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  • Louisa Willcox

A Different "Night of the Grizzlies": States Poised to Slaughter Yellowstone Grizzlies

This article was published in the fall 2017 issue of Counter Punch Magazine. Counter Punch is a great outfit that places a premium on hard-hitting journalism and regularly publishes Grizzly Times' blogs. Check these guys out and consider subscribing!

Last summer witnessed a spate of articles on the “Night of the Grizzlies,” involving the tragic killing by grizzlies of two people in separate incidents on one night 50 years ago in Glacier National Park. While the press amply covered the events (link) and subsequent improvements in human and grizzly bear management by officials in Glacier and Yellowstone, they missed deeper lessons of the tragedy.

Most important is the very real possibility of a grizzly bear slaughter comparable to what occurred in the Glacier (or Northern Continental Divide) and Yellowstone Ecosystems during the late 1960s and 70s in the wake of the Night of the Grizzlies. But this time, the killing and its consequences could be worse.

The trigger for change this time is not an event involving human fatalities, but the June decision by the federal government to strip endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzlies (“delisting”) and return management authority outside the national parks after a 40-year hiatus to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. (In 2018, we may also see delisting of Glacier area grizzlies). It is the States, not the Park Service, we need to watch, as state wildlife managers intend to reduce the size of the Yellowstone population, now roughly 700 animals, by as many as 200 bears, through trophy hunting and increasingly lethal management.

Glacier's "Night of the Grizzlies": What Happened and Some Background

On August 12, 1967, a 19 year old Glacier Park employee, Julie Helgeson, was attacked and killed by a grizzly at a backcountry campsite near Granite Park Chalet. Her companion, Roy Ducat, was severely mauled. That same night, within hours of the first attack, Michele Koons, also 19 years old, was dragged from her sleeping bag and killed by a grizzly while camping at Trout Lake, about 20 miles away; other campers in her party escaped by climbing trees.

At issue was the widespread availability of garbage and other human foods to bears. At the time, the Park Service, whose mission is to provide for the “use and enjoyment of the American people” as well as the preservation of natural resources, emphasized visitors’ enjoyment at the expense of Park protection.

It was no surprise that at Granite Park Chalet the Park Service, overwhelmed with trash from a record number of visitors in 1967, allowed delighted campers to view bears as they pawed through a pile of garbage that had been pushed into a gully behind the Chalet. There, at Trout Lake, and elsewhere in the Park, bears conditioned to eating human foods were getting increasingly aggressive, raiding campsites and harassing hikers.

The same was happening in Yellowstone, where pioneer grizzly bear researchers Frank and John Craighead worried about the impacts of eating garbage on the health of the grizzly population.

The Craigheads predicted that bears, which were then being fed at open pit dumps, would increasingly seek sustenance in campgrounds and in communities outside the Park, where human foods were readily obtained. In addition to fearing for the safety of visitors, they were concerned that widespread food-conditioning of bears would increase the likelihood they would be killed by managers.

As park visitation mounted in the 1960s, so did bear-human conflicts. As former Park ranger Jerry Mernin persuasively describes in his memoir, Yellowstone Ranger, Park personnel were overwhelmed by bears (black and grizzly) ripping into tents, raiding coolers and chasing campers. No amount of marksman’s skill or dedication to the purpose of the Parks – Jerry, in fact, epitomized both qualities -- could make up for the lack of institutional leadership to deal with skyrocketing park visitation, and mounting trash and human-bear conflicts.

Everything changed after disaster struck in Glacier.

The Grizzly Slaughter of the 60s and 70s

As some called for the Park Service to eliminate grizzlies to make Parks safe for tourists, others including the Craigheads, urged redoubling conservation efforts. Five years before the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the Craigheads said in a report released days after the Glacier tragedy: “it is an endangered species…and must receive sufficient protection to insure its survival.”

