THE BUZZ: Grizzly Warfare… Again

By on March 8, 2016

Fears and fights sure to ensue as bruins return to state management.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced earlier this week what most expected was coming: grizzly bears no longer need the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Delisting details are still to be hammered out but without federal protection, management of the fearsome bruin will be returned to individual Western states where trophy hunting will be a likely result.

Federal wildlife officials say the bear has made an astounding recovery—the official count is 717 but many believe the number to be around 1,000—from dismally low numbers 40 years ago. Population growth has stabilized and stagnated since 2008. Combined with increased bear mortality and a new finding showing that the griz has plenty to eat, USFWS officials are ready to declare the bear fully recovered.

Opponents are fighting back in much the same way they did a decade ago when delisting was delayed by lawsuits. Environmental groups and wildlife advocates question the guesstimated 1,000 count and prefer a wait-and-see approach. They also point to climate change affecting habitat and a decline in two of the bear’s major food sources: whitebark pine nuts and native cutthroat trout. But the biggest resistance is the fear that states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana have a bloodthirsty track record of exterminating predators.

Population explanation

“We think delisting is premature,” said Roger Hayden, managing director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. “A lot of people would disagree with that. But I don’t think we know [the true count]. We are just guesstimating. I realize we’ve met the metrics of 500, but those were set 40 years ago. The real question is, when is it OK to do this and when are we out of the woods and safe?”

Sylvia Fallon is the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Project with Natural Resources Defense Council. The senior scientist says significant questions remain concerning the actual size of the grizzly population. “A study was published in 2013 that questioned the accuracy of the methodology used to count the population,” she said. “Although the federal scientists dispute these findings, they do acknowledge limitations to their counting methodology, which result in a wide range of possible population estimates varying from about 600 to 800 bears. A different methodology with other limitations puts the estimate at over 1,000 bears right now.”

But Fallon also conceded that population trends have remained stagnant since 2003 and were, by some estimates, in decline. Opponents of delisting claim this is reason to hold off on removing the grizzly from federal protection. Federal authorities say this is precise evidence the species has recovered: it is currently at max carrying capacity.

Hayden distrusts government conclusions, believing federal agencies have worked toward a pre-conceived goal rather than let the data provide the evidence. “The march to delist is politically driven,” he said. “USFWS is influencing the scientists that work for the government.”

Dr. David Mattson is a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He has long advocated that, while roughly 500 bears are needed to ensure healthy genetic diversity, he would prefer to see more like 5,000.

“The thousand bear estimate has been bandied about lately,” Mattson said. “I’m kind of mystified when people say we’ve got 1,000 bears as if that was a lot. That’s about the population of people in Dubois. Put that number into context. We’ve got 400,000 cows in the counties that are in the grizzly’s ecosystem, and at least that many people.”

Like Hayden, Mattson also stresses the importance of connectivity. The gene pool is bolstered when bears have the freedom to roam and breed. But since the dramatic recovery of the grizzly, there still remains an isolated segment of bear population in Yellowstone that has resulted in a subspecies nearly all its own, and that troubles wildlife biologists.

‘Bearly’ making a living?

The sticking point for delisting has been the grizzly’s diet. It was the primary impetus in putting the grizzly bear back on the Endangered list in 2009 after feds pushed for removal. The decline in whitebark pine has been well documented. The nuts from the tree are high in fat, which the bear craves especially headed into hibernation. It is a main staple in the diet of regional grizzly bears. A warming climate has also slashed cutthroat trout populations as that species struggles to survive in rivers and streams that are becoming too hot for their liking.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) was specifically tasked with analyzing the diet of the griz and whether changing climate conditions and habitat resources were having an adverse affect on sustainability. After six years, the results are in, says team leader Frank van Manen. The griz is doing fine.

“What we found was something a lot of us didn’t anticipate,” van Manen admitted. “[Grizzlies] are incredibly adaptable. They have what we refer to as ‘ecological plasticity.’ They take advantage of a variety of food sources. In fact, we’ve identified 266 distinct sources of food the species takes advantage of. That’s a remarkable range.”

Hayden warns not all food sources are equal. “There is not a lot of food out there that has the high quality calories of the whitebark pine,” he said. “I think the interagency team is overly optimistic about how adaptive the bear is.”

But van Manen counters that grizzlies are making a decent living on other foods, and that emphasis on whitebark pine in the bear’s diet has been blown out of proportion. Their findings revealed a third of grizzlies in the GYE had no access to pine nuts and didn’t eat them.

