top of page
  • Louisa Willcox

2016 Poised To Be Deadliest Yet for Yellowstone Grizzly Bears

(Photo by Jeffrey Pang)

Many readers might be surprised to learn that in Yellowstone most adult grizzly bears die because a human kills them, and this even with protections afforded by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). And, as one of the slowest reproducing land mammals in North America, grizzly bears are especially vulnerable to excessive killing.

That is why alarm bells should be ringing in response to the current toll of 51 known and probable grizzly bear deaths so far this year (link), which is poised to surpass the jaw-dropping record set during 2015 (link). With elk and deer hunting seasons far from over, we can expect even more bears to be killed during chance encounters with hunters.

Further, these "known" and "probable" mortalities are not the whole story, simply because many bear deaths go unrecorded. When you apply an estimator that the federal government uses to account for this unknown mortality, about 70 bears or 10% of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population has died this year so far.

As in 2015, this death rate is about twice what can be sustained. Importantly, the bear deaths of the last two years come after a decade during which the population didn’t increase, and perhaps even declined (link).

The exponential increase in grizzly bear deaths that began in 2007 calls into question the wisdom of removing federal protections (“delisting”) and legalizing state-sponsored trophy hunting. It also raises questions about the deafening silence among government officials, to which there is actually an obvious answer. Admissions that Yellowstone grizzly bears still face severe threats could throw cold water on the government’s dogged push to delist bears.

The bottom line is that we can and must do better at reducing conflicts to keep bears alive and people safe. There is no shortage of commonsense measures. To recover the threatened grizzly, government officials need to approach the challenges with openness, honesty and compassion, rather the willful pursuit of a political agenda. At issue is the relationship we want to have with an animal that epitomizes wildness, and whether we want it defined by dominance and control, or reverence and respect.

The States’ Agenda: Spinning the Facts to Justify Killing More Bears

The push to delist grizzly bears is rooted in an obsessive desire by the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to wrest management control over bears from the federal government. The states want to trophy hunt grizzlies after delisting more as an ideological reaction against decades of federal control than for any scientifically-defensible reasons. They also want a free hand to kill more grizzlies without any accountability to the national public that treasures these bears…or even any accountability to the majority of state residents who don’t support hunting grizzlies.

Of all the players in this drama, Wyoming officials are proving themselves the worst kind of playground bullies (link). They are also leading a disturbing and aggressive campaign of disinformation about what is happening to Yellowstone’s iconic bears. In an article last week in the Jackson News and Guide, Brian Debolt of Wyoming Game and Fish asserted that: “We still have a growing grizzly bear population (link)” – a fact contradicted by the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which keeps the official data.

Debolt also claimed that 2015 and 2016 figures do not represent “a significant amount of mortality that negatively affects the population” – even though last year the federal government’s threshold for allowable mortality of independent females was shattered and its estimate of total population size dropped significantly.

The point is that facts don’t matter to the states, which are trying to create an alternate reality by repeating a self-generated myth over and over again – one that justifies the states’ take-over of management from the federal government.

There is nothing subtle or secret about the states’ aims. A letter submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last May by Wyoming, Idaho and Montana as a comment on the FWS’s draft delisting rule made their widespread disregard for the treatment of grizzly bears abundantly clear (link).

The states have demanded that the FWS revoke the few requirements being imposed on them as a condition for removal of ESA protections and instead substitute handshake agreements. And they have demanded that the FWS eliminate provisions for triggers that could lead to reinstating ESA protections if the states fall down on the job and the bear population tanks. They also reject provisions for monitoring habitat five years after delisting, especially the current FWS requirement that such monitoring be “in perpetuity.” Moreover, the states have been brazen enough to insist that they be allowed to drive the population further into decline.

The consequences of such a policy would likely be catastrophic for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Some experts fear that the population could already be at a tipping point, headed towards a crash if bear deaths continue to mount.

In essence, the states are saying “trust us” with the future of the grizzly bear, even though their historic hostility toward bears was the main reason why this species ended up on the endangered species list 40 years ago. And, their current attitudes are greater cause for alarm and suspicion than trust. (See this blog for more on the “trust us” argument.)

Importantly, it does not have to be this way. The precautionary and prudent approach would keep bears protected and redouble efforts to reduce conflicts. Indeed, according to the federal government, most bear mortalities are avoidable.

