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Losing Our Grizzly Bears: the fall of the wild

By Chris Nunnally - 14 Nov 2013 8:55:0 GMT
Losing Our Grizzly Bears: the fall of the wild

A mother grizzly with her cubs can be very dangerous, but with recent stress situations on bears, attacks are thought to be increasing in National Parks. It is the bears that are really endangered though. Grizzly image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Each spring, I look forward to the arrival of summer and a visit to some grizzlies with great anticipation. Grizzly bears are indispensable to me and one of the most powerful symbols of wilderness we have left. Statistically, they pose a ridiculously small threat (with falls, drowning, and exposure much more common as the, "cause of death," lists in the national parks), but you still have to be alert and aware in their backyard. For me, the heightened sense of awareness that comes over me in grizzly country is the strongest feeling of life I have ever experienced. In my mind, that humility and awareness is the true value of wild country and is a large part of what I go out there in search of.

But how long will it last? The Glacier and Yellowstone ecosystems contain the only surviving grizzly bears in North America outside of Canada and Alaska and at least one of those populations is facing an uncertain future.

Due to increasingly warmer winter temperatures in Yellowstone, an infestation of the mountain pine beetle has spread to higher elevations where it has never before been able to survive and devastated the whitebark pines and the annual crop of nuts they produce, which are a vital source of late-season protein for grizzly bears.

It is well documented in many studies that the nutritional value of a good pine nut crop not only greatly increases a bear's odds of surviving winter hibernation but also results in better cub reproduction. When a female bear successfully mates, the pregnancy does not automatically take. If the female enters her den with enough stored fat and protein to support herself and her young, the pregnancy will develop into a cub; if she has not built up sufficient reserves, the pregnancy will terminate itself. With the continuing loss of the whitebark, mortality rates will inevitably increase. Natural vegetation alone will not suffice to keep bears healthy.

Making matters worse, other important food sources for bears are also on their way out: berries do not grow in Yellowstone with the abundance that they do in Glacier. Cutthroat trout are threatened by lake trout, which have been illegally introduced into Yellowstone Lake. The migration patterns of army cutworm moths are being influenced by pesticide spraying in the Midwest and Alberta. Plus the wolf reintroduction program has resulted in an over-population that has robbed the bears of a large number of winter-killed carcasses, an often critical food source for bears just emerging from their dens in spring.

The International Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) maintains a list of bear mortality records in Yellowstone and whitebark pine cone reduction data from 2009 through 2013. The correlation between the two is undeniable. Field operations in 2009 show 80-88% of whitebarks dead or dying. That year, nine abnormal bear incidents resulting in bear mortality were recorded (in filtering through the records, I tried to eliminate any incidents that may have involved defense of cubs or carcasses and focus only on those that were unusual or in which bears raided campsites or residential areas in search of food), with one labeled as "cause unknown, under investigation".

The change recorded in 2010 is very dramatic. Whitebark pine health is shown to be alarmingly low with mortalities heavily increasing. A grand total of 28 incidents occurred that summer, including the murderous Soda Butte attack on two young women, making the 9 of the previous year look infinitesimal by comparison. Some of these were highly disturbing, including persistent stalking of hikers and elk hunters during the late season months.

2011 shows some improvement in the production of whitebark pine cones but that's in a forest 90% depleted so a large number of abnormal bear encounters were still reported, totaling 27, with ten of those classified as "cause unknown, under investigation". In all, 150 grizzlies died from 2008-2010; a record 51 in 2012 alone.

This data presents a very clear cause and effect picture yet, astonishingly, many of the very scientists who founded this information are now either outright denying any impact from the loss of whitebark pines or contend they are "still studying the issue". Chris Servheen, Grizzly Recovery Coordinator, told me personally that there is no evidence that whitebark pine loss will negatively affect grizzlies. They're omnivores, he argues, and will find other food sources.

On that point, he is absolutely correct because now those same hungry bears are roaming outside the park boundaries into human habitations, seeking supplemental protein to replace what's been lost. The IGBST's data supports this, showing the majority of bear mortalities in 2012-13 to be a result of cattle depredation and property damage in residential areas. Not only has this created the illusion of an exploding population of grizzlies, it's drummed up the standard public reaction of fear and intolerance. Many people are calling for sport and big game hunting regulations to control this "overflowing population", with no understanding of why bears were suddenly turning up in these unusual places.

In the summer of 2012, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar responded to Wyoming governor Matt Mead's request that final assessment and delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) be completed and proposed by 2014. It is expected that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other agencies will finish their analysis of the situation by early next year and that the USFWS will then propose the delisting.

"Yellowstone's grizzlies were originally delisted in 2007 partly, according to Servheen, to show the ESA was having some success. The USFWS had failed, however, to prove that whitebark decline would not harm the bears and the delisting was successfully overturned in 2009. Dismayed by this decision, the USFWS drafted a second proposal with a "new approach": to show - on paper - that the estimated 600 grizzlies of the Yellowstone ecosystem are actually more in the range of 1,000.

This is not about science or conservation. It's a political game. Basically, whoever can "prove" that the grizzly bear population of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is stable and growing and can successfully get them delisted gets the keys to the car, so to speak, of bear-management. Personal political stature is the only thing these people really work for.

Having swallowed the "exploding bear population" line, hook and all, Governor Mead has decided to allow sport and big game hunting of grizzlies in Wyoming should the delisting be successful. Mead has cited grizzlies as a "heightened threat to humans" and there are locals who literally cannot wait for their macho moment to kill one.

This is a terrifying prospect. For one, grizzly bears have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any mammal in North America. They do not reach sexual maturity for five years. Females remaining with their cubs for up to two years and, depending on environmental conditions, may not reproduce again for three or four years. With the failing health of the Yellowstone ecosystem, the reproductive rate is already below normal. Throw big game hunting into the mix and the mortality rate will very quickly exceed the birth rate, just as it did in the 2007 delisting. This symbolic species cannot survive such grim odds.

The better and sounder solution would be to let the bears move into the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where winter temperatures remain cold enough to prevent the mountain pine beetle's intrusion and whitebarks are flourishing. Then let's establish travel corridors across Montana, linking Yellowstone with Glacier, where the habitat is healthier and more diverse. This would, of course, involve getting bears over and under highways. With our technology and know-how this is very much an attainable goal, though apparently not as easy as simply drafting a potential extinction plan that could adversely affect the species to a disastrous extent.

And all the while, the voices of the multitude, the voices that could promulgate change, are silent on the issue. Many truly have no idea that such critical decisions are on the verge of being made and others fear bears to such an irrational extent that they honestly cannot conceive of coexisting with them. But it's not too late. It's not too late to let it be known where we stand on this issue; otherwise I fear we may wake up one day to find that the wild has been taken out of the wilderness.