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Louisa Willcox’s Blog

Blood bath for Yellowstone grizzlies

Louisa Willcox

Posted December 4, 2008

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A shortened version of this opinion piece was published in the Billings Gazette on November 30th, 2008

This year has been a blood bath for Yellowstone grizzly bears.  A total of 49 grizzlies are known to have died, breaching the allowable thresholds for grizzly mortality for males and females.  To find a year this bad, you have to go back to 1972, shortly after the Yellowstone dumps were closed.  That was when grizzly hunting was legal and before bears were protected under the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly coordinator brushed off the seriousness of the situation, saying: "we've seen high mortality years like this before, and the population is increasing".  There are a number of problems with this response.  First, using the government's new methodology, this year's population estimate is based on the number of females with cubs this year, and does not reflect this year's mortalities.    Remember that stock performance warning that "past performance is no guarantee of future success"? 

To compensate for this kind of loss, the population would have to increase next year at 15-18% or so--a virtual impossibility for an animal that reproduces very, very slowly.  In addition, with the breaching of mortality thresholds, the clock has begun to tick on a status review of the population.  If mortality levels are exceeded next year, under the delisting rule, the agencies much undertake a review of the population and consider restoring federal protections to the Yellowstone grizzly.

The sad thing is, that most human-caused mortalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are avoidable. 

The methods to avoid problems are tried and true.  They include carrying (and knowing how to use) bear pepper spray, early removal of game carcasses from the field, careful sanitation and backcountry practices, and being alert and prepared for a grizzly encounter.  These practices are especially important in poor years for the grizzly's key food source: whitebark pine seeds.  Whitebark pine seeds are the engine that drives the health of the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone.  These seeds are essential to the reproductive success of females.  And by growing in remote, high, wild places, whitebark pine forests keep grizzly bears out of harm's way: scientists have shown that in poor seed years, grizzlies die at rates 3 times higher than in good seed years.

With the unprecedented outbreak of mountain pine beetles in whitebark pine forests due to global warming, all years in the future are likely going to be bad years for whitebark pine.  Some experts predict the functional loss of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the next 7 to 10 years.  That's bad news for bears, and for the rest of us, too. 

The delisting plan was based on the notion of adaptive management: if conditions change on the ground, agencies will make needed adjustments.  Sounds reasonable.  If whitebark pine seed crops fail, agencies said that they would develop early warning systems, alerting key members of the public, such as hunters, that they need to be especially careful and prepared for grizzly encounters.  So what happened?  Obviously, not nearly enough in time to prevent the massive death toll.

So far, with grizzly bears, adaptive management has proven to be little more than empty rhetoric.

This is not to say that state and federal employees are not working around-the-clock to keep people and bears safe.  But the efforts are largely reactive, not proactive.  And the removal of endangered species protections make it even more difficult to punish bad actors.  Further, the current regulatory mechanisms are unenforceable: none of the states are legally bound to prevent mortalities from exceeding the limits outline in the government's bear management plans.

So if we know that habitat quality will continue to decline in the parks and wilderness, where most whitebark pine forests are located, how will the grizzly bear population be sustained?  It is clear that grizzly bears are going to need access to other suitable habitats, places like the Wind Rivers, Palisades, Centennials and Gravellies, to compensate for the loss of whitebark pine in the core of the ecosystem.  In addition, agencies, non-governmental organizations, and everybody who recreates in grizzly country must redouble conflict prevention efforts, because grizzlies will be encountering people more often and dying at higher rates. 

It's time to stop denying the problem and do something about it.  With the lowest reproductive rates of any mammal in North America, grizzlies are especially vulnerable. They have already been reduced to 1% of their former range because of excessive killing and habitat loss. The hard earned progress towards recovery can be quickly reversed in a few years like this.  The Yellowstone grizzly, symbol of our wilderness heritage, deserves our best efforts to ensure that it will still be here for our grandchildren in and around our nation's oldest park.


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