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How Many Biologists Does It Take to Count a Dead Grizzly?

Bearly Making It

by ANDREA PEACOCK

On December 17, 2004, Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council convened a collection of U.S. grizzly bear advocates in Bozeman, Montana, with a call to arms. Under threat of lawsuit from the governor of Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned a fast-track removal of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Convinced that such a move—under the sorts of conditions proposed by the agency—could send the park’s grizzlies on a downward spiral toward extinction, Willcox figured the activists and lawyers gathered had about a year to either derail the process, or get ready to sue.

Those responding to her call were the heavy-hitters of northern Rocky Mountain nonprofits: conservation lawyers who had successfully defended Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction program, and built a tenuous consensus around the idea of reintroducing grizzlies to the remote Selway-Bitterroot wilderness of central Idaho and western Montana; attorneys from the firm that won the case (if only temporarily) for Bill Clinton’s roadless initiative, who stopped Crown Butte from digging its New World Mine cyanide heap leach gold mine at the northeastern corner of Yellowstone, and who won their case to phase snowmobiles out of that park.

It was not, however, an amiable gathering. Within minutes, old alliances and grudges reared their ugly heads. One former protégé of Willcox’s proceeded to sabotage the agenda, which Louisa had meticulously pieced together during the preceding weeks, while another announced he’d be opposing his former mentor on the issue. The temperature in the meeting room of the public library seemed to rise with everyone’s tempers; by early afternoon, the group was reduced to thinly veiled personal insults.

For Willcox and her allies, the idea of taking Yellowstone’s grizzlies off the endangered species list is a bad gamble in the face of declining food sources, genetic isolation, and habitat gobbled up by trophy homes, logging, and oil and gas development. Proponents of Fish and Wildlife’s plan point to the grizzly’s numeric and geographic rebound, and the political needs of the Endangered Species Act. Everyone here has put in their time on the ground, humping through grizzly country with a pack on their backs and love for the land in their hearts. But in the heat of the debate here and across the region, a fire nurtured through three decades of disagreements and mistrust, the bears themselves are reduced to abstract mathematical equations and pawns in an elaborate game of science, power and prejudices taking place far from any wild country a bear would recognize as home.

The modern grizzly crisis finds its roots in the summer of 1967. On one August night, two women camping in two different parts of Glacier National Park were killed by two different garbage-fed grizzly bears. Though these were the first such human mortalities in the park’s history, the Night of the Grizzlies (as it came to be called in a book by the same name) sent the National Park Service into a panic. Against the advice of pioneering grizzly biologists, brothers Frank and John Craighead, Yellowstone decided in 1968 to close its garbage dumps abruptly, forcing grizzlies who had learned to depend on human refuse to go cold turkey. The park service feared legal liability, and didn’t want any more generations of bear cubs picking up the bad habit of associating people with food. The Craigheads argued against the rapid closure scenario, advocating a more gradual phase-out to give the bears time to adjust. As it turned out, the Craigheads had a good point: the Yellowstone grizzly population crashed. Exact counts vary, but at least 229 grizzlies were killed in the five years following the dump closures as hungry bears ranged into towns and campgrounds in search of food. (That figure could well be low: the Craigheads counted 270 dead grizzlies).

Regardless, by the mid-1970s there were only about 200 grizzlies left in Yellowstone and the population was in a serious decline that would continue for another ten years. If nothing was done, the Yellowstone grizzly would likely go extinct. In 1975, the federal government intervened and classified the great bear as a “threatened” animal, placing it under the protection of the fledgling 1972 Endangered Species Act. Though the full power of the law has rarely been brought to bear on violators, killing a grizzly, except in cases of self-defense, carries a theoretical penalty of up to $25,000 and six months in jail.

