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  • Louisa Willcox

Yellowstone's Grizzly Dead: 2015 Shatters Records for Grizzly Bear Deaths

Today, thousands of people are gathered in Yellowstone to celebrate the centennial birthday of the National Parks, which many say is perhaps the best idea that America has ever had. But no one is in Gardiner, Montana, today to mourn the dead. And indeed, most do not know of the catastrophe that hit the grizzly bear, one of the Park’s most beloved icons, in 2015, when 85 bears died out a population of perhaps 717 animals.

Last week, government data was released showing 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 – and this year is poised to break another record – 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 later this year and allow sport hunting will exacerbate the current threats to grizzly bears in and around the nation’s oldest park.

The US Geological Survey, a sister agency to the Park Service and responsible for compiling data on Yellowstone’s bear population, has still failed to release its long-delayed annual report covering 2015—a year that is now nearly nine months gone. But a summary of the report, issued last week in response to public outcry, tells all – despite the deliberately obtuse and convoluted language.

What do these deaths mean, and what will happen to Yellowstone’s magnificent grizzly bears if hunting is legalized and added to what is already excessive human-caused mortality?

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.

This year is shaping up to be another blood bath for bears, with 27 known deaths so far (link), or roughly 38 animals if an estimate of unreported deaths is included.

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.

Fear, aggression, and lack of understanding and heart. These are the kind of ungenerous and perverse impulses that seem to drive the killing spree of the last two years. The polar opposite of what is being celebrated in Yellowstone today: respect and reverence for nature. In her recent book, The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams called national parks “portals and thresholds of wonder,” and the “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” Unfortunately, there is not much evidence of wonder or expansive generosity on the part of our grizzly bear managers or many back-country hunters.

In this time of commemoration of parks and wild nature, it grieves me to think that things could get worse for grizzly bears if they are delisted this year and made the victims of hunting designed to entertain a perverse few.

Mums the Word on Bear Death Toll

The government bureaucrats responsible for managing Yellowstone’s grizzlies have responded to last year’s spike in potentially illegal mortalities with stunning silence. The topic of these deaths was a non-issue at recent meetings in Bozeman, West Yellowstone, Jackson and Missoula, which were instead a stage to stroke managers’ egos, glorify agency “successes,” and promote delisting (link). Although managers knew about the record high mortalities, they remained mum. A political mandate to perpetuate this silence could well explain why the IGBST has not yet released its 2015 report, which includes a lot of bad news. If not, the extent to which delay furthers the political agenda of delisting is a striking coincidence.

The only managers who have not been silent are Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk and Grand Teton Park Superintendent David Vela, who continue to protest state plans for hunting grizzly bears outside the park borders, and the deliberate exclusion of the Park Service by the states from any involvement in development of post-delisting hunting policies (link).

But it seems that state managers, aided by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, are committed to expediting delisting and hunting grizzly bears, protests of Park Service officials notwithstanding. Perversely, state wildlife managers not only seem to think that hunting is the only proper “use” of an animal as noble as the grizzly bear, but also that it is morally acceptable to legalize poaching rather than try to deter it. Which begs the question why state managers are so eager to placate people who behave like criminals. Perhaps the answer has something to do with the nature of people who populate state management agencies. Almost to a man, they promote trophy hunting, and, by doing so, condone the notion that killing animals for entertainment is not only acceptable, but laudable.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), charged with restoring imperiled species on behalf of all of us, seems to have lost its way. I previously wrote about the heartless even mindless behavior of FWS bureaucrats. The metaphor that came to mind was that of a zombie in service of some relentless master (link). It is both tragic and contrary to the spirit and intent of the Endangered Species Act that the FWS has enslaved itself to the agenda of state politicians who see grizzly bears only as an inconvenience or simply as “things” to be dominated and killed (link). Despite its mandate – and what could be a more compassionate mission than to save species – the FWS is now catering to the thugs.

All of the government agencies have banded together perpetrate an age-old tactic of avoiding the problem by attacking their critics, including scientists, grizzly bear advocates, and the roughly 50 Indian Tribes that have come out in opposition to delisting. At a recent meeting of federal and state managers, the Tribes, which have objected to hunting grizzly bears on spiritual and cultural grounds, were criticized by these bureaucrats as being “out of touch with reality” (link).

Yet the Tribes are representing the interests of many of us by challenging the ethos of Manifest Destiny that drove the genocide of Indian people and the slaughter of millions of buffalo, wolves and grizzly bears, all in the name of “progress.” The Tribes, and the multitudes who today commemorate the wisdom of preserving parks, share the view that nature should be preserved in a spirit of wonder, not greedily exploited for the profit of a few, nor served up to slake the blood-lust of an even smaller minority yet.

Unbearable Killing

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 of roughly 50 bears in estimated population size between 2014 and 2015. This trend has 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. The solutions are not starry eyed, but practical. They 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.

Today, we have the power of life and death over the Great Bear. If unchecked, an armed and hostile few, aided by the government, will continue to indulge in violence and aggression that could push Yellowstone’s grizzly bears back to the brink of extinction. The interests of the majority who want to see bears alive and flourishing around the nation’s oldest park could be sacrificed for those of a death-oriented minority.

If grizzly bears are delisted and hunted, we may, in a few short years, wake to find them at rock bottom levels, hunkered down inside the borders of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks. And shot, as wolves are now, and as Scarface was last fall, if they dare step across the border.

Is this our vision for the future of our national parks and the wildlife that depend on them?

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