“Maybe we overemphasized the value of whitebark pine. Grizzlies use whitebark pine less selectively and for a shorter duration than they did 15 years ago,” he said. “They are the ultimate omnivores. They are not obligated carnivores like wolves and lions that cannot make a living on anything other than meat. It’s true, they are eating more animal matter. What is encouraging is their body mass and weight hasn’t changed in the last 15 or 20 years over the decline of whitebark pine. The conclusion is bears have shown they are pretty adaptable.”

Conflict resolution

Grizzlies in the 22,500 square miles encompassing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) have turned to alternate food sources once pine nuts and fish dried up. In general, they have become more meat eaters. And that’s been a problem. Grizzly predation on elk and moose calves has had a dramatic impact on ungulate numbers.

Hunters, in particular, blame the wolf and griz for what they perceive as dramatic reductions in moose and elk populations. Some look forward to being able to put the bruin in their gun sights.

“Trophy hunting would be a huge political mistake for the state. We would be internationally scorned,” Hayden said, alluding to the Internet uproar when Cecil the African lion was shot and killed. “And financially it would be bad for the state. I was a tour guide for five years. I can’t tell you how many people come here to see bears in the wild. Grizzly bears are worth far more to the state alive than they are dead.”

Tweaking regulation for a predator at the top of the food chain can have unintended consequences. Trophic cascade refers to the trickle-down effect caused by an increase or decrease in primary predators. Wildlife advocates insist the griz, along with the wolf, is playing a vital role in the ecosystem.

“Bears and wolves will self-regulate their population, and it looks to me like bears have self-regulated,” Hayden said. “We’ve got an overabundance of elk right now because we feed them. If we have a good and healthy population of predators on the landscape they will balance prey population. That, in turn, will help to make sure vegetation isn’t chewed down. A dynamic equilibrium is what we advocate for.”

Hunting grizzly bears could potentially alter their behavior toward humans. A vast majority of griz-human conflicts do not result in human deaths chiefly because griz are content in simply subduing a perceived threat. So could shooting at them piss them off?

“I don’t think so,” van Manen said. “Bears might become more wary of humans, but their ability to learn is speculative. The incidents we currently see are inherent in their natural response to situations like competition conflict—bears, the way they’ve evolved, react aggressively. Any change in their behavior [due to hunting] would probably go the other way with them being less aggressive.”

Hungry bears also don’t do a very good job of differentiating between wild prey and domestic cattle and sheep. The resulting rise in urban interface conflicts and grizzly mortality is either evidence of a bear population that has grown to overpopulation, or, as some say, it’s a sign that bears are being starved out of more remote areas of their habitat.

Proponents of delisting the griz include myriad ranchers who welcome the opportunity to take matters into their own hands when their livestock is threatened by bears. On the other side, Mattson believes bears and bovine can peacefully coexist. He pointed to one Montana study called the Blackfoot Challenge that he says reduced bruin-cattle conflicts to “nearly nil.”

Whether forced from their habitat or simply populating new area by sheer number, grizzlies are getting around. Mattson says evidentiary data shows grizzlies have expanded their range 40 percent since 2002.

Chris Servheen, a three-decade veteran grizzly bear recovery coordinator with USFWS, told National Geographic, “We are now seeing grizzly bears in places I never imagined them being 35 years ago.”

But bears may be bumping into people. IGBST counted 59 grizzly mortalities last year. That’s more than twice the number of bear deaths in either 2013 or 2014. Conflicts with hunters, cattlemen and cars are on the rise and state wildlife managers say they are running out of places to relocate problem bears.

Indeed, the recovery has been a remarkable success story. Estimates peg the low point at less than 140 bears back in the 1970s when beggarly bruins became a roadside attraction and nuisance in Yellowstone National Park. When the Endangered Species Act was passed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the grizzly jumped on that bandwagon two years later.

Future forecast: Bear market?

Details of how a handoff from DC to individual states for management of the grizzly bear are yet to emerge. A letter obtained by WyoFile late last year indicated a preliminary plan is in the works. States have reportedly agreed to a 19,279-square-mile monitoring area that includes Yellowstone, where the killing of bears will be based on managing for a total of 674. That would mean hunting tags could be issued for 7.6 percent of adult females and 15 percent of adult males. The agreement also called for an automatic ceasefire when population numbers dipped below 600.

Groups like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and Hayden’s organization are bristling for another fight. They are joined by 41 Native American tribes from Canada to Mexico that have passed legal resolutions opposing delisting and trophy hunting of grizzly bears.

Hayden is not alone in feeling queasy about how certain states have handled predators in the past. “I’m concerned considering the way Idaho and Wyoming have managed wolves,” he said. “Wyoming is really an anti-predator state and Idaho is as well. I would not like to see them aggressively manage bears like they manage wolves.” PJH

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