Numbers of grizzly bear deaths continue to climb this year even as a federal judge has blocked, for another two weeks, a trophy hunt of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that was scheduled to follow the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2017 decision to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections.
As of September 14, a total of 37 grizzlies have died this year in Yellowstone, in addition to yet another 5 bears detected this spring and summer that died during 2017 and 2016.
This tally is as shocking as it is unprecedented. More bears will no doubt subsequently be killed in conflicts with elk hunters with the opening of big game seasons. Applying a federal estimator to account for unknown mortality, about 60 bears, or 8% of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, is already dead this year. With one of the lowest reproductive rates of any mammal in North America, grizzly bears cannot sustain the high rates of killing that have occurred during the last 4 years.
The upshot is that bear deaths are on track to break all previous records. This is not only true in Yellowstone; 33 grizzlies are known to have been killed so far in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) around Glacier Park. At least 12 bears there have been killed in vehicle collisions – a new record.
These numbers are part of a larger trend of increasing mortalities, despite stalled population growth, that call into serious question the wisdom of removing ESA protections (“delisting”) and proceeding with a bear trophy hunt. Following the delisting of grizzly bears in Yellowstone, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is planning to do the same for NCDE grizzlies, perhaps later this year.
Most adult grizzly bears die from human causes, and, according to the federal government, most grizzly bear deaths are avoidable. Past recommendations by the FWS for mitigating conflicts should given serious consideration, and lessons from successful coexistence efforts should be harvested to ensure the safety and well-being of both grizzly bears and people at a time of rapid environmental change.
I can attest to the enormity of the task the agencies face in their work to reduce human-bear conflicts. For over 30 years I worked in non-profit organizations as part of efforts to make communities a safer place for both bears and people. Among other things, these efforts involved unglamorous work with citizens and government officials to better manage garbage and reduce the vulnerabilities of livestock to depredation. The hardest part was (and still is) figuring out how to pay for effective coexistence work.
The Times They Are a Changin’
Climate change is radically altering our world and that of the grizzly bear. According to federal data, since shortly after the 1988 Yellowstone fires peoples’ garbage stopped being the leading cause of grizzly bear mortality. Elk hunters and livestock operations around Yellowstone Park have taken its place. (A somewhat similar trend is underway in the NCDE – but that is a different story for a different day).
In fact, grizzly bear mortalities caused by conflicts with hunters and livestock operators have dramatically increased at the same time that the size of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population has plateaued, coincident with a 40% decline in hunter numbers (Graph 11). People as well as bear are paying an increasingly steep price for these conflicts.
Government data also show that, as key foods such as whitebark pine and cutthroat trout have been decimated by warming temperatures and disease, bears are turning to eating more meat. It is not surprising that grizzlies seem to be aggressive given that they have few high–calorie options during their late season feeding frenzy. As many hunters well know, Yellowstone’s grizzlies are learning that gunshots are dinner bells, sounding the serving of meat from remains of hunter-killed elk.
The recent spike in bear mortalities is testimony to the consequences of bears eating more meat. This new reality is at the center of arguments that were made in support of restoring protections for grizzlies at a federal court hearing on August 30. Current trends are expected to worsen, as other native bear foods, such as berries, decline in response to warming temperatures. Elk numbers are also expected to decline, partly in response to a climate-driven deterioration of forage conditions. Hunters and ranchers will almost certainly continue to be in the thick of conflicts with grizzly bears.
The Need for Simple Precautions
Since 1991, federal and state wildlife managers have undertaken numerous analyses of factors driving grizzly bear mortalities (you can find these reports here and here and here). The resulting relatively straightforward recommendations have been largely ignored in the rush to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. I have followed these government processes closely and served on a 2001 Forest Service task force with hunters and government personnel after a spike in grizzly bear deaths.
These recommendations focused on the need to improve the handling of bear attractants by both hunters and livestock operators, primarily through better law enforcement, deploying more rangers, and preventative tools such as carrying bear spray. Over two thirds of the government recommendations in the more comprehensive 2004 and 2009 reports emphasized the need to: 1. Ensure that hunters were prepared to hunt in grizzly country, and if education doesn’t work, to certify that hunters were qualified; 2. Improve handling of livestock and big game carcasses, and 3. Carry bear spray.
But the suggestion that stronger government regulations are important and necessary has consistently raised the hackles of the region’s regressive livestock and hunting industries. State wildlife managers in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are slaved to a core constituency of license-paying hunters and fishers, while assiduously ignoring the broader public who don’t want to see Yellowstone’s grizzly bears hunted. Thus, in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, wildlife management policy is fundamentally not about conservation, much less empathy; rather, the basic calculus is determining how much killing can occur, and under what auspices.
A pittance of Wyoming ranchers, and State and Federal legislators have effectively been starving state and federal law enforcement and conservation programs to make sure they can literally get away with murder. It is no surprise that the state of Wyoming aims to deliberately reduce the size of the population by hunting and otherwise profligately killing grizzlies. Even though the reprobates in Wyoming are being prohibited by court order from proceeding with a trophy hunt, state officials are aggressively – and legally – killing bears in a deliberate vendetta permitted by a (hopefully) brief interlude of state management.
We Can Do Better
Wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies seem to be missing the glaringly obvious fact that hunter numbers are declining at the same time that a different constituency explodes centered on watching wildlife. As families flock in record numbers to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks to see wild grizzly bears, the public is demanding improved efforts to coexist with the Great Bear, not yet another slaughter.
The techniques for coexistence are not rocket science, assuming we overcome reactionary political and institutional obstacles. For example, hunters and public land users should be required to carry bear spray, just as they wear seat belts. Bear spray is not brains in a can, but it works pretty darn well. Federal land management agencies have the authority to take this step. Grand Teton Park (GTNP) and Montana’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Dillon District are showing the way, requiring hunters (GTNP) and outfitters (BLM) to carry bear spray. The Forest Service and states need to step up too.
Hunters should also avoid leaving dead elk on the ground overnight if they want to safely take possession in the morning. Hunters on Alaska’s Kodiak Island kill deer early in the day specifically to avoid conflicts with the island’s huge brown bears.
Squeezing the lessons from successful livestock coexistence efforts is also critical at this juncture. For example, ranchers in the Blackfoot Challenge area south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness have reduced grizzly bear conflicts by over 90% through a mix of carcass removal and composting, electric fence, and a phone tree that provides an early warning system when grizzlies are in the neighborhood.
Again, none of this is rocket science. It is common sense combined with pragmatic problem-solving efforts.
We have a killing crisis on our hands -- and this is without the possible added mortality of as many as 22 grizzlies that are targets in a trophy hunt. The point is that we need not allow our collective knowledge and experience to gather dust as we wait for the judge to make a decision on whether to restore endangered species for Yellowstone grizzlies. We can work now to demand better efforts at coexistence, which will allow more of us humans to live in a landscape with (hopefully) more bears. Ultimately this means reforming our wildlife management systems to better reflect the values of a majority of Americans who want our relationship with wildlife defined by respect and reverence, not domination and violence.