The Yellowstone Grizzly: Free at last?

IMG_6669A not-GYE Grizz.

This past week the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) met in Missoula, and recommended that the Grizzly be delisted from the endangered species act in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is at once a small step and a big deal.

This latest report (linked to here) primarily concerned the effects of continued Whitebark Pine mortality on Grizzly Bears. Whitebark pine nuts are fantastically calorie dense, and bears love to raid squirrel caches in the fall when they’re serious about getting fat for winter. The report suggests that while ever more infrequent good nuts crops will have some effects on Grizz (they found poor nut crops predictive of increased fall Grizz mortality, as bears will more heavily use low elevation food sources), overall evidence points to bears continuing to adapt to a changing world, and the GYE population continuing to stabilize at carrying capacity.

Grizzly bears in the GYE eat a lot of meat; 40-80% of their annual diet. The numbers I’ve seen for the Glacier-Bob population are 5-20%. Having bison and a lot more elk around will do that, with winterkill, stolen wolf kills, and calves providing the three most common sources of meat (in that order, by volume). The GYE Grizzlies have enough food, and it seems enough stable and secure habitat, for their immediate future to be safe. With a low-end population estimate of over 600 bears (a a probably population several hundred higher), delisting seems appropriate. Especially given that more current analysis of Craigheads research from the 50s and 60s (after the bears were taken off garbage cold turkey in Yellowstone, and then habituated bears aggressively managed (i.e. shot)) suggests that the population 50 years ago might have been under 200.

As is almost always the case these days, the cultural aspects of the debate are more interesting than the science. One stereotyped side of the debate cries foul over delays like this last one, instigated via lawsuit. There may have been lingering questions over the effects of Whitebark nuts on Grizz a few years ago, but I think the rightwing/states rights/hunting side is correct in their analysis that this was not the primary motivation for said lawsuit. There is deep suspicion on the part of many groups and private citizens that government agencies, especially state ones, won’t do well by the bear without at times coercive oversight. Given the long history of weak state enforcement and prosecution of Grizzly poaching and “accidental” or “self-defense” shootings, and much of the rhetoric around wolf hunting in the last two years, I find it hard to argue.

At the same time, if the Grizz is ready to be delisted, let the delisting proceed. The main obstacles to more profitable and sustainable attitudes towards big bears is this very ideological conflict. “The locals” on one side, many of whom still think (stereotypically) that the only good bear is a dead one, and “greens” on the other who have (stereotypically) an unconditional but remote regard for big predators. The political and cultural roots of this bifurcation need to be attacked and broken down for long-term progress to be possible. We need intelligently managed, respectful Grizzly hunting. Even more we need a culture progressed to the point where the IGBC can safely consider the elephant in the room: that the GYE Grizzly population and the Glacier/Bob population (which is contiguous with the much larger one in Canada) cannot reliably interbreed and ensure genetic diversity. The interstate, ranch, and housing riddled belt between Helena and Ennis will eventually need to become much more friendly to bears, if the Grizzly is to actually become free at last.

5 responses to “The Yellowstone Grizzly: Free at last?”

  1. Very interesting Dave and for those of us who have never seen them your sharing this is much appreciated. I also recall how you talked about the Yellowstone Grizzly being “More problematic” than those in Glacier on the GG website. Can you shed some insight onto this?

    1. There have been a lot more hiker-bear encounters in the GYE which led to human injury. Whether this is due to more bears, more people, or both is impossible to say with the data we have.

      What is certain is that there’s a lot more terrain of concern in Yellowstone. Patchy meadow and forest mix is where I’ve seen 90% of the bears I’ve spotted in the wild. This is both preferred Griz habitat (food close to bedding sites), and ideal terrain for not seeing the bears at long distance, and getting close enough without making lots of noise to spoke them. There’s terrain like this in the Glacier/Bob complex as well, but much less.

  2. Interesting thoughts David. I personally wonder if the locals might be a tad more tolerant of the bears if they felt like they had more control over the issue. I’ve often wondered if the strong feelings about both wolves and bears had more to do with local resentment of being ordered around by the Feds.

    I’d assumed the semi open terrain of the GYE would be safer since you’d have a better chance of spotting the bears earlier then in the denser forest in Montana.

    Is it worth the effort for Wyoming to set up a hunting season? Sound management would only allow a small harvest of bears and considering the hassle (and legal challenges) of a bear season I wonder if a grizzly season would be worth the trouble.

    1. I think you’re right, in that the conflict over wolves and bears (among others) have more to do with the longstanding federal/state control issue.

      Grizzly hunting is an interesting question. The science is much more established and detailed than that of wolves, so there’s certainly the right data available. Griz live longer and have fewer young, so that would presumably need to be taken into account. I think it’s conceivable that Montana and Wyoming might have a handful of lottery Griz tags available in the next ten years.

  3. Thanks for throwing out an update Dave. Much appreciated.

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