CREDIT: David J SwiftBy Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

In the Greater Yellowstone region, there’s growing recognition of what some call “the grizzly economy.” It’s not a bearish attitude, but rather bullish enthusiasm for recovery of an iconic Montana species, Ursus arctos horribilis, and the fact that grizzlies, as assets, are now worth far more alive than dead.

The shift from viewing grizzlies solely as liabilities is actually a radical historical departure, generations in the making, from a past in which bears were thoughtlessly cleared from the landscape, maligned as menaces, overhunted, and shot at will by ranchers wanting to protect their livestock.

As everyone living in the Northern Rockies knows, grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone have, since 1975, been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and earlier this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to remove them from federal protection, handing management over the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

Once upon a time there were 50,000 grizzlies west of the Mississippi in the Lower 48 and today there are slightly less than 2,000, inhabiting just 3 percent of their original range. No matter which way delisting goes, Montana will continue to play a vital role in grizzly conservation, one that could ultimately determine whether the species persists in the face of growing threats.

Conservation biologists warn that when wildlife populations are confined to terrestrial islands of habitat with closed gene pools, they disappear at higher rates.

Government agencies and conservation organizations, including Missoula-based Vital Ground Foundation, believe it is important to bring connectivity between the Greater Yellowstone population of bears and the next largest concentration of bruins – those in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem encompassing Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses.

As all bear advocates know, grizzlies are quintessential emblems of wildness. Apart from that, evidence has been stacking up demonstrating their value to the economy. Overall, the value of nature-tourism in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks is worth an estimated $1 billion annually with grizzlies and wolves being prominent attractions.

Down in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a sow grizzly given the numeric identity 399 by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has become the most famous bear in the world. Today, she has admirers around the world who make travel plans just for the possibility of seeing 399 and her cubs.

Important to many Montanans is finding ways to show their love for grizzlies and helping to protect the habitat bears need. In recent years, many motorists have voted with their wallets by making statements on the vehicles they drive. How? By purchasing specialized license plates featuring the profile of the Great Bear.

It happens like this: Whenever the time arrives for citizens to renew their vehicle registration at the local county treasurer’s office, they can trade in their old generic Montana license plate for one featuring a bear painting by noted artist Monte Dolack.

The state charges $35 for the new plate, and $25 goes directly to Vital Ground whose primary mission as a land trust is to protect bear habitat through conservation easements and land purchases, and educating the public. Afterward, the entire $25 annual license plate renewal fee goes to Vital Ground.

The plates have become quite fashionable. In the last six years alone, more than $400,000 has been raised. The money has been used to reduce bear-human encounters by helping homeowners and ranchers employ non-lethal deterrents such as electric fencing around pastures and chicken coops, retiring public land sheep grazing allotments in grizzly habitat, improving sanitation to prevent bears from getting addicted to human food, and teaching the benefits of carrying bear spray.

Vital Ground’s license plate program allows citizens, including those who have no ambition of sport hunting a grizzly, to make an important contribution to conservation. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Visit to learn more about Vital Ground and its license plate program.

Todd Wilkinson is a correspondent for National Geographic and author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 bear images by noted American wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen (