Which ferocious, fuzzy creatures dominate the forest and help their ecosystems thrive?
Known for their frazzled appearance, grizzly bears, otherwise known as brown bears or Ursus arctos, can be found throughout Western Canada and Alaska. These brawny bundles of fur, claws, and curiosity are nature’s very own teddy bears. It is safe to say that grizzly bears are one of the most iconic creatures wandering the wilderness.
From their playful antics to their awe-inspiring prowess, these captivating bears are a force to be reckoned with. In fact, the large hump on their back serves as not only easy identification but also a powerful muscle used to tear apart logs and plants to find food. Today, a total of 55,000 grizzly bears live in North America!
Food Chain Regulators
Unbeknownst to many, grizzly bears are essential food chain regulators due to their strong top-down effects on prey and associated species. They consume mammals, fish, invertebrates, and plants. Along the way, they regulate prey populations, including populations of moose that would otherwise spike and devastate the ecosystem. One way this can occur is through over-trampling, as the large mammals crush and eat vegetation needed for tree growth. These activities can alter and harm soil composition, as adult moose can eat as much as 60 pounds of food per day. Since grizzly bears are primary predators of moose calves, they help to prevent overpopulation from occurring.
Though they can take on much larger food sources, grizzly bears love blueberries! In fact, these bears really enjoy munching on all kinds of fruits in the spring. In doing so, they help to disperse the plants’ seeds. This also provides a nutrient rich environment for the soil. Another way they aid soil health is by leaving food remnants such as salmon carcasses in the places they roam, which in decomposition release nitrogen-rich nutrients.
We need our Grizzlys! Without grizzly bears, the health of their ecosystems would rapidly decline and forest regeneration, clean water, pest control, seed dispersal, and many more crucial ecosystem functions would be at risk. In the past, grizzly bears were treated as pests and their population in the United States rapidly declined. Early settlers such as Lewis and Clark described grizzly bears to be supposed horrible, terrifying creatures that aimed to kill – striking fear into men who would later encounter them. During the 19th century, American settlers converted native land to livestock pastures and homesteads, leading to grizzlies being targeted with rifles and poison. Additionally, Government incentives to remove the bears made hunting even more prevalent. As the United States continued West, colonization pushed Grizzly bears out of their homes and into mountain strongholds. It is estimated that from the mid-1800s-1970, 98% of grizzly bears were removed from their original range.
On the other hand, Native Americans considered the grizzly bear to be a powerful and great spirit. The image of a bear was meant to symbolize strength, and wearing a bear claw necklace was said to provide protection and good health to those wearing it. These necklaces were not traded, and could only be given as gifts. Similarly to how many have come to view this creature today, the grizzly bear was looked upon in awe.
Unfortunately, grizzly bears continue to face many threats. This includes habitat loss, as human-influenced disturbance, such as logging and mineral exploitation, reduces the population of bears. In addition, global warming has meant shorter winters in Grizzly habitat. For these bears, this means less time in hibernation and more time searching for food. Some Grizzlies, such as those in Mission Valley, Montana, have even turned to crops such as corn out of scarcity. Currently, grizzly bears have been listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Though grizzly bears are endangered, many projects are being funded to restore their population to what it once was. One restoration project is with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who are hoping to bolster the grizzly bear population in the North Cascades of Washington, a once-thriving community for the bears.
As we appreciate the importance of these beautiful bears, we can hope for more restoration projects to emerge. With effort, we can get closer to a world where the mighty Grizzly and its habitats flourish.
Here’s to that future,
Kayla Pacheco is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is completing her Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and is passionate about regreening the earth and maintaining biodiversity. She devotes her time to understanding the complexities of ecosystems and the challenges they face. Her approach to advocacy hopes to inspire others to take action and collectively create a meaningful impact on the environment.