Now that the government has proposed removing the grizzly bear from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, could Utah see a return of the mighty animal?
Don’t hold your breath, say local wildlife managers.
“It’s not something that would happen today or tomorrow,” said Leslie McFarlane, mammals program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in Salt Lake City. “I suppose it could happen sometime in the future, but the probability is not high.”
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Back on March 3, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed removing the grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park from the endangered species list — a process commonly referred to as “delisting.” Part of the reason for this delisting is that the Yellowstone population has rebounded from a mere 136 bears in 1975 to more than 700 today.
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Although grizzlies are established in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, Utah is not a part of the government’s recovery plan for the animal. As such, there are no plans to reintroduce it to the state, according to McFarlane. But that’s not to say that some rogue bear might not roam across state lines one day.
“The key word being roam,” says Phil Douglass, wildlife conservation outreach manager for the DWR’s Northern Region, in Ogden. “Big predators are roamers.”
However, Douglass says a lot has changed since the 1800s, when grizzlies could wander with little to impede them.
“Today, there’s lots to impede them,” he says.
Randy Wood, wildlife program manager for the DWR Northern Region, acknowledges the possibility that a grizzly bear “could go on walkabout and end up here.”
“The thing you never say with wildlife is ‘always’ or ‘never,’ because they’ll always prove you wrong,” he said.
Still, Wood believes grizzlies returning to the Beehive State would be “a shot in the dark.” In his 29 years with the DWR, he’s never since any evidence that a wild grizzly has set paw in Utah.
“When we talk bears here, we talk black bears,” Wood said. “There a lot of them here.”
But once upon a time, the mountains of Northern Utah were prime grizzly habitat, back before hunters and trappers wiped them out. Indeed, according to McFarlane, there hasn’t been a confirmed grizzly sighting in Utah since Aug. 22, 1923 — the day sheepherder Frank Clark shot and killed Old Ephraim, a massive 10-foot-tall grizzly that for years had been decimating sheep populations in Logan Canyon.
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Today, even with delisting, if a grizzly happened to wander into Utah’s northern mountains McFarlane says it would still be protected. The proposed delisting only applies to the three states surrounding Yellowstone — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
And McFarlane said DWR is working to make sure a plan is in place in the event grizzly bears do make their way to Utah. But so far, she says, none of the grizzlies fitted with GPS collars have been detected anywhere near Utah.
“There isn’t anything close to the state at this time — nothing within walking distance, anyway — that we know of,” she said. “So we’re not really concerned with one showing up.”
And Douglass thinks it’s still much too early to be talking about grizzlies in Utah.
“Could the bears roam? Not only could they, but they do,” Douglass said. “But could they roam as far away as Utah? Only time will tell.”