Outdoors: Brown bears no longer need protection

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  • Photo: Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA

  • 1

    Ryan

  • Photo: Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA

  • 1

    Ryan

Eight species of bear exist in the modern world: the polar bear of the Arctic tundra, the Asiatic black bear, sun bear, panda bear and sloth bear of Asia, the spectacled bear of South America, the American black bear, and the brown bear.

Of these, only the brown bear and American black bear are not considered threatened with extinction. A little less than half a century ago, this wasn’t the case.

The brown bear — Ursus arctos — is the largest carnivorous animal in North America. Brown bears are typically between 4.7 and 9.2 feet long from nose to tail and stand 3 to 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder. When they stand, brown bears are almost 10 feet tall.

They tip the scale at 200 to 850 pounds. Despite being classified as carnivorous, brown bears are technically omnivorous: Most of their diet consists of grass, berries, seeds, fungi and roots. They also eat insects, dead animals, fish and deer. There are a number of populations, or subspecies, of brown bears, of which the grizzly is the most famous.

Brown bears once were much more common than they are today. They were found not only in North America, from Mexico to Alaska, but also in most of Europe and Asia, Israel and other regions in the Middle East — a population of brown bears known as Atlas bears lived in Egypt and throughout northern Africa.

What ended the dynasty of the brown bears?

No one knows the whole story. Over-harvesting was a major contributor, and not just hunting. The Atlas bear’s demise, for example, is at least partially attributable to the spread of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century B.C. As the Romans extended their reign into northern Africa, they hunted and captured countless bears and other animals for use in gladiator fights, criminal execution and other cruel sports. Zoos also played a negative role.

Zoos’ concern with conservation, captive breeding and education are modern phenomenon. In their early days, zoos prioritized showing off exotic animals in cramped and unhealthy living conditions. Zoo collectors captured so many brown bears that wild populations had a difficult time rebounding.

So many brown bears had been killed or captured that their numbers dwindled, leaving a few populations of bears to make their last stand in the northwestern United States, Canada, Alaska and some parts of Europe and Asia.

Unregulated hunting, farmers wanting to protect their livestock, commercial trapping, habitat destruction and shootings by people who saw them as nothing more than man-eating monsters caused the United States’ grizzly bear population to drop from 100,000 to less than 1,000 between 1800 and 1975; only 136 lived in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding regions, including Idaho. What happened to save the grizzly bear and other populations of brown bear from extinction?

It started with the Endangered Species Act of 1975, under which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly as a threatened species. They and other concerned parties, like trophy hunters (these are individuals who, unlike illegal hunters, support the preservation, and not over-hunting, of game animals) and other conservation groups put much effort into establishing hunting regulation laws and setting aside refuge habitats for the bears, like Yellowstone National Park, that are still in place today. A number of private landowners and companies also voluntarily protect natural “corridors” the bears use to get from one part of their habitat to another.

We may not have saved the Atlas bear, the California grizzly or the Mexican grizzly, but grizzly bear populations of the Yellowstone ecosystem have made a comeback. In many areas of this region, scientists say the animals have reached maximum capacity at more than 700 individual bears. The Eurasian brown bears’ numbers are on the rise, too. While they still need our protection, brown bears are no longer a threatened species.

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Email Christian: animaladventures1314@gmail.com

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