The economic and social repercussions were nonetheless significant. Hunting ended, and ranchers lost the option of shooting predator grizzlies on sight. Sheep were phased out of many nearby national forest grazing allotments. Timber companies, oil and gas developers working on public land had to clear the hurdle of showing that their projects would not degrade any landscapes with even the potential to support grizzlies. As a protected species, grizzlies proved a powerful tool for conservationists hoping to slow down the expansion of civilization’s trappings in Western wildernesses. A host of federal and state agencies teamed up under the auspices of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and Study Team, to embark upon a monitoring program of epic proportions in an effort to find out everything they could about how grizzly bears live and die in the Northern Rockies.

Under these conditions, Yellowstone’s grizzlies spent the next 30 years regaining their numbers, re-colonizing the park and some of the national forest land surrounding it. By the best educated guesses of government biologists, somewhere between 500 and 700 or more bears are now living in and around Yellowstone.

Though the population has been genetically isolated for the last 100 years, a 2003 study of Yellowstone grizzly DNA suggests there was little damage done during the population crash of the 1970s. Two decades ago, it was rare to see a grizzly. Now, anyone willing to work at it has a decent shot of at least finding sign: a muddy footprint on a boardwalk; a day bed nestled in tree roots next to a meadow; overturned rocks or digs for biscuit root and yampa in a high alpine basin; or fresh-smelling grass scat left in a pile in the middle of a trail.

In 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set itself a list of targets designed to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act for a “recovered” species: an average of at least 15 females with cubs-of-the-year over a six-year period; 16 out of 18 so-called “bear management units” occupied by females with young; with the human-caused mortality limit not to exceed four percent of the total population on a running six-year average, and no more than a third of those deaths to be females. (Grizzlies have one of the slowest reproductive rates of any mammal on earth, so females are considered—to borrow a phrase from prominent grizzly biologist Dave Mattson—“especially special.”)

While these targets were deemed to be “arbitrary and capricious” by a federal judge in 1995, the agency nonetheless has continued to use them as a goalpost (a fact which is likely to be an issue in any future delisting litigation).

Saying those goals had been met as of 2001, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee developed a blueprint for taking grizzlies off the endangered species list, a 160-page Conservation Strategy that forms the backbone of the post-ESA management plan for grizzly bears. Basically, the nearly 6 million acre “recovery zone” has been renamed the “primary conservation area” (or PCA) within which grizzlies will be afforded the most protection. Outside that zone, the fish and game agencies of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, will make the rules (within certain mutually agreed upon guidelines), theoretically geared toward maintaining a population of about 500 bears. The plan was formally and finally approved on April 30, 2007, and immediately was challenged by Earthjustice attorneys. Resolution of the case is still pending.

“The PCA will be a secure area for grizzly bears, with population and habitat conditions maintained to ensure a recovered population is maintained for the foreseeable future and to allow bears to continue to expand outside the PCA,” reads the executive summary of the plan. “Outside of the PCA, grizzly bears will be allowed to expand into biologically suitable and socially acceptable areas” [emphasis added].

Those two words are probably the most important in the entire document. In grizzly country, there are plenty of opportunities for trouble. Bears and people tangle over livestock (grizzlies find sheep irresistible); hunters leaving a carcass at sunset will often return the next morning to find it has been appropriated by a bear; those who move to grizzly country and plant orchards or feed the birds will likely find a bear on their back porch, eating the dog food; the proliferation of recreational off-road vehicles, as well as oil, gas and logging all bring people and grizzlies together, often to the detriment of the bear. A 2005 Wildlife Monograph published by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team finds that humans were responsible for more than 85 percent of Yellowstone-area grizzly bear deaths between 1983 and 2001 (the causes ranging from bears shot in self-defense or mistaken for black bears, to those hit by cars or killed purposely by wildlife managers and illegally by poachers).

That monograph further found that grizzlies die at a much faster rate outside the recovery zone, for the simple reason that people cannot carry guns inside the park. But these areas where bears die, called “population sinks,” are precisely where managers propose to give the greatest discretion, saying that people must feel safe in order for the plan to work. “Successful management of nuisance grizzly bears is paramount to the success of overall grizzly bear conservation,” reads Idaho’s management plan. “Outside of the PCA, significant consideration will be given to humans when grizzly bears come into contact with people or private property including livestock.”

