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Don Shoulderblade, Northern Cheyenne - Goal Spokesman

Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved

The Problem of Hunter-Caused Mortality

And What Can Be Done

In Yellowstone most grizzly bears die from human causes, and most grizzly bear deaths are avoidable according to the federal government which has protected them since 1975. The spate of grizzly bear deaths during 2015-2016 is shocking, and the population is almost certainly in decline (link).


Hunters have emerged as the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality. Despite a precipitous drop in the number of hunters in recent decades, there has been a three-fold increase in bear deaths resulting from conflicts with hunters in the last 11 years. What is going on and what can be done about it?


The short answer: lots. And most involve commonsense and basic preparedness among hunters in grizzly country. A review of past agency recommendations, discussed below, underscore that much more can and must be done to ensure the safety and well-being of grizzly bears and people in this world-class ecosystem.  


This is especially true given how quickly conditions are changing on the ground for grizzlies. Climate change will continue to alter our world and that of the grizzly bear (link).  According to federal data, since shortly after the 1988 Yellowstone fires, peoples’ garbage stopped being the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality. Hunters have taken its place, along with livestock operators.


Yes, bears still die from being habituated to garbage and more needs to be done on that front. But unless we get a grip on the escalating problems involving hunters (and cows), grizzly bears will likely edge towards extinction once again – a scenario the public and the government have worked so hard to avoid for the last 40 years. Simple preventative steps can be taken. But they require political will, openness, and compassion.   


Four agency documents, based on analyses of conflicts and mortalities, summarize clear and straightforward measures, mostly relating to reducing hunter-caused mortality. The reports consist of one in 1991 by the Hunter/Grizzly Bear Interactions Task force, one in 2001 covering Recommendations from the Hunter-Related Grizzly Bear Task Force (I served on the task force, along with hunters and agency personnel), one in 2004 entitled the Yellowstone Mortality and Conflicts Reduction Report, and, finally, one in 2009 also entitled the Yellowstone Mortality and Conflicts Reductions Report (link). In my summary below, I also relied on a 2001 Statement by Robert Jackson, long-time Yellowstone Park Backcountry Ranger, on hunter conflicts in the Thorofare region along the southeast boundary of Yellowstone Park, and used information from a 2000 white paper on grizzly bear mortalities and conflicts by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.   


Enforce the Law 

All of these reports focused on the need to improve the handling of bear attractants by hunters and livestock operators, primarily through better law enforcement and increased field presence by agency personnel. The responsibility here rests with state game agencies (through authority over licensing hunters), Forest Service (through authority over permitting outfitters and livestock operators), US Fish and Wildlife Service (through authority over endangered species), and Grand Teton Park in the case of its elk hunt.


No matter how much work is done to educate hunters and ranchers about bear spray, bear behavior, or keeping a clean camp (and a lot IS being done), careless and indifferent people can spoil things for bears and everyone else. Since the data show that outfitted hunts in Wyoming are a leading cause of dead bears, compliance with basic preventative measures among Wyoming outfitters, who are required to have a Forest Service permit, would be a good place to focus. 


The 2004 conflict reduction report correctly stated that support by the judicial system and by legislators for prosecution of offenders is important, and even went so far as to say that managers should be cultivating such support.  But the ones who dominate the current public discourse are those who are calling for delisting and killing more bears.  They don’t want the laws enforced. Making matters worse, after delisting, law enforcement will be in the hands of notoriously anti-carnivore states. 


Regulation vs education: are new rules needed to respond to changes?  ​

In all of these reports, agency representatives emphasized the need to: 1.Ensure that hunters were prepared to hunt in grizzly country, and if education doesn’t work, to certify that hunters were qualified; 2. Remove dead game promptly and improve handling of livestock carcasses, and 3. Carry bear spray. Over two-thirds of the recommendations of the 2004 and 2009 reports were centered on these overall themes.


As grizzly bear numbers dropped during the 1970’s and concerns over the bear’s fate mounted, binding regulations were adopted pertaining to storing food. In 1991, the agencies seriously considered more mandatory restrictions, especially for hunter practices. Each time when the government revisited the issue of adopting new rules (including hunter certification), it rejected them for fear of alienating conservative, politically well-connected hunters (and ranchers).


Even though agency officials say that “hunters are behaving better” because of their education/outreach work (link), their own data do not support this contention.  Hunter-caused mortalities have dramatically increased at the same time that the size of the grizzly bear population has plateaued since 2002, and hunter numbers have actually declined--by over 40% (link).  


Government data also show that as key foods such as whitebark pine and cutthroat trout have collapsed, bears—including females-- are turning more to eating meat (link). And the bears seem to be aggressive because they have few high–calorie options. As many hunters well know, grizzlies are learning that gunshots are dinner bells, sounding the serving of dead meat.


The production of berries, a key fall-back Yellowstone bear food, has been unreliable in recent years, which exacerbates grizzly bears’ scramble for food. Climate projections show that the future of berries in the ecosystem is bleak. Elk are also expected to further decline in response to a climate-driven deterioration in forage conditions (link), as well as because of the resistance of states to lowering hunt quotas.


Conflicts over increasingly scarce elk will likely worsen.  Hunters will be in the thick of these conflicts, and education, alone, does not appear to be the answer.   


Requiring that hunters not leave a dead elk on the ground overnight (with any hope of owning it in the morning) should be considered. Hunters on Alaska’s Kodiak Island kill deer early in the day to avoid conflicts with the island’s huge brown bears.   


Requiring hunters and public land users to carry bear spray also makes sense, just like wearing a seat belt does. Bear spray is not brains in a can, but it works pretty darn well (link). The agencies have the authority to take this step that is about safety of both bears and people. Grand Teton Park and Montana’s Bureau of Land Management Dillon District are showing the way, requiring hunters (GTNP) and outfitters (BLM) to carry bear spray. The Forest Service and states need to step up. People would not be wearing seat belts as much as they are now were it not for laws requiring it.


This is not rocket science. It is common sense born of a changing world.  

Here is some more reading about good agency recommendations to reduce human-caused mortalities:

Bear managers and others who care have on numerous occasions undertaken to document and diagnose the problems leading to dead grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Many of these efforts were commissioned by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee (YES) in response to periodic spikes in bear mortality. In most instances these crises revolved around eruptions of conflict associated with big game hunters and their outfitters. The associated reports contain many recommendations that are as relevant now and when they were written, some as far back as the early 1980s. The following links will take you to pdfs of the most important of these documents:


  • The 1982 Wauer memo on the ciris of pending extirpation (Wauer 1982)

  • A 1983 paper by Hoak and his co-authors on conflicts between hunters and grizzlies in the Thorofare (Hoak et al 1983)

  • A 1991 YES-commissioned report on hunter-related conflicts (YES 1991)

  • A 2000 YES-commissioned white paper on hunter-related conflicts (YES 2000)

  • A 2001 statement by Yellowstone NP Thorofare ranger, Bob Jackson, on hunter-grizzly conflicts (Jackson 2001)

  • A 2001 draft report by Kaminski on a workshop devoted to hunter-realted conflicts (Kaminski 2001)

  • The pdf of a 2002 presentation by Servheen on grizzly-human conflicts & potential solutions (Servheen 2002)

  • A 2004 YES-commissioned report on hunter-related conflicts (YES 2004)

  • A 2009 YES-commissioned report on reducing human-bear conflicts, with emphasis on hunters (YES 2009

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