The Craigheads mattered because they were both top scientists and media stars. Their invention of the radiocollar enabled them to share, for the first time, the intimate and fascinating details of bears’ lives on TV with people in living rooms across the country. The Craigheads were also the first to widely publicize the grizzly’s plight. In less than 100 years, European settlers had wiped out about 97% of the grizzlies that had roamed the West at the time of Lewis and Clark. It was especially important, they said, to protect grizzlies in their last two strongholds in the lower-48 states, Glacier and Yellowstone.

The Craigheads’ 1967 report was highly critical of the Park Service’s management of grizzly bears. They recommended a slow and gradual elimination of garbage dumps as well as a buffer zone surrounding the parks free from trophy hunting to protect bears as they were weaned off garbage.

In a widely publicized move, the Park Service swiftly punished the Craigheads for their trouble, terminating their research in Yellowstone as abruptly as they closed the dumps. As the Craigheads had predicted, these “cold turkey” closures drove hungry bears into campgrounds and communities outside the national parks in search of food.

In a willful lack of foresight, Park Service managers essentially pulled the rug out from under grizzlies in Glacier and Yellowstone by closing dumps and bear-proofing campsites. At the time, Park managers did not envision any alternative to addressing the ensuing mayhem other than killing bears, so management was centered on firepower.

Grizzlies, one of the slowest reproducing mammals in North America, could not produce enough cubs to keep pace with the killing. As populations took a nose dive toward extinction, in 1975 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the grizzly in the lower-48 states as threatened under the recently passed Endangered Species Act (ESA).

How the ESA and Park Service Saved Grizzlies

ESA protections brought about sweeping management changes, inside and outside the national parks. Killing grizzlies, except in cases of self-defense, was banned. Decisions about grizzlies and their habitat had to be made on the grounds of the best available science. And, poaching could be punished by large fines.

Even though the Park Service already had full authority to manage how visitors behaved, after grizzlies were listed – and especially after the "Night of the Grizzlies" -- it took that authority seriously.

Management reforms centered on preventing bears from becoming conditioned to food and garbage. Park Service and US Forest Service managers, who together oversee the lion’s share of grizzly bear habitat, implemented food storage orders and threatened to fine people for violations. Park managers also closed certain areas intensively used by bears to camping, and required people to camp in designated sites to reduce conflicts.

Today, you cannot visit Glacier or Yellowstone Parks without being inundated with information about keeping food out of the reach of bruins. (The Forest Service does a fairly good job too). It is testimony to the effectiveness of Park Service efforts that today very few grizzlies are now killed inside Glacier, Yellowstone or Grand Teton Parks – even with the record-breaking Park visitation of recent years.

Besides authority under the ESA, the Park Service benefits from a clear mandate under its Organic Act (the law creating the Park Service) to preserve its natural resources, as well as by a command and control institutional culture. When given a directive to change management direction, the Park Service has the capacity to embrace the new course with gusto. And as the darling of the nation’s public lands agencies, the Park Service also often has more money at its disposal compared to other federal agencies.

Speeding the shift in the Park Service’s management philosophy was a significant report released in 1963 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that called for increased effort to preserve natural conditions in Parks. Dubbed the “Leopold Report” for the chairman of the NAS committee, Starker Leopold (Aldo Leopold’s eldest son), the report recommended that “the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.”

The Leopold Report also emphasized a need for scientific research and ecological management expertise in the National Parks, saying: "Americans have shown a great capacity for degrading and fragmenting native biotas. So far we have not exercised much imagination or ingenuity in rebuilding damaged biotas."

The progress made by the Park Service in managing Glacier and Yellowstone grizzlies over the last 40 years speaks to the agency’s capacity to change in the face of new information and directives. Eventually, Yellowstone went one step further than Glacier, allowing grizzlies to re-colonize roadside habitat without fear of being harassed by managers.

This policy change, adopted both by Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, made roadsides safer for grizzlies, especially females who are more afraid of the threat that males pose to their cubs (infanticide by male grizzlies is not uncommon) than they are of loud, enthusiastic Park visitors. Thus, grizzlies such as Jackson's matron Grizzly 399 have emerged as celebrities among Park visitors.

