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Grizzly Bears: Taking Stock of 2009, And a Bear Prayer for 2010

Louisa Willcox

Posted December 31, 2009 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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As grizzly bears have finally settled into their dens for a long winter sleep, it is time to take stock of the status of the populations that make up the last strongholds for grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies.  These populations include the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Glacier Ecosystem population (also known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem), the Cabinet Yaak, Selkirk, and a few ghost bears in central Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Ecosystem.

What went well, and what didn’t?  During this winter reprieve, when bears will neither eat, drink, nor defecate, what can we do to evaluate our efforts to recover these threatened populations, so as to improve our capacity to share space with an animal that’s been reduced to 1% of its former range?  The news from 2009 is both good and bad -- and some of it can only be called ugly or absurd.  There is a lot to learn from what happened in 2009 to improve bear conservation efforts for 2010 and beyond, to ensure that these magnificent creatures will be among us for generations to come.  

THE GOOD

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)

  • On September 21st, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy restored endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, determining that state mechanisms to manage bears after delisting were inadequate, and that one of the Yellowstone grizzly bears’ major food sources, whitebark pine seeds, are at risk due to global warming and mountain pine beetles that are killing whitebark pine at unprecedented rates.  This means there is again federal “look before you leap” oversight of activities that could be potentially harmful to grizzlies, renewed potential for additional resources under the ESA for state recovery efforts, and a prohibition on killing or harassing grizzlies (with stiff penalties for poachers).
  • Yellowstone National Park had zero human conflicts with grizzly bears this year!  This was the best year ever for coexistence among bears and people in our nation’s first park, in 27 years of bear-human conflict documentation by the National Park Service.  Just 25 years ago, Yellowstone was the center of a storm of conflicts and human-caused grizzly mortalities in the GYE, but this year bears and humans stayed safe, even with 3 million visitors and 850 bear (traffic) jams!  Kudos to Yellowstone Park and the dedicated staff who worked tirelessly to make this year a success for grizzlies, as well as for the people who traveled far to view bears and behaved well in the company of these great creatures.

Glacier, or Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE)

  • Grizzly bears continue to move eastward from the Rocky Mountain Front across the prairie grasslands—more than 70 miles from the mountains, farther than in recent history.  The prairie-dwelling grizzly, which has basically been exterminated in neighboring Alberta, is making a comeback on the east side of Glacier Park!  Thanks go to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials, as well as ranchers and others who are demonstrating a willingness to share habitat with these far-ranging grizzlies and are taking important precautions to keep bears from becoming habituated to human foods and other attractants. 
  • Work continues on a DNA-based census of the Glacier grizzly bear population, which is estimated at around 700 bears.  The census is based on an extensive bear hair snaring effort that has been underway for the last 6 years.  This DNA technique has some significant advantages over the traditional use of radio collars to assess population size, by being more thorough, accurate, and less intrusive.

Selway/Bitterroot Ecosystem

  • Although it was thought that bears had been extirpated by the 1970s in the vast wildlands of central Idaho’s Selway/Bitterroot ecosystem, a few bears have been showing up inside the Selway/Bitterroot grizzly recovery zone.  Just as occurred last year, this year a bear was found inside the zone—but unfortunately was mistaken for a black bear and met an accidental death.  Still, these grizzly bears are demonstrating that good habitat is available in the Selway/Bitterroot ecosystem, and dispersal of grizzlies between Northern Rockies ecosystems is still possible.

Cabinet Yaak Ecosystem

  • One of the grizzly bears previously translocated to the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem was found still alive in the ecosystem this year, as was an offspring.  The translocation of several grizzlies from Canada, conducted over a decade ago, was intended to boost this beleaguered grizzly bear population, which may only have 40 or so animals remaining in an isolated population in northwest Montana.

THE BAD

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)

  • In 4 of the last 6 years, allowable grizzly bear mortality thresholds have been violated.  And this year, as in 2007, we were only one dead bear away from violating the mortality thresholds.  With the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal in North America, the grizzly is especially vulnerable to excessive rates of killing.  The leading causes of death are conflicts with big game hunters and the habituation of grizzlies to human foods and garbage, which often precipitates lethal encounters with humans.  
  • Overall this year, grizzly bears numbers in the GYE were down, as was the number of females with cubs—probably due in part to the devastating loss of 79 bears (13 % of the total population) in 2008. Other potential reasons include: (1) the effects of whitebark pine loss, which is known to increase rates of human-bear conflicts and (2) the relaxation of regulations in the wake of the removal of federal protections in 2007.

