Greater Yellowstone grizzlies: 'The road to recovery'

Posted 11/1/11

Although the bears’ habitat has been depleted significantly in the last 100 years or more, today’s grizzly population has stabilized in the ecosystem after plunging to fewer than 100 bears in the 1970s. This year’s count is conservatively …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Greater Yellowstone grizzlies: 'The road to recovery'


Population rebound a ‘success story’

(Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series exploring the history of grizzly bear recovery efforts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.)

The grizzly bear population rebound in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem “is probably the biggest success story in endangered species recovery in the last 100 years,” said Mark Bruscino, bear management program supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Although the bears’ habitat has been depleted significantly in the last 100 years or more, today’s grizzly population has stabilized in the ecosystem after plunging to fewer than 100 bears in the 1970s. This year’s count is conservatively estimated at nearly 600 grizzlies.

Yellowstone National Park was one of the last sanctuaries for grizzlies in the lower 48 states, said an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team 2008 report, “Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: From Garbage, Controversy and Decline to Recovery.”

Historically, seeing grizzly and black bears was a choice attraction for sightseers to Yellowstone National Park. By the 1880s, visitors assembled to observe the bruins devouring garbage dumped behind park hotels. By 1910, black bears learned to mooch food from tourists in wagons. In 1907 park staff were killing some grizzly and black bears due to human-bear conflicts, said the report.

A wagon teamster was the first documented human death by a Yellowstone grizzly in 1916. In 1942, a woman was killed near Old Faithful by a bear, but the report did not specify what species.

From 1931 to 1969, there were an average of 48 bear-caused injuries per year to people in Yellowstone. To curb mounting injuries and deaths, the Park Service began closing its animal dumps in 1968. By 1970, the last two dumps in the park were closed, the report said.

However, grizzly research forerunners, John and Frank Craighead, warned that abrupt dump closures would not allow bears adequate time to develop new feeding habits. They said closing all dumps would lead to more human-bear conflicts, killing more problem bears, and high mortality of the garbage-conditioned bears.

Their warning proved well founded. Prior to dump closures, the grizzly population was conservatively estimated at 234 bears. After the dumps were closed, at least 140 grizzly deaths were attributed to human conflicts between 1968 and 1971, according to the Craigheads.

Still, a 1973 study by the National Academy of Sciences said there was no convincing evidence that the population was at risk of extinction, and a conservative policy of removals (killing) should be pursued.

In 1975, when the grizzly was listed on the Endangered Species list in the lower 48 states, there were between 229 and 312 grizzlies in the ecosystem, according to a U.S. Department of Interior report.

“The fact of the matter is a lot of bears died, but it wasn’t irreversible,” Bruscino said.

Terminating dumps was necessary. Bears obtaining food rewards from humans are extremely dangerous; bears procuring food on their own in the wild are less dangerous, Bruscino said.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team was created in 1973 to determine the status and trends of the population. The team is made up of representatives from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and later, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming wildlife management agency personnel were added, said the report.

According to the team, this year’s conservative population estimate is at 593 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That is down from 603 last year, but Mark Haroldson, supervisory biologist with the team, said the grizzly population is healthy.

“We’ve got no indication of a declining population yet,” Haroldson said.

Bruscino said the 593 model is probably at least 20 percent conservative and is only for the core population. The actual population number for the entire ecosystem probably is 700-plus bears, he said.

Still, some concerns remain, primarily regarding declining whitebark pines and cutthroat trout, both important food sources for grizzlies.

If whitebark pines die off, will the bears be able to unearth another high protein source to replace their pine cone seeds?

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said his decision to put grizzlies back on the Endangered Species list in 2009 was partly based on the decline of whitebark pine.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said grizzlies were recovered in 2007, but Molloy sided with environmental groups who argued in a lawsuit that the bear population remained at risk.

Cutthroat trout, another important grizzly food, are on the ropes in Yellowstone Lake and other lakes and streams in the park and across its ecosystem.

Jeff Welsch, communications director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group that was established to protect grizzly bears, said he sees a parallel to the 1970s dump closures triggering population nosedives and current and future whitebark pine and cutthroat declines leading to potential grizzly population deficits.

Haroldson said grizzlies are opportunistic omnivores, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team remains optimistic the bears can find sustenance to maintain their health.

Still, the primary reasons for human bear conflicts are the lack of whitebark pine and grizzlies expanding their existing range. “That alone increases chances of encounters,” he said.

“This has been a remarkable success story,” Welsch said. “We would suggest (the grizzly population) is sustainable if we do the right things for grizzly bears.”

Those include establishing adequate regulatory mechanisms if the population plummets, as it did in the late 1970s, and utilizing all suitable grizzly habitat in the ecosystem, Welsch said.

If grizzlies could be restored in the Central Idaho Complex, it would add a population safety net. “The more they fill suitable habitat, the more they can thrive in the future,” Welsch said.