Montana’s guidelines are the most bear-friendly, allowing grizzlies to occupy more or less whatever landscapes the bears find appropriate. Wyoming, on the other hand, takes the “socially acceptable” phrase to its extreme and has drawn a line on the map: grizzlies crossing it will be killed. Idaho lies in between, but all three states plan for a hunting season on grizzlies.

There is only one other remotely healthy population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, finding its core refuge in the public lands of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall wilderness, areas that form what biologists call the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. While Glacier-area grizzlies are still considered threatened and will remain under federal protection for the time being, conservationists see the fate of Yellowstone’s bears as predictive for the species as a whole.

We must have looked like any other set of tourists having a midday snack at the picnic area to the ranger who approached us. “You all should know there’s been a grizzly around,” he said. We smiled at him. The ranger shifted from foot to foot. “A bear,” he emphasized.

“Oh? Where is it?” one of the women responded.

The ranger looked puzzled; we clearly were not reacting the way he anticipated. He mumbled something about being careful with our food, and left us to confront the beast on our own.

The ranger seemed to sense he was not talking a group of casual visitors. This was a gathering of a branch of the Craighead clan and assorted friends, including the presence of a man who’d been chasing bears likely before the ranger had been born. In the spring of 2000, it was one of Frank Craighead’s final trips to Yellowstone, where he and his brother essentially invented the science of grizzly bear research 40 years earlier.

These days there are far more grizzly advocates than grizzly bears, but when John and Frank Craighead first took to the rolling hills of Yellowstone in 1959, they were the vanguard. “At that time nobody knew much about grizzly bears,” says Lance Craighead, Frank’s son and a respected biologist in his own right. “There was a whole western mythology around bears, but there were basically no scientific studies of what bears do and what they need.”

Perhaps even more importantly, few people cared. Missoula biologist Charles Jonkel also got his start in the grizzly business that year (a profession made practical with the invention of the tranquilizer dart gun), hired by the state of Montana to oversee all things bear.

“People then, they shot bears all the time just to see if their rifle was on,” Jonkel says. “They weren’t valued whatsoever. Nobody cared about bears.” Between 1850 and 1920, grizzlies were killed back to less than five percent of their range in the U.S. (a figure that has since dwindled down to less than one percent), treated by settlers as predators and competitors. By the time Jonkel and the Craigheads got into the bear business, there was only a handful of healthy grizzly bear populations left south of Canada.

As biologists, Jonkel and John Craighead gave birth to contemporary grizzly politics in another way. The two both mentored a young man named Chris Servheen. It’s been Servheen’s job to shepherd grizzlies in the lower 48 states from near extinction to recovery. As head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery program for the past 25 years, Servheen’s entire career, nearly all of his adult life, has been tied to the fate of the great bear.

Both Jonkel and Craighead were Servheen’s professors at the University of Montana in Missoula in the 1970s. Servheen moved out west to go to grad school at UM after seeing the National Geographic feature on the Craigheads’ work in Yellowstone, so the chance to study under John was a dream come true for the young man. Jonkel was instrumental in furthering Servheen’s career, recommending him for the job he holds today.

A quarter of a century later, both men are critical of their former protégé. Craighead, 90 years old in the summer of 2005, is more politic in his assessment, saying he has respect for Servheen; in fact, he likes the man. “His biggest problem is he wants to be the top…  He doesn’t take other people and groups into consideration very much. He tends to make the decisions on his own.”

Jonkel, however, makes no secret of his bitterness. After Servheen was put in charge of grizzly recovery, Jonkel lost his job with the State of Montana, and lost his funding. Rightly or not, he laid blame at Servheen’s feet.

“He got real into power and control and