Most Grizzly Bear Deaths Can Be Prevented

A slew of recommendations generated by state and federal grizzly bear managers during the last two decades underscores that much more can be done to ensure the safety and well-being of both grizzly bears and people in Yellowstone’s world-class ecosystem. The fact is that we can do better. Coexistence is not rocket science. However, it is a job that requires all of us who live and recreate in bear country be smart and prepared.

I can attest to both the enormity and tractability of the task the agencies face in their work to reduce human-bear conflicts. For over 30 years I worked in non-profit organizations where I played a role in making communities a safer place for bears and people. Among other things, this involved unglamorous work with citizens and government officials to better manage garbage. The hardest part was (and still is) figuring out how to pay for it.

But times have changed. According to federal data, shortly after the massive Yellowstone wildfires of 1988 peoples’ garbage stopped being the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality, to be replaced by hunters and livestock operators.

Yes, bears still die from being conditioned to eat 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. Simple preventative steps can be taken. But they require political will, openness, and compassion.

Grizzly bear managers have undertaken four different analyses between 1991 and 2009 of factors driving human-associated conflicts and mortalities. The results of each and every assessment pointed to clear and straightforward preventative measures. These reports consist of one in 1991 by the Hunter/Grizzly Bear Interactions Task force (link), one in 2001 (link) 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 (link), and, finally, the most recent one in 2009, also entitled the Yellowstone Mortality and Conflicts Reductions Report (link). Robert Jackson, a long-time Yellowstone Park Backcountry Ranger, also independently produced a comprehensive set of recommendations in 2001 for reducing hunter-related conflicts in the Thorofare region along the southeast boundary of Yellowstone Park (link).

Better Law Enforcement is Needed

All of these reports focused on the need to improve how hunters and livestock producers handle smelly stuff that attracts grizzly bears through better law enforcement and increased field presence by agency personnel. By implication, primary responsibility ultimately was placed on state game agencies (through authority over licensing hunters), the Forest Service (through authority over permitting outfitters and livestock operators), the 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. So would improving compliance among ranchers using Bridger Teton National Forest’s Upper Green River area (also in Wyoming), one of the ecosystem’s worst black holes for grizzly bears.

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 instead the states are calling for removal of federal protections, which would effectively eliminate the few legal deterrents we currently have.

The states clearly don’t want to be responsible for enforcing any inconvenient laws. Making matters worse, after delisting, the burden of law enforcement will shift almost entirely from the federal government to states – a classic problem of leaving foxes to guard the henhouse.

Regulation vs Education: Are New Rules Needed to Respond to Changes?

These reports included other consistent themes related to conflict prevention, such as ensuring that hunters were prepared to hunt in grizzly country, and if education didn’t work, certifying that hunters were qualified; removing dead game promptly and improving handling of livestock carcasses, and carrying bear spray. Over two-thirds of the recommendations of the 2004 and 2009 reports were centered on these themes.

As grizzly bear numbers dropped during the 1970’s and concerns over the bear’s fate mounted, binding regulations were adopted that mandated storage of human foods that might attract bears to people. In 1991, the agencies seriously considered more mandatory restrictions, especially for hunter practices. Yet each time when the government looked at 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 plateaued, and hunter numbers 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). Unfortunately, the bears seem to be pursuing this alternate food aggressively because they have few high–calorie options. As many hunters well know, grizzlies are learning that gunshots are dinner bells, sounding a potential serving of carrion.

Aggravating this basic dynamic, elk populations have declined substantially in the Yellowstone ecosystem since the late 1990s, and are projected to further decline in response to a climate-driven deterioration in forage conditions (link).

Conflicts over cows and increasingly scarce elk will likely worsen as other bear foods, such as berries and army cutworm moths decline with warming temperatures. Clearly, education, alone, is not the answer.

A few well-enforced regulations could go a long way towards improving matters. Hunters could be prohibited from hunting later in the day, with the intent of preventing situations where recently-killed elk are left overnight, attract grizzlies, and result in stand-off the next morning. In fact, 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). Federal and state agencies have the authority to take this step governing the safety of both bears and people. Grand Teton Park and Montana’s Bureau of Land Management Dillon District are showing the way, each respectively requiring hunters and outfitters to carry bear spray. The Forest Service and the 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 simply common sense.

Legalizing Poaching?

Managers and researchers contributing to the 2009 conflict report were in perverse agreement on one recommendation -- one that speaks volumes about the extent to which agency functionaries are obsessed with a largely evidence-free belief that killing more bears solves their conflict problems.

