February 20, 2023 | By:

Grizzly Bears for the Southwest: History & Prospects for Grizzly Bears in Arizona, New Mexico & Colorado

Grizzly Bears for the Southwest - Report Cover

The following is an excerpt from “Grizzly Bears for the Southwest: History & Prospects for Grizzly Bears in Arizona, New Mexico & Colorado” by David J. Mattson, Ph. D. for the Grizzly Bear Recovery Project. You can read the full report here, and see other reports pertaining to grizzlies here and here.


For perhaps 30,000 years grizzly bears ranged throughout the mountains and riparian areas of what would eventually become the southwestern United States. But in a remarkably short 50-year period between 1860 and 1910 Anglo-Americans killed roughly 90% of the grizzly bears in 90% of the places they once lived. Most of the remaining grizzlies had been killed by the 1930s. This report provides a detailed account of natural history, relations with humans, and current and future prospects for grizzly bears of the Southwest, emphasizing the millennia prior to ascendence of Anglo-Americans.

The report’s narrative is essentially chronological, starting with deep history spanning the late Pleistocene up through arrival of European colonists (Section 3.1); the period of Spanish and Mexican dominance (Section 3.2); and then the period of terminal grizzly bear extirpations that began with the political and military dominance of Anglo-Americans (Section 3.3). Section 4 examines current environmental conditions and related prospects for restoring grizzly bears to the Southwest. Section 5 completes the chronological arc by forecasting some of what the future might hold, with implications for both grizzly bears and humans.

The background provided in Section 2 offers a synopsis of grizzly bear natural history as well as a summary of foods and habitats that were likely important to grizzlies. Throughout the Holocene there was a remarkable concentration of diverse high-quality bear foods in highlands of the Southwest, notably in an arc from the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona southeast along the Coconino Plateau and Mogollon Rim to a terminus in the White, Mogollon, and Black Range Mountains in New Mexico. Additional high-quality habitat existed in the Sacramento, San Juan, Jemez, and Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico and adjacent Colorado.

Grizzlies in the Southwest survived remarkable extremes of climate and habitats for perhaps as long as 100,000 years. They also survived substantial variation in human-propagated impacts that culminated in the Crisis of 875-1425 C.E.—a period typified by episodic drought and the highest human population densities prior to recent times. In contrast to relatively benevolent attitudes among indigenous populations, there is little doubt that the terminal toll taken on grizzly bears by Anglo-Americans after 1850 C.E was driven largely by a uniquely lethal combination of intolerance and ecological dynamics entrained by the eradication or diminishment of native foods and the substitution of human foods, notably livestock, that catalyzed conflict.

More positively, the analysis presented here of current habitat productivity, fragmentation, and remoteness—as well as regulations, laws, and human attitudes—reveals ample potential for restoration of grizzlies to the Southwest, including three candidate Restoration Area Complexes: the Mogollon, San Juan, and Sangre de Cristo, capable of supporting around 620, 425, and 280 grizzlies each. Major foreseeable challenges for those wishing to restore grizzly bears to these areas include sanitation of human facilities, management of livestock depredation, education of big game hunters, coordination of management, and fostering of accommodation among rural residents. Climate change promises to compound all of these challenges, although offset to an uncertain extent by prospective increases in human tolerance.

But the evolutionary history of grizzly bears also provides grounds for optimism about prospective restoration. Grizzly bears have survived enormous environmental variation spanning hundreds of thousands of years, including many millennia in the Southwest. Grizzlies survived not only the inhospitable deeps of the Ice Ages in Asia and Beringia, but also the heat and drought of the Altithermal on this continent. It was only highly-lethal Anglo-Americans that drove them to extinction in the Southwest, which is why human attitudes—more than anything else—will likely determine prospects for restoring grizzly bears.

Figure 30 from Grizzly Bear for the Southwest: History & Prospects for Grizzly Bears in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado Report, showing potential grizzly bear recovery areas in the Southwest

Figure 30: This map shows candidate grizzly bear Recovery Areas in shades magenta, differentiating, Restoration, Conservation, and Protection Areas within each Recovery Area. Restoration areas (dark magenta) encompass, highly suitable habitat, modified by delineations that encompass pronounced linear intrusions of less suitable habitat that do not comport with likely annual movements of newly reintroduced grizzly bears. Conservation Areas (intermediate magenta) are continuous to or nearby, Restoration Areas, and comprise comparatively secure and productive habitats which bears dispersing from Restoration Areas would likely colonize in the foreseeable future. Protection Areas (light magenta) have either, but not both, relatively unsecure or unproductive habitat adjacent to Conservation Areas and Restoration Areas into which grizzly bears will likely disperse either because they are attracted by productive habitats or because security is sufficient for occupancy despite low intrinsic productivity. Each Recovery Area is labeled and accompanied by an estimate of the number of grizzly bears likely to be sustained in each (mean plus or minus one standard deviation; from Mattson & Merrill [2021a]).


