Are Grizzly Bears Endangered? Conservation Status and Outlook

North American Grizzlies Continue to Face Challenges After Comeback

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park

Diana Robinson Photography / Getty Images

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) in the contiguous United States are currently protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, as there are less than 1,500 grizzlies left in the lower 48 states and about 31,000 in Alaska. Canadian grizzlies are also listed as threatened in Alberta, but designated as “Blue Listed” (vulnerable) in British Columbia. As of now, there are an estimated 16,000 grizzly bears living in British Columbia, and just under 700 in Alberta.

These unique bears are named for their signature white-tipped brown fur, which can give them a “grizzled” look when backlit by the sun. Grizzlies were once found throughout the entire United States and down into Mexico, but due to overhunting and habitat loss, the bears lost 98% of their historic range, according to the National Wildlife Federation. A mixture of policy change and conservation efforts has accomplished huge strides, especially in the Greater Yellowstone Area, where numbers have increased over five-fold since 1975 from about 136 bears to 728, according to National Park Service estimates.

Grizzly or Brown Bear?

Although the two names are often used interchangeably, the grizzly bear is actually a North American subspecies of the brown bear (which can also be found in Russia, Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia). This is not to be confused with the other subspecies of North American brown bear, the kodiak bear, which is only found on a specific Alaskan archipelago — a distinction earned due to their genetic and physical isolation. Thanks to long claws on their front feet and a large hump over their shoulders made up of pure muscle, grizzlies spend a lot of time digging after food and hollowing out dens for hibernating. Despite reaching up to 800 pounds in weight and a height of 8 feet while standing, these bears can run at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour when the occasion calls for it. Grizzlies can also be distinguished from black bears or other brown bears by their ears, which are rounder and smaller, while their heads are rounder with a more concave facial profile.

Grizzly bear closeup in pine forest mountains
Grizzly bear close up in pine forest mountains. WestwindPhoto / Getty Images

The Fight Over Grizzly Protection Status

Their original placement on the endangered species list in 1975 definitely gave grizzlies a fighting chance, and conservation programs in places like Yellowstone made huge advancements for the subspecies. In 2006, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to establish the grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone region as a separate entity in order to remove their threatened status. What followed can only be described as a legal back-and-forth between conservationists who wanted to maintain existing protection for grizzly bears and policy makers who either believed that the Endangered Species Act was inherently flawed or thought that the bears had recovered enough.

A number of environmental organizations responded with lawsuits aimed at reenlisting the bears, and by 2009, a U.S. District Judge had reinstated protection by citing the decline of the whitebark pine — an important food source for the Yellowstone grizzlies. Fast forward to 2017, when the Trump administration officially removed them from protection once more, arguing that the Yellowstone bears had sufficiently recovered. Again, conservation and tribal organizations fought back, suing the administration, winning, and returning the bears to federal protection in 2018 (just before a controversial grizzly hunt was set to commence in Wyoming and Idaho). Meanwhile, in Canada, a DNA study in 2000 found that grizzly populations in Alberta had increased faster than previously believed, threatening bear policy there as well. Two years later, the country’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee recommended that this population of grizzlies remain as threatened in the province, backed up later by a 2008 study negating the one made eight years earlier, and confirmed the protected status in 2010.


While human-bear conflict remains the largest threat to the North American grizzlies, loss of major food sources and suitable habitats due to climate change and development follow close behind.

Human Conflict

Considering the sheer size and strength of grizzlies, these bears don’t have many enemies — except for people. As humans began to settle in North America, they killed huge numbers of bears for self defense purposes, for food, or for their hides. By the time grizzlies were placed on the endangered species list in 1975, they were all but completely wiped out, and today they remain in less than 2% of their original range.

Development and Habitat Loss

It's only natural that these bears, as omnivores who require large ranges, are attracted to the same areas as people. Isolated subpopulations of grizzly bears are especially threatened by development, with small groups often found in remnants of wild habitat surrounded by humans. Development is usually accompanied by logging and construction, which can temporarily displace bears by fragmenting the ecological continuity of habitat or destroying it altogether. Studies have shown that the mortality rate of grizzlies in areas with roads is significantly higher than in roadless areas.

Climate Change

Like most bears, grizzlies hibernate, completing much of their scavenging in the summer and fall months. In places like Yellowstone, the seeds of whitebark pine trees make up a huge and nutritious source of food for grizzlies. Unfortunately, whitebark pines have adapted to certain — mostly cold — temperatures, making it exceedingly vulnerable to climate change. It’s been shown that when less whitebark seeds are available, grizzlies resort to eating more meat, which poses a risk to delicate ecosystem balances and create more human-bear conflicts in hunting regions.

Canadian grizzlies face a similar problem, as Canada’s climate is warming much faster than the global average, impacting water temperature and salmon populations as a result. Grizzly bears in Canada rely on salmon as their main food source, and often resort to swimming great distances outside of their natural habitats to find something to eat (which uses up precious energy before hibernation). The same patterns have been observed in Alaska, where salmon are dying prematurely due to heat stress

What We Can Do

Multiple environmental and conservation groups have continued to fight for the grizzlies to ensure a safe coexistence between bears and humans. The National Wildlife Federation established the Adopt-a-Wildlife-Acre program to expand the range of the Yellowstone grizzlies and reestablish extirpated populations in other wilderness areas. Similarly, the Center for Biological Diversity continues to advocate for grizzly bear recovery strategy, filing petitions and lawsuits to recover bears to their historic ranges and challenge policies that illegally strip grizzly protection. Individuals can help grizzlies by supporting wildlife conservation and habitat protections like the Endangered Species Act, but also by doing their own research about these incredible bears.

While the law makes it illegal to harm, harass, or kill grizzlies, exceptions are made in cases of self defense. People who live or make their living in North American bear habitats should do their part by practicing coexistence techniques (like carrying bear spray) and protecting property with proven methods such as electric fencing and bear-proof trash cans to reduce the possibility of human-bear conflict.

View Article Sources
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