The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and His Dancing Bear Numbers
This piece summarizes some of the key points in Dr. David Mattson's comment letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service on its draft rule to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone's grizzly bear population. The metaphorical Wizard of Oz reminds us of the perennial plight of citizens in a democratic society. We frail humans are all too often seduced by the self-proclaimed and culturally-enshrined wizards of our day. These “wizards” include scientists, technocrats, and other experts who we ascribe privileged access to mystical insights and powers. But a vibrant democracy requires that we empower ourselves through self-education and a healthy level of skepticism. Mattson observes that the real story of Yellowstone's grizzly bears is more complicated than the propaganda being produced by the government. Major changes in foods abundance driven by invasive species, disease and climate change are driving changes in bear death rates. In fact, mortality rates have dramatically increased at the same time that distribution has expanded in response to the loss of foods such as whitebark pine. Dr. Mattson concludes that carrying capacity is not static and has been declining since the mid-1990s.
Sardine Can Blues
We can’t support any more bears. We’ve got bears coming out of our ears. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is like a sardine can full of grizzlies. Such is the purported state of grizzly bears in Yellowstone. For those of you who have been paying attention to the rhetoric voiced by agency spokespeople during the last few years, you will have heard the refrain over and over again. In fact, this claim undergirds much of the argument made by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and state wildlife managers for removing ESA protections from Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Dr. Mattson concludes: "there is cause to question the experts in this instance. In fact, there is an increasing and to my mind wholly justified tendency for the public to question experts, especially when there is reason to suspect that they are politically motivated."
Let them Eat Grizzly Cake
According to popular history, Marie Antoinette, Queen of pre-Revolution France, quipped “Let them eat cake” when told that her subjects were starving. The peasants shortly thereafter rendered their verdict on her purported behavior by applying a very sharp blade to the back of her neck. This piece by Dr. Mattson summarizes the dramatic recent changes in key foods of Yellowstone grizzly bears, and the claims by government officials, much like Queen Antoinette, that these changes are of little consequence. He summarizes the “food fads” of grizzly researchers (mushrooms, dandelions), and then talks about problems faced by a population that is now eating more meat. Dr. Mattson concludes that the government's approach to the food issue constitutes a betrayal of public trust, and that more openness and transparency is needed on the part of government scientists studying Yellowstone's grizzly bears.
The Politspeak of Social Carrying Capacity
Dr. Mattson introduces this piece thus: "As a scholar and social scientist I get really annoyed when concepts are deployed for partisan purposes without regard for intellectual integrity. Having said that, I suspect that most politicians would find my distress silly...politicians specialize in propaganda, one definition of which is: 'Official government communications to the public that are designed to influence opinion. The information may be true or false, but it is always carefully selected for its political effect.' So…politspeak." The piece elaborates on how government "servants" have, in fact, betrayed the trust placed in them by using the rhetoric of "social carrying capacity" as cover for killing more bears and for serving political masters who answer to white guys with guns. Dr. Mattson offers an alternative approach to assessing acceptance for large carnivores among different constituents.
The Genetics Game
A paper by Kamath published in 2015 devoted to plumbing the depths of grizzly bear genetics could lead a naïve reader to conclude that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population had increased by 4.5-fold during the last 25 or so years...or that bears reproduce like rabbits, at 15-30% per year. None of this passes the laugh test. Notably, the research reported in this paper was funded by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Chris Servheen in particular) and authored by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), along with some researchers they invited to participate. None of these players can lay claim to impartiality, especially when it comes to the agenda of removing ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. And all have fought tooth and nail to maintain a monopoly over the Yellowstone grizzly bear data.
The size and trend of Yellowstone's grizzly bear population are almost certainly lagging behind major declines in key foods, including whitebark pine, cutthroat trout, and elk. These lags are probably on the order of a decade or so. Which argues against any hasty moves to eliminate ESA protections, and for being patient. In this piece, Dr. Mattson says: "Let's see if and how the potential lags in population size and trend play out...and why managers should be taking these effects seriously." Long term research conducted on grizzlies in the North Fork of the Flathead demonstrates how lag effects from a berry famine impacted bear densities. Given the strong potential for lags in the response of population size to habitat deterioration in Yellowstone, Dr. Mattson asks: "why not wait a few more years before moving to delist Yellowstone's grizzly bears? What is the hurry?"
The Density Game
The best available science shows that Yellowstone's grizzly bear population has increased very little, if at all, in size since roughly 2002. So says the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST). In fact, a close examination of their trend data shows a population decline since roughly 2014. The best available science also shows that the distribution of the Yellowstone population increased substantially between 2000 and 2010, by roughly 38%. Grade School math shows that if you have the same number of bears distributed over a larger area, then population-level density has axiomatically declined...since the early 2000s. Dr. Mattson concludes that the rhetoric being deployed by agency scientists and managers about effects of population density on Yellowstone grizzly bears is at best deceptive and disengenuous; at worst, outright lies.