 — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seek to remove the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the threatened species list, releasing a proposed rule that is open to public comment. Chris Servheen writes the proposed rule. An estimated 717 grizzlies live in the Yellowstone region. Another 960 are estimated to live in the NCDE in Northwest Montana. All told, there are about 1,800 in the lower 48 states.