2015 Shatters Records for Grizzly Bear Deaths
Government data show that bear deaths during 2015 shattered previous records, and that thresholds for allowable female deaths were exceeded by a large margin (link). The death toll of 85 grizzlies is not an anomaly, but rather the most recent manifestation of a decade of unsustainable high grizzly bear mortality.
If current trends continue, the hard fought progress towards recovery of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population will be quickly reversed. The federal government’s proposal to strip Endangered Species Act protections and allow sport hunting will exacerbate the current threats to grizzly bears in and around the nation’s oldest park.
Let’s start by examining the death toll of 2015.
The Grizzly Dead
According to the US Geological Survey’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), 61 Yellowstone grizzly bears are known to have died during 2015 (link). And this doesn’t account for the additional 24 that were thought to have died, but went unreported, most of which were also probably killed by humans. This breaks the record for annual grizzly bear deaths by any cause since 1959, which is when data on mortalities started to be compiled. And it breaks my heart.
Applying a calculation that accounts for unreported bear deaths, the government estimates 70 bears died inside the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA), which constitutes the core of grizzly bear habitat (link). Adding the 11 known and 4 unknown but probable deaths outside the DMA, the total death toll is 85 bears. This is a shocking 11% of the estimated population of 717 grizzly bears -- and a 20% increase above the next-highest year, 2010, when 68 bears died. A full rundown of the body count and what it means can be found here (link).
According to the IGBST, the dead included 25 adolescent and reproductive females. But according to the government’s own protocols, no more than 18 females, or 7.6% of the total, can be killed without causing a population decline. Twenty five dead mothers, including those who never had a chance to bear young, constitutes a huge violation of the government’s limits, and should make federal managers pause in their headlong rush to delist the population. Females are the ultimate arbiters of population health. It should be noted too that a mom’s death has deadly consequences for her orphaned cubs.
These numbers are overwhelming and under-reported in the media. And most of the deaths are completely unnecessary. More on this later.
Of Foul Play and Thuggishness
Of the bears killed last year, 19 are being investigated as possible poaching incidents (link). This includes the Yellowstone Park celebrity grizzly, Scarface, who was murdered by a big game hunter outside the Park border last fall.
This is almost three times the next highest number of potential poaching incidents recorded during 2012, when 7 deaths were under investigation.
It is almost certain that these deaths were caused by hunters (or by poachers, although the line between hunters and poachers is often blurred). In the past, deaths under investigation fell into the categories of hunter-related incidents, self-defense kills (often a euphemism for a hunter-related incident), and black bear hunters mistaking a grizzly for a black bear.
What is going on? We may never know for sure, with so few eyes and ears in the backcountry, as federal budgets and the number of backcountry personnel shrink.
But this could well be more of the notorious “Shoot, Shovel and Shut up” behavior that landed grizzly bears on the endangered species list in the first place. In other words, armed thugs tired of waiting for delisting are looking for opportunities to illegally kill bears.
An article in the Jackson Hole News and Guide gives a glimpse of the involved mindset (link). Two years ago, in Wyoming’s remote Thorofare area, one party of hunters shot into a group of five grizzly bears feeding on the carcass of an elk they had killed. They killed a 17 year old radio-collared bear, Number 764, with .44 and .357 magnum slugs. The hunters had watched the situation for many minutes and had the chance to walk away. This was not a surprise, defense of life situation. It was an act of raw aggression. The case was not prosecuted. Almost none are.
Another incident occurred during 2010 on Mountain Creek in the Teton Wilderness (link). A grizzly bear was killed at an outfitter camp. The protocol for dealing with bears that get near camps like this one is to try to scare them away with noise, dogs and shooting cracker shells. A worker who shot the involved bear in the chest and abdomen said later he intended to “hit it in the ass.” “Son of a bitch wouldn’t leave,” he said.
Thuggish behavior by state officials could also be a factor in decisions to kill more bears, even those that have not caused problems with people. One good example was Grizzly 760, grandcub of Teton Park celebrity mom 399, who was killed by Wyoming and Game and Fish officials in 2014 even though he had never obtained a food reward from people and had never threatened, let alone hurt, anybody or their livestock (link).
Behaving like playground bullies in the push to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies (link), states wildlife managers seem to be acting as if delisting has already happened and, along with it, a return to open season on bears. In fact, according to state plans, several hundred bears could be killed within a few years after delisting as part of deliberate efforts to reduce numbers of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region, potentially to critically low levels.
The government’s own data puts the lie to claims being made by state and federal bear managers that Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population can absorb the high levels of mortality that we’ve seen during recent years. The population is no longer growing, and more likely has been declining since 2007 (link). IGBST data showed a substantial decline from 757 grizzlies in 2014 to 690 in 2016.
This trend has likely been driven by the loss of two former key native grizzly bear foods, cutthroat trout and whitebark pine (link), and subsequent shifts in diet. Bears have turned increasingly to foraging on meat, mostly cows and big game, which draws them into mounting conflicts with ranchers and hunters (link).
As the US Fish and Wildlife Service has long recognized, most bear-human conflicts are avoidable. Solutions include paying attention and being prepared to encounter bears in the backcountry (link). Carrying bear pepper spray (link). Keeping clean camps. Dealing responsibly with dead game to help keep grizzly bears alive.
These are but a few of the tools of coexistence. Our choice to use them rather than bullets depends on the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our place in the world, as well as that of animals such as grizzly bears.