In several places they suggested the implementation of a grizzly bear trophy hunt to reduce current levels of hunter-caused mortality. Wyoming Game and Fish called for: “a limited hunt as soon as possible that stressed that preventable mortalities reduce the huntable surplus of grizzly bears.”

Translation: hunters can be persuaded to stop killing bears illegally if they are allowed to kill bears legally. Assumption: poachers are to be placated, not arrested and prosecuted. Further, Wyoming (and it appears the other agencies) believe there is a “surplus” of bears to kill, despite their legal duty to protect them and the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the grizzly bear population is still in deep trouble.

What I find to be particularly disturbing is that poaching and preventable killings of threatened grizzly bears are not seen by our government as cause for a compassionate, proactive response. Rather, it is seen as a diminishment of future opportunities for a small number of white male hunters to kill grizzly bears for personal gratification.

Idaho provides a hint about the nature of the agency “group think” that created this and other reports, saying that “trust” in the states, “support for bear management”, and tolerance for bears generally could be developed through hunting grizzly bears. This claim is both morally wrong and not supported by the available evidence.

In fact, the weight of available evidence, including recent research by Dr. Adrian Treves and others, shows that the institution of sport hunting and related liberalized killing regimes seems to be seen by a regressive subpopulation as tacit permission to embark on a killing spree. And there is no evidence that liberalized killing buys any good will. While hunters do have a track record of conserving big game such as elk and deer, they tend to see large carnivores in a more negative light, as either competitors for big game or an ideological anathema. (The argument of “fewer predators, more elk and deer” is powerful, albeit scientifically unjustified).

Nonetheless, the states assert and indeed believe they can win support of hunters for large carnivores through hunting them.

Aside from the problems of logic and justification, there are the ethical and governance issues. By overtly catering to people with guns and a yen to kill predators, the states are giving power to a lethal few at the expense of the nonlethal majority who flock to Yellowstone to witness bears living in a functioning ecosystem.

Deference to white males with guns is anchored in the culture and identity of state wildlife systems themselves. In the northern Rockies, state game agencies see their core constituency as license-paying hunters and fishers, not the broader public who watch wildlife and constitute the base of support for Yellowstone grizzly bears (link). In this region, wildlife management policy is fundamentally not about conservation or empathy, it is a negotiation with hunters about how much killing can occur, and under what auspices.

Unfortunately, even managers in the Fish and Wildlife Service, entrusted with the recovery of endangered species on behalf of all citizens (not just hunters), strongly support hunting grizzly bears—principally as a consequence of the contaminating and contagious effect of enmeshment with the culture of state wildlife managers. What does that portend for when restrictions on killing bears are further loosened?

What Will Likely Happen After Delisting?

Life for grizzly bears will likely get a lot worse. More conflicts will be ”resolved” by executing bears, and states will rapidly institute trophy hunting that will almost certainly become more liberal over time (link): witness what has happened with wolves. Further, the state systems have no brakes, and their post-delisting plans lack legally binding limits on human-caused mortality of grizzly bears.

Even the Fish and Wildlife Service has admitted that the primary post-delisting management plan, the Conservation Strategy, cannot actually regulate anything. And this agency has fiercely resisted any mechanism to relist bears if the population crashes in the face of excessive killing under state auspices. The FWS has made it clear that its delisting agenda is all about placating the states, which are all about appeasing hunters, and yes, even poachers.

But wait: where does the broader public interest come in? And, what about science, which is supposedly the foundation for implementation of the Endangered Species Act? The best available science warns us that Yellowstone’s grizzlies are facing serious problems, and also suggests some ways to tackle these challenges.

And what about the government’s obligation to tell the truth, not dissemble to justify a preordained political outcome?

And what about common sense? Are our wildlife managers so blinded by ideology that they are unwilling to take even the most basic steps towards reducing conflicts and mortality, like requiring hunters to carry bears spray?

Finally, what about compassion for a magnificent animal that has been relegated to the last 1% of habitat left in the contiguous United States due to human intolerance? Do we have to respond to conflicts with guns, when nonlethal alternatives are available and are proven to work?

All who are concerned about the fate of grizzly bears should be deeply worried about delisting, and more broadly, about the integrity of wildlife management agencies and the functioning of our government. In the end, the debate about delisting is about the relationship we choose with an animal that epitomizes the wildest nature we have left, and whether we want that connection to be characterized by dominance and violence, or coexistence and reverence.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
bottom of page