Glacier/NCDE

  • Allowable mortality thresholds were violated in 10 out of the last 15 years.  The level of malicious illegal killings is of particular concern in this ecosystem.  The “shoot, shovel and shut up” culture is still strong in corners of the Glacier Ecosystem, and law enforcement has been weak, in part due to lack of adequate resources. 

Selway/Bitterroot

  • The federal government has done essentially nothing for a decade to move towards restoring grizzlies to the largest wildland ecosystem remaining in the Northern Rockies.  Bears were extirpated there about 30 years ago, and a 1999 plan to reintroduce bears to this ecosystem was put on ice following the election of George Bush as president.  Leading experts have shown there is ample habitat to support a population of 400-600 grizzlies.  Recovery of grizzlies in the Selway/Bitterroot ecosystem would boost the health of grizzlies throughout the Northern Rockies, by providing ecological connections between the GYE and more robust populations in Canada.

Cabinet Yaak and Selkirks

  • The federal government continues to drag its feet in developing new, better habitat and roads standards for grizzlies following successful litigation brought by conservation groups three years ago.  The future of these tiny remnant populations relies on a major effort to protect and restore grizzly bear habitat.  This means that significant work is needed to close and obliterate unnecessary roads, thereby reducing the frequency of bear-human conflicts and poaching.  To date, agency leadership and commitment on this issue have been lacking. 

Alberta

  • Alberta’s grizzly bear population, which includes part of the Glacier population in the U.S., continues to decline.  Recent numbers indicate there may be as few as 500-700 bears remaining in the entire province, in seven increasingly isolated and fragmented populations.  Without strong legal protections, such as those afforded in the U.S. by the Endangered Species Act, Alberta grizzly bears will be in increasingly dire straits.  Indeed, without a major commitment to recover these grizzly populations – unlikely in the current political climate – their future looks grim.  This is also bad news for the U.S. bears that live in the ecosystems along the U.S./Canada border.

THE UGLY

The Tragic Fates of 3 Grizzlies

  • Maximus (Bear #7273) was an 800-pound grizzly bear, 7.5 feet tall, thought to be the second largest grizzly bear ever captured in Montana history.  He was shot and left to rot in a pasture east of the Rocky Mountain Front last summer on Dupuyer Creek.  The case is under investigation, and the reward amount for information relating to the case continues to climb. 
  • Grand Teton National Park’s Grizzly 615.  Bear 615 was one of three offspring of the famed grizzly bear #399, who raised a set of triplet cubs in Grand Teton Park near Jackson Lake Lodge over the past few years.  This bear family gave thousands of park visitors the thrill of a lifetime, as they were able to watch her forage, nurse, and play with her cubs at a fairly close but safe range.  Bear 615 was killed by a hunter in October 2009 near Jackson while feeding on a moose carcass.  The hunter, who was not carrying bear spray, shot her from 40 yards away despite the fact that the bear was not behaving aggressively.  The hunter was charged with taking a grizzly bear without a license.
  • The Old Man Lake Bear (and cub).  At 17 years old, the “Old Man Lake” grizzly female was killed by Glacier National Park officials, and one of her cubs died in a subsequent accident involving tranquillizers.  Although this bear family had frequented trails and campgrounds, it had never threatened people.  The treatment by Glacier Park of this bear and her cubs stands in stark contrast to Grand Teton’s bear #399 and her cubs, which were carefully watched over by a volunteer Park Service collaborative called the “Bear Brigade,” who were dedicated to keeping both people and bears safe.

Two New Mine proposals: Last Nails in the Coffin for Cabinet Yaak Grizzlies

Picture two new major industrialized mining zones – roads, heavy equipment, power lines and noise – on both sides of the very narrow Cabinet Mountains in essential grizzly bear habitat.  On the east side of the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem, a new mine is being proposed—about one mile as the crow flies from another mine proposal on the west side of this tiny mountain range.  (This mine has been challenged successfully in court previously, and another lawsuit is still pending.)  Cabinet Yaak bear numbers have already been declining due to excessive human-caused mortality, habitat loss and fragmentation.  Development of either mine will be devastating to the last grizzly bears of this fragile population, by severing the southern third of the mountain range from the northern section.