Grizzlies should be sequestered from human conflict within remote wilderness areas.

“Bears, more than any other animal I know, need large expanses of wildland habitat in order to succeed,” said Bruscino, who has been a bear biologist for 20 years. “And most of the wild land habitat in the Greater Yellowstone area is at carrying capacity.”

After attacks, a renewed focus on bear safety

BILLINGS (AP) — Wildlife agencies in the Northern Rockies go to lengths to warn people of the dangers of grizzly country — from signs advising hikers to carry Mace-like bear spray to radio ads that warn hunters to take care when stalking elk in bear habitat.

But after two hikers were fatally mauled in Yellowstone National Park over the summer, officials acknowledge their drive to make visitors “bear aware” is not reaching everyone. As a result, park officials, bear biologists and others say that in coming months they plan to sharpen a bear safety message that was already under review in hopes of preventing future maulings.

“We thought we were doing pretty good,” said park biologist Kerry Gunther, pointing to a 30-year average of one bear-caused human injury annually in Yellowstone. “Maybe we were getting lucky.”

Many bear education campaigns focus on saving the animals themselves, part of a broader effort to recover a species once nearly wiped out by hunting and other pressures. Slogans such as “a fed bear is a dead bear” highlight the increased likelihood of bears becoming nuisances — and getting euthanized — if they get used to eating human food or garbage.

With the success of the recovery efforts, Yellowstone’s grizzly population has now grown to about 600 bears. Those animals are pushing into new areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, where officials also are seeing attacks. There have been about 10 bear encounters that have resulted in human injuries across the region this year, including one Sunday in Grand Teton National Park, officials said. Such incidents have forced agencies to broaden the public safety side of their message.

Also growing is the size of the crowd that message needs to reach: Yellowstone National Park last year hosted a record 3.6 million visitors, and millions more visited five adjacent national forests and nearby Grand Teton National Park.

Among some of those visitors, said University of Wyoming sociology professor Patricia Taylor, “there isn’t a real fear of bears or appreciation of how strong they are.”

“People will say, ‘We want a bear to come to the campground. We want to see it,’” she said.

Both victims of this summer’s mauling deaths had visited the park previously. Officials said that indicated they had received at least some exposure to trailhead signs and other information describing how to avoid and respond to bear attacks.

Among the advice commonly offered is to travel in groups, make noise while hiking, carry bear spray — and know how and when to use it.

By contrast, one of the summer mauling victims was alone. Neither was carrying bear spray. And in one case investigators said the victim and his wife may have triggered the attack when they ran, yelling, from an approaching mother grizzly with cubs.

The head of the federal government’s grizzly recovery program, Chris Servheen, said that being told what to do around a bear is not enough. Servheen said people in bear country also have to be mentally prepared to take action. He likened that to military training designed to ensure soldiers can react without hesitation to threats, and recommended people conduct practice bear encounter drills so they’re comfortable taking out their bear spray, using it if needed and calmly backing away.

Still, nothing can guarantee a safe outcome. A 32-year-old hunter was injured by a bear Sunday afternoon in Grand Teton and, by all accounts, had been following recommendations — including carrying bear spray and dropping to the ground and covering his head. (See related story.)

Both victims in the fatal maulings in Yellowstone fell into the loose category of “day hikers” who might enter the park’s backcountry but not camp overnight. However, the most intensive bear safety talks — including instruction on food storage and what to do when charged — are heard by that small percentage of park visitors who spend the night in the wilderness. In 2010, that included slightly more than 45,000 visitors, or just over 1 percent of the park’s total.

Backcountry campers must get a permit and go through what Yellowstone’s chief ranger, Tim Reid, described as a rigorous system for teaching them how to have a safe trip. “We’re very successful in getting our message across on two of the cardinal rules: food storage and bear awareness and avoidance, and the need to carry bear spray as a preferred deterrent,” Reid said.

“Then there’s the rest of the world,” Reid added — the day hikers. How to reach that much larger group is one focus of the drive to sharpen the region’s bear safety message.

Reid suggested it won’t be easy. Many of Yellowstone’s visitors come from overseas, creating language barriers. Others who pass through the park for only a day or two balk at paying about $50 for a can of bear spray they won’t have much use for at home.

The University of Wyoming’s Taylor last year surveyed more than 600 Grand Teton visitors to gauge public awareness of bear safety protocols. Most showed at least a basic knowledge of food storage guidelines meant to keep hungry bears away. Almost all correctly answered that running from a bear can trigger aggression in the animal.

Three percent of those surveyed fell into the “clueless” category with no knowledge at all about food storage rules. And more than 12 percent — or about one in eight people — said they knew so much about bears that they could predict when a bruin would turn aggressive.

“That’s extraordinary to me,” Taylor said. “I’m 60 years old. I’ve been a backpacker since I was 28 going into backcountry sites. I don’t think you can know.”