There is ample habitat in the Southwest biophysically suitable for grizzly bears—both productive enough and remote enough from human infrastructure and activity to allow grizzly bears to survive and reproduce. Abstract reckonings of productivity are, moreover, in accord with the presence of diverse high-quality bear foods—notably acorns, fleshy fruits, pine seeds, and elk—that, in toto, provide a buffer against annual vagaries in abundance of each, all augmented by lower quality fallback foods such as roots, insects, and foliage. Perhaps even more important, there is enough contiguous suitable habitat in the Mogollon, San Juan, and Sangre de Cristo Complexes to support robust populations of grizzlies (Merrill 2005)—large enough in theory to survive centuries of environmental vagaries.

However, this conclusion comes with two major provisos. Reckonings of security as a function of remoteness hold only if the prospective lethality of humans in areas otherwise suitable for grizzlies in the Southwest is no greater than human lethality in comparably remote areas occupied by grizzlies in the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains. If this premise does not hold, then interpretation of an index of remoteness calibrated to conditions in the northern Rockies would be in doubt (Section 4.a). Likewise, juxtapositions of attractive but lethal habitat (i.e., ecological traps) with population source areas also need to be comparable to obviate source-sink dynamics in the Southwest that could bleed source areas (i.e., suitable habitat) at a higher rate than in the northern Rockies. Ecological traps almost invariably occur when bears are lured into human-occupied areas by either anthropogenic foods such as livestock or concentrations of high-quality natural foods such as fruit. The resulting inevitable conflicts typically lead to the deaths of involved bears (Nielsen et al. 2006; Northrup et al. 2012; Lamb et al. 2017, 2020; Penteriani et al. 2018).

Regarding prospective ecological traps, there is no indication from the analysis presented here that lineated intrusions of human-occupied or agriculturalized landscapes are more common or pronounced in prospective Grizzly Bear Recovery Areas in the Southwest compared to areas occupied by grizzlies in the northern U.S. Rockies. Even so, the ratio of edge length to core area in the Sangre de Cristo Complex is high, tantamount to a high proportion of population sinks (near-edge habitats) to population sources (core habitats), with resulting diminished odds of long-term population persistence (Doak 1995, Pease & Mattson 1999, Wiegand et al. 1999, Mattson & Merrill 2002). The Selkirk and Cabinet portions of the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Areas in the northern Rockies are comparably lineated, although smaller in size. The fact that grizzly bears populations in both these areas are small and acutely threatened by human-caused mortality is instructive, but with the proviso that much of this mortality is caused by malicious killing and black bear hunters mistakenly shooting grizzlies (McLellan et al. 1999, Wakkinen & Kasworm 2004, Proctor et al. 2005).

Regarding comparative human lethality, there is no way to reliably assess whether people who might directly interact with grizzly bears in the Southwest are any more intolerant or otherwise prospectively lethal than their counterparts in the northern Rockies. Even so, the majority of those who interact directly with grizzlies will almost certainly be big game hunters, livestock producers, and rural residents, as in northern ecosystems, with on-the-ground methods proven to reduce human-bear conflicts in grizzly bear-occupied areas undoubtedly serving the same purpose in the Southwest (as per Sections 4.b.i, 4.b.ii, and 4.b.iii). The key consideration, as in the north, will be whether people adopt ameliorative practices and behaviors, and in response to what inducements or mandates—but with little prospect of changing underlying worldviews and values to serve the purpose (Manfredo et al. 2017b).

Although a veritable library-full of material has been written about the contingencies, complexities, and comparative efficacies of approaches to promoting change in peoples’ behaviors and perspectives, some general principles plausibly apply to any program for bringing grizzly bears back to the Southwest. Efforts to honestly inform people about risks, risk-reducing behaviors, as well as benefits of having grizzly bears in the region should begin well in advance of when grizzlies are actually on-the-ground. But any informational effort should be proceeded by targeted outreach designed to elucidate peoples’ knowledge of grizzlies, as well as their related concerns, fears, and appreciations. Surveys have a role to play, but are notoriously prey to bias and limitations introduced by what researchers choose to ask and how they choose to ask it (e.g., Choi & Pak 2005). Focus groups and workshops based on Q methodology more reliably elicit peoples’ subjectivities (Zabala et al. 2018). Where practicable, risk-reducing infrastructure and measures should be promoted and implemented well in advance of when grizzlies arrive in an area so as to prevent the emergence of a syndrome of resentment and retribution organized around conflicts.

