A Biden victory likely signals a sea change in federal policy approaches in ways that should be beneficial for large mammals like grizzly bears. While Biden may not have a grizzly-policy per se, his platform addresses key issues—such as climate change and conservation—that will impact the health of grizzlies as a part of the large landscapes of the Mountain West.
Here’s a quick primer on where we expect positive changes:
Endangered Species Act (ESA)
In 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced the removal of grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act in the Lower 48, which strikingly, would have allowed grizzlies to be trophy hunted in the Mountain West. The decision was quickly challenged in the courts and overturned in 2018; in July of 2020, courts again ruled that the approximately 3,000 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho would remain listed and protected.
These battles have been part of a larger campaign to weaken the Endangered Species Act over the last four years, in which the Trump administration has made it more difficult to protect species and removed protections from animals listed as ‘threatened’ under the ESA. And it’s not just bears who’ve been the target: in October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife removed all ESA protections for gray wolves in the Lower 48.
Under a Biden administration, we are unlikely to see further efforts to delist the grizzly. We will also likely see a halt in attacks on the ESA, as the President-elect has committed to upholding and building new coalitions to support the act.
Public Lands & Conservation
As part of the cabinet, the Secretary of the Interior is appointed by the president, and oversees succeeding government agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. These agencies’ on-the-ground work significantly impacts the conservation (or lack thereof) of our public lands and the creatures who roam through those areas.
Trump appointed fossil-fuel lobbyist Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, and (after Zinke resigned due to financial scandal) David Berndhardt, a former oil executive. Under Zinke and Berndhardt, the Interior has made drastic moves to open up public lands to new oil and gas wells, logging, mineral extraction, livestock leasing, and other development.
Under a Biden administration, we can expect presidentially-appointed officials who more genuinely support conservation over development. Additionally, Biden has committed to banning new oil and gas development on public lands. While there isn’t much research vis-a-vis fracking’s impact on grizzlies, energy development comes hand-in-hand with new road building, and as a 2019 study from the University of Alberta showed, more roads simply equals fewer grizzlies. “Not only do bears die near roads,” commented author of the study, Clayton Lamb, to Science Daily, but “bears also avoid these areas, making many habitats with roads through them less effective.”
Not to be overlooked, the Biden-Harris platform also includes conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030. This “30 by 30” goal is ambitious; according to Scientific American, however, it could have bipartisan support under a Biden Administration and is considered by many to be the “last best hope for saving many of the United States’ iconic species and wild places.”
The argument that succeeded in keeping grizzlies on the Endangered Species List hinged on climate change, and specifically, uncertainty around how bears would respond to declines in whitebark pine seeds. The seeds are an important food source for bears and are diminishing due to warming-accelerated beetle infestations, shrinking habitable territory, and intensifying wildfire cycles.
Whether because of shifting seasonality and abundance of food sources, or the negative impacts of warming on hibernation, there are climate-related threats facing grizzlies, and we don’t yet know how bears will fare in a warmer future.
President Trump has an equivocally poor record on climate policies and environmental protections. His administration has rolled back nearly 100 environmental rules, in sectors ranging from wildlife protections to drilling to air pollution. In contrast, Biden has committed to re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement, reinstating regulations on methane pollution from fracking, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
In fact, Biden’s 2 trillion dollar climate plan is arguably the most progressive in presidential history. His ability to enact such a climate plan will be limited if the Senate remains Republican, but we can still expect the President-elect to use his executive powers to restore environmental rules and to pursue other pathways towards climate progress. And the more we limit warming, the more species and ecosystems we preserve, which on the big-picture scale is good news for grizzlies.
In short, we’re relieved and enthusiastic to look ahead to days in which the large landscapes of the West—an integral element of our communities and culture—are valued for the immense, irreplaceable resources that they are.