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Keeping an eye on grizzly bears

With up to a possible 1,000 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is increasing efforts to proactively handle conflicts and educate the public. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering initiating the drawn-out process of removing the bear’s federal protections this year. With up to a possible 1,000 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is increasing efforts to proactively handle conflicts and educate the public. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering initiating the drawn-out process of removing the bear’s federal protections this year. Photo courtesy Kristi Staebler

There are hundreds of grizzly bears roaming the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The federal government is keeping a watchful eye on the giant bruins as it decides whether to begin the process of removing grizzlies from the Endangered Species list.

Wyoming officials are ramping up efforts to deal with human-grizzly conflicts.

“Human safety is always a No. 1 priority for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department when it comes to people and large carnivores,” said Dan Thompson, Game and Fish statewide supervisor of the large carnivore management section in Lander.

Two grizzlies were destroyed by Game and Fish Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 in the Clark area to protect the public. Another grizzly was captured near the Eaglenest subdivision west of Powell and relocated to a remote area north of Moran Junction on Oct. 7, Thompson said.

In 2013, 29 grizzlies were killed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), eight of them for livestock depredations. So far this year the count is 22, five for livestock depredations, according to reports on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team website.

In 2013, there were eight human-grizzly conflicts in Yellowstone National Park, compared to three in 2012. Despite ups and downs, the number of conflicts overall appears to be dropping in Yellowstone National Park.

The most conflicts were 25 in 1984, according to a graph in the team’s 2013 report.

Seventeen grizzlies in northwest Wyoming have been relocated so far this year. Last year 18 were relocated, Thompson said.

“The recovered and expanding grizzly bear population simply means our personnel stepping up our efforts to make sure we’re doing everything to educate the public and deal with conflict situations proactively, as much as we can,” he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has management authority of grizzlies in the GYE because the animals are on the Threatened Species List, but Game and Fish does most of the management legwork in Wyoming.

The population appears stable, with hundreds in the area.

There are at least 757 grizzlies in the GYE. A more accurate count could be 1,000 or more, but the new counting technique is being validated, Thompson said.

Grizzlies are reaching the edge of suitable habitat, particularly in the northwest corner of Wyoming, said Frank van Manen, team leader for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Van Manen is a grizzly bear researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in Bozeman, Mont.

In Chuck Neal’s opinion, a slowly growing population does not equal recovery.

Neal, of Cody, is a retired ecologist for the U.S. Department of Interior and author of “Grizzlies in the Mist,” published in 2003. The bears need to expand their population to ensure genetic connectivity, he said.

Grizzly bears in the GYE have solid genetics. There’s a great deal of movement within the population in order to maintain genetic viability, Thompson said.

The population is regulating itself, van Manen said.

The grizzly population is growing by zero to 2 percent annually. In the 1970s and 1980s, the population was growing by 7 percent.

Grizzlies were placed on the list in 1975, when the population was plummeting.

The population then could have been as low as around 200 in the GYE, van Manen said.

The population has stabilized since 2001, said Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont.

There is not a lot of suitable habitat left for grizzlies in the GYE. Cub survival is lower where the grizzly population is higher. Older males are killing cubs and younger bears.

It’s not so much a matter of ecosystem carrying capacity as a social carrying capacity. Younger grizzlies don’t have the chance to establish themselves, particularly where there are many mature grizzlies nearby, Van Manen said.

Sub-adult grizzlies could be relocated to central Idaho, Neal said.

Van Manen said he is expecting a delisting rule by the end of this year. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not published a delisting rule yet.

“There’s been no decision of delisting,” Servheen said.

That decision is up to Dan Ashe, Fish and Wildlife director.

That would entail publishing a delisting rule in the Federal Register, seeking and obtaining public comments and responding to those comments, Thompson said.

Sylvia Fallon, Natural Resources Defense Council director of the Wildlife Conservation Project, is not sure when a delisting rule would be published, but she said the council would examine the rule closely.

Whitebark pine, or lack of it, is a crucial legal consideration.

The bruins were removed from the list in 2007, but placed back on it in 2009. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that grizzly bears in the GYE remain on the Endangered Species list until the federal government could provide better data explaining how grizzlies will cope without whitebark pine, which produces a nutritious, high-calorie nut. The tree has been devastated by pine beetles, blister rust and climate change.

Evidence suggested the whitebark pine decline has not had a profound effect on the grizzly population in the GYE, stated a December report, “Response Of Yellowstone Grizzly Bears To Changes In Food Resources: A Synthesis Final Report.” The report was compiled by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee.

Grizzlies are opportunistic omnivores that eat a wide variety of foods. “Some bears don’t even have it (whitebark) in their home range,” Thompson said.

It may be too soon to conclude what impact the lack of whitebark has. “We may not know what the total effect is on the population for a number of years,” Fallon said.

When the bears are at high elevations eating whitebark nuts they are separated from people, Fallon said.

In 2013, whitebark pine production was poor, according to the Whitebark Pine Cone Production 2013 project summary for the IGBST. This year, the crop was good, Servheen said.

Grizzlies in the GYE need genetic connections with grizzlies to the north, Fallon said.

“A truly recovered, self-sustaining population will require occupation of all bio-physically suitable contiguous habitat in the northern Rockies,” Neal said.

Grizzlies require genetic connectivity with other grizzly populations in places such as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). And they need linkage zones to allow safe passage between the two ecosystems.

The NCDE encompasses about 9,600 square miles of northwestern Montana, including Glacier National Park, connecting Canada, parts of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations and portions of five national forests, including the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Connecting Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental grizzlies will augment the population and genetic pool, Neal said.

Places like the Wyoming Range, Wind River Mountains and central Idaho are biologically suitable habitat. Grizzlies need safe access to the Gravelly Range southwest of Deer Lodge, Mont., and the Centennial Range that is directly west of the GYE, Neal said.  Without connections to other ecosystems, Greater Yellowstone grizzlies are on an isolated genetic island.

“They absolutely must have these linkage zones,” Neal said. “It’s as simple as that.”  
Without genetic diversity, the bears will be unable to adapt to future events such as climate change.

“They can deal with a lot of problems, but we’ve got to give them room,” Neal said.

Wyoming Game and Fish wants grizzlies delisted in the GYE. If grizzlies were removed from federal protection, minimum recovery goals would remain. Thompson has no illusions that hunting would be a silver bullet to manage the population, but it is nonetheless a management tool, and Game and Fish wants all the management tools it can get.

“Right now, we’re really focused on showing a recovered population and getting bears delisted,” Thompson said. “We hope to focus more on the hunting aspect as things progress for the future.”

Grizzly bears are a national resource, van Manen said. “It’s an iconic species for this ecosystem.”

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