The Collapse of Two Key Foods in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)

The vast whitebark pine forests of the GYE are turning bright red, then grey, as they die at unprecedented rates due to the effects of global warming, which has allowed the mountain pine beetle to flourish at higher elevations.  Adding insult to injury is an introduced pathogen, white pine blister rust, which is killing whitebark pine throughout its range.  Leading experts believe whitebark pine will become functionally extinct in the GYE in just five to seven years. 

Yellowstone cutthroat trout, previously one of the mainstays for grizzly bears in early spring in the tributaries around Yellowstone Lake, have all but disappeared as a bear food due to combined efforts of global warming, drought, and a non-native predator, lake trout.

THE ABSURD

 Gaining Grizzly Protections Means Losing Them – Huh?

“The direct result of the court decision [to restore federal endangered species protections] to Yellowstone grizzly bears…will increase loss of secure habitat, increase mortality risk and displacement of grizzly bears on the 746,240 acres [in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem].”  This statement was made by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen in a July 2009 declaration submitted to the Federal District Court in Missoula.  In an interview by the Jackson Hole News and Guide in October 2009, Servheen declined to characterize the degree of risk and said that it was impossible to quantify.  So let’s get this straight: the federal agency responsible for recovering endangered species is now saying federal protections actually weaken safeguards for imperiled species, such as Yellowstone’s grizzlies?

“Bear feeding frenzy” film hoax

In a faked documentary, “Bear Feeding Frenzy,” aired by the Discovery Channel, former soap star Chris Douglas posed in a “predator proof” plexi-glass box in the fenced bear pen at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, with a mannequin tied on the side.  The penned grizzlies were taught to maul the mannequin, break into a car and tear down tents as the star yelled “hey bear, hey bear.”  This footage aired alongside clips of wild bears along the Russian River, in Katmai and elsewhere in the wilds in Alaska.  So what will television NOT do to fabricate controversy?

Bar talk equals bear science in Alberta   

After spending $2.4 million to assess the size of the Alberta grizzly bear population through state-of-the-art DNA census techniques using bear hair, which found much lower grizzly numbers than some expected, in May 2009 Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development Director Ted Morton bailed on the research project just as it neared completion.  He then announced that the province will accept anecdotal evidence from hunting groups to help decide the fate of the Alberta grizzly bear population.  Hunting groups are hoping that their anecdotes will be accepted as good reasons for again allowing grizzly bear hunting in Alberta.  (The hunt had been halted when researchers showed low and declining numbers.)  Leading researchers believe that as few as 600 or so grizzlies remain in the province in seven increasingly isolated populations.

LESSONS FROM 2009: A BEAR PRAYER FOR 2010

There is much to be learned from the example of Yellowstone National Park and its heroic and successful efforts to eliminate attractants and significantly reduce human-bear conflicts.  Similarly, the fact that grizzlies have been able to move again eastward from the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front is testimony to people’s tolerance as well as skillful management.  Using these examples as models, communities throughout the Northern Rockies should consider how they too can eliminate bear attractants and keep people and bears safe.  This will become increasingly important as human pressures mount in the Northern Rockies, and as the distribution and abundance of key foods like whitebark pine change as a result of warming temperatures.  In the future, bears will need the protection of more space, not less, to compensate for changes in bear foods as well as human developments.

In some areas, restoration of degraded habitat will also become more important to keeping healthy grizzly bear populations on the landscape.  Rigorous programs to close and obliterate unnecessary roads and improve habitat security for the Cabinet Yaak/Selkirk bear populations are essential.  And the two mine proposals in the Cabinet Yaak must be prohibited if this tiny population is to have a chance to survive.

In the end, grizzly bears will only remain in the lower 48 states if we reduce rates of human-caused mortality, learn to share their habitat with more compassion and understanding, and save the wildlands they depend on.

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Comments

CCJan 5 2010 06:00 PM

Hello Louisa,

I was unaware a bear was found inside the Selway/Bitterroot ecosystem this year. Can you provide more information or direct me? From DNA was it believed to be from Selkirk population? How far south was it? How did it accidentally die?

CC

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