Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved
Why Bears Die
A key reason that grizzly bears landed on the endangered species list was excessive killing by humans. Despite its ferocious image, the grizzly is vulnerable, with one of the lowest reproductive rates of any land-dwelling mammal in North America.
Grizzly bears perhaps numbered 70,000 individuals when Europeans first arrived. In contrast to the Native Americans, who coexisted with grizzly bears for many thousands of years, European settlers slaughtered every bear they could find. In just 150 years, humans shot, trapped or poisoned 98% of the grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, changing course only when grizzly bears became increasingly hard to find and were later listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975.
Experts agree that but for the protections afforded by the ESA, grizzly bears would likely have been extirpated in the lower 48 states. Nonetheless, even with ESA protections the US Fish and Wildlife Service has conclusively documented that humans are still the number one cause of grizzly bear mortality--and that most deaths are avoidable. (See staying safe in grizzly country).
Current leading causes of death for grizzly bears are conflicts with livestock operators and big game hunters, habituation of to human foods, malicious killing, and collision with vehicles. Strides have been made to improve practices that foster coexistence with grizzly bears among hunters, livestock operators and residents of rural communities. The National Park Service is noteworthy (YNP success story) for cleaning up dumps and garbage, so that parks are no longer the center of bloody conflict. And, nongovernmental organizations are partnering with agencies to install electric fence around beehives and schools, buy bear-resistant garbage containers for campgrounds, and help ranchers retire grazing allotments on public lands.
But more needs to be done. Livestock and hunter-related conflicts are increasing, especially in Wyoming, due to the decline of alternative grizzly bear foods, much of which is linked to climate change. (see food fight). In Idaho, garbage-related conflicts and poaching are increasing. And in the oft-neglected Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwest Montana, poaching is the leading cause of mortality, indicating that more needs to be done than simply making killing illegal.
As with other human endeavors, effective coexistence work depends on vigilance and political will. Despite protestations to the contrary, both will likely decline when grizzly bears are delisted in the Yellowstone and Glacier Ecosystems. Only the Park Service is committed to maintaining the grizzly bear management budget it has now, because it knows their public constituency is committed to bears. If it screws up there will be hell to pay.
By contrast, the states are cutting field positions right and left. What recently happened with the Montana “wolf stamp”, aimed at creating a voluntary wolf conservation fund is telling: radical right-wing hunters blocked it because it threatened their stranglehold on the state wildlife agencies. (For more on the problem of state management, see corrupt institutions).
Even if conservation-minded people and foundations step up to provide the money needed to maintain efforts aimed at reducing conflicts, state culture and power arrangements will guarantee more dead bears. For example, after delisting, Wyoming plans to kill more bears in places like the Upper Green River area where grizzly bear-livestock conflicts have been mounting.
Delisting means a retreat to an ethic of domination and violence, with grizzlies the unfortunate victims. (see debunking delisting). As a society, we must decide what ethic we want to live by.