The organizational auspices for all such efforts are necessarily contingent on aspects of context, but with one proviso. Given that any restoration effort would have to be under authority of the ESA, implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and entail measures that required the cooperation and consent of numerous federal and state authorities (as per Section 4.b.vi), an interagency trans-jurisdictional body would almost certainly need to be convened in advance to provide a framework for planning, deliberations, and codified agreements. Even so, the details of how such a group functioned would determine whether it served a greater good or simply promoted bureaucratic inertia and dysfunction (for a sampler of what can go wrong see Clark [2008] and the case studies in Clark et al. [1994]).

Other than this, there is almost certainly a place for collaborative efforts involving non-governmental organizations focused on finding common ground among diverse stakeholders and promoting coexistence measures. One of the best examples in occupied grizzly bear habitat is the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana (Wilson et al. 2014), but with the critical proviso that emergence and success of any such effort is contingent on a number of often fortuitous factors and convergences, as in the case of the Challenge. Many arenas ripe with the potential for conflict will almost certainly not fall under the umbrella of a functional collaborative venue for promoting human-bear coexistence.

This unfortunate reality, combined with the equally unfortunate fact that a mere handful of people intent on willfully promoting conflict and maliciously killing bears can have a disproportionate effect on any recovery efforts (Liberg et al. 2012, Agan et al. 2021, Sunde et al. 2021), will necessitate coercive enforcement of laws where needed as well as deployment of creative economic measures. The latter could be especially important if resources were focused on buying out targeted public-land grazing allotments (especially sheep; Sections 4.b.ii and 4.b.v) or private holdings likely to be chronic hotspots of conflict. Purchase of agricultural properties is prospectively feasible given the precarious economic status of many smaller ranches typified by poor husbandry practices and the desirability of providing current owners a graceful economic exit (Mattson & Savage 2022).

One of the greatest foreseeable challenges for those wishing to restore grizzly bears to the Southwest will predictably arise from the human environment of Catron County, New Mexico. There is little doubt that residents of this county are likely to be among the most hostile of any in the Southwest to grizzly bears and grizzly bear restoration efforts largely because of prevailing worldviews, attitudes, grievances, and community narratives—the latter shaped by on-going conflict over recovery of Mexican wolves (Section 4.b.v). Unfortunately, there is little prospect of defusing this prospective hostility through outreach and collaboration.

The amalgam of ingredients fueling potential enmity are likely to be too potent for amelioration by outsiders attempting to find common ground on grizzly bear restoration.

Yet Catron County matters. This county encompasses much of the area with greatest biophysical promise for restoring grizzly bears to the Southwest (Figure 28). The area is productive, remote, and comparatively unroaded (Figures 26 & 27). Much of the most suitable habitat is contained within large wilderness areas (Figure 33). But, as with wolves and grizzly bears in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystems, history has shown that comparatively few malicious people sustained by a supportive local community—even if no more than a few thousand—can kill enough wolves and grizzlies to stymie recovery efforts (Section 4.b.v).

Neutralizing this threat would plausibly require neutralizing prospective poachers while at the same time avoiding backlash from the local community. However, there is little reason to think that this dual outcome can be easily achieved. Poachers are potentially subject to criminal penalties, but only if they can be apprehended and successfully prosecuted—which is predictably difficult to accomplish if poachers are surrounded by a supportive community (Gangass et al. 2013; Serenari & Peterson 2016; Pohja-Mykrä 2016, 2017; Petersen et al. 2019). As it turns out, community support for those who illegally kill wildlife is commonplace among rural populations dependent on extracting natural resources, partly because carnivore management is usually entangled with other symbolically weighty issues, including perceived impositions by an increasingly urbanized national population and resentments of state and federal governments (Krannich & Smith 1998, Yung et al. 2010, Wuthnow 2018, Ulrich-Schad & Duncan 2018, Berlet et al. 2019). All of this likely applies to Catron County.

To the extent that there is a solution to the Catron County problem, it will require skill, creativity, and perhaps a disproportionate allocation of resources on the part of those promoting return of grizzly bears. Otherwise, Catron County will likely turn out to be the setting for an endless series of crises threatening the success of grizzly bear restoration and recovery.

Read the full report here.

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