Another Rug Gets Pulled From Under Yellowstone Grizzlies

One saving grace for the Yellowstone grizzly bear population during and after the era of Park dump closures was the availability of abundant whitebark pine seeds, which are rich in fat and produced by trees living in the ecosystem’s most remote high country, away from lots of people. After dump closures, these seeds became important drivers of female reproductive success as well as survival of all bears.

But, in the last decade, whitebark pine forests have collapsed due to an unprecedented climate-driven outbreak of mountain pine beetles (link). This loss is on top of the functional elimination of Yellowstone cutthroat trout from tributaries around Yellowstone Lake. At one time, cutthroat trout provided grizzlies with a rich food during spring spawning. The culprits of their demise were climate change and an introduced non-native fish, Lake trout, which spawns in waters deep enough to render them immune to bear predation.

As an upshot, by roughly 2009 two of the four major natural foods that drive the health of the Yellowstone grizzly population were wiped out. Yet another nutritional rug had been pulled out from under Yellowstone’s grizzlies. And the situation is likely to get worse as climate change wreaks havoc on the alpine habitat needed by another key bear good, army cutworm moths.

In the absence of whitebark pine, grizzlies are foraging more on meat – in the form of livestock and hunter-killed elk remains (link). The problem is that well-armed hunters tend to react aggressively to bears that approach as they dress their game or use artificial elk bugles to draw in elk to shoot. And ranchers in areas with lots of livestock conflicts, notably Wyoming’s upper Green River area, successfully work their political allies to get state managers to dispatch grizzlies rather than require changes in problematic husbandry practices.

Since about 2002, big game hunter- and livestock-related conflicts have been mounting to such an extent that the population is no longer growing. And, for the last three years, killing levels have been so great that the population has almost certainly declined (link).

Bear deaths are likely to increase with removal of ESA protections, as ranchers and hunters increasingly take matters into their own hands. Further, state managers aim to reduce bear numbers, possibly by several hundred bears, presumably to reduce conflicts.

State Management: Domination by White, Male Hunters, Ranchers, Developers

Outside National Parks, the States have jurisdiction over wildlife. While the Park Service embraces an ethos of respect and reverence for wildlife, state managers orient more towards domination, killing and control (link). And State decision-making in the Northern Rockies is notoriously despotic in nature.

State managers are also famously jealous of their power and prerogatives. For over 30 years – beginning just a decade after grizzlies were listed – Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have been obsessed with wresting control over their management back from the federal government.

To state managers, wildlife exist to be hunted or trapped, and their primary mission is thus to provide “surplus” game to feed these lethal pursuits. People with other perspectives, including valuing wildlife for intrinsic reasons alone, are ignored or even insulted. This problematic dynamic is amplified by the fact that, at least in western states, almost all funding is obtained from hunter license fees and federal taxes levied on sales of arms and ammunition.

Parenthetically, other states, notably Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota and Missouri, have broadened their mission to include greater emphasis on nongame wildlife and biodiversity writ large, but western states, especially in the northern Rockies, remain fixated on huntable large herbivores such as elk.

Special hostility is reserved for large carnivores because of scientifically unjustified views that bears, wolves and lions compete for big game that would otherwise support the sale of hunting licenses. Thus, one of the top aims of state managers is to reinstate a trophy grizzly hunt to reduce this presumed competition. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all have plans to initiate sport hunting, possibly by next spring.

Even though the economies of the communities surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier Parks no longer depend on ranching or logging, but rather on recreation and tourism, wildlife watchers and non-hunters hold virtually no sway over management decisions. Only hunters, ranchers, and corporate development interests, comprised mostly of white males residing within the bounds of the three states, will have influence over the management of grizzly bears – despite the fact that this species has a national constituency.

Given the priorities and orientations of the States, resources also are guaranteed to be a problem for grizzly conservation. State legislatures are unlikely to spend money to resolve conflicts with bears nonlethally when bullets will suffice. Even if States want to fund coexistence work, that work is notoriously expensive, and they will likely not have the kind of funds that have been available to the Park Service and FWS due to their national support base.

The bottom line is that hunters, ranchers, and development interests maintain a death grip on state wildlife commissions, legislatures and county governments much as they did a hundred years ago -- despite growing demands from women, wildlife watchers, and minorities such as Indian Tribes for a seat at the post-delisting table. Even the Park Service has been blocked from participating in the states’ decision-making for establishing hunting seasons.

Limits to State Authority

Management of grizzlies by the States is further complicated by limits to their authority. States have jurisdiction only to the animals themselves, not habitat. Outside the Parks, most grizzly bear habitat is owned by the US Forest Service, where it is managed for “multiple uses” – which, outside designated Wilderness Areas, translates into logging, mining, ranching and industrial-scale recreation (i.e., motorized vehicle use, ski resorts). Even if the States want to limit development to advance conservation, they lack the authority. Making matters worse, state managers are reluctant to influence what happens on private lands, where conflicts often concentrate.

Just as the Park Service displayed a willful refusal to see the foreseeable consequences of their management actions, so too have state managers resisted acknowledging what might happen to grizzlies under their trigger-happy regime in response to an unraveling environment. They even went so far as to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from providing for a “trigger” in the delisting rule that would automatically reinstate ESA protections if funding is not available to implement post-delisting commitments, or if the population drops below specified numbers.

The point is that the States lack the kind of legal or other curbing mechanisms that helped the Park Service pivot in its approach to grizzly bear management when changed circumstances demanded it. Without the ESA, state wildlife managers are not likely to restrain themselves in their treatment of grizzlies, especially when their base of hunters, ranchers and developers wants them to kill more bears. With friends in the White House and Administration such as the Department of Interior’s Ryan Zinke, the States can rest assured that FWS will not step in to reinstate ESA protections even if they are needed.

And among the first bears to be killed will likely be favorite roadside bears as well as the younger risk-taking bears dispersing between ecosystems.

Whither the Clan of 399 and other Celebrity Grizzlies?

Roadside bears that live outside of National Parks are at greatest risk, notably the famous clan of matron grizzly 399 of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. These benign, well-behaved bears have found an ecological niche near roads and people, and visitors and residents alike have responded with delight. With the help of Park Rangers and a volunteer “Bear Brigade” which patrols bear “jams,” visitors are behaving, for the most part, with respect and deference.

But Wyoming Game and Fish grizzly bear manager Dan Thompson has stated repeatedly that roadside bears will not fare well under the authority of the state. “We do not support these habituated bears,” he has stated on numerous occasions (link), as when WGF officials killed grizzly number 587, one of 399’s offspring.

Not surprisingly, state managers have staunchly refused to limit or prohibit hunting in areas where these celebrity bears live, as advocated by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Human-habituated bears will be particularly easy to kill, and some hunters have made it clear they are gunning for them (link).

A Different "Night of the Grizzlies"?

The Park Service learned its lesson -- admittedly the hard way -- after 1967. Even without the ESA’s mandate, we can expect the agency to continue its emphasis on peaceful coexistence. Its ability may be handicapped by massive funding cuts proposed by the Trump administration, but it will never allow bears again to rely on garbage, kill bears indiscriminately, or permit the kind of public safety problems that triggered the "Night of the Grizzlies."

The problem now will be the States, which are taking over management at a time when the rug again has been pulled out from under feet of grizzlies. State managers appear to have learned little since the grizzly was listed, and are obsessed with their power more than ever. They are still dominated by white, male hunters, ranchers and developers. Their primary management tool is the gun. Even if they wanted to prioritize conservation, they lack the needed authority and resources.

State policies that allow trophy hunting and facilitate killing will likely create the same kind of conditions that brought the grizzly to the brink of extinction in the 1970s. But this time, when it happens, resistance to change may well delay action until the consequences are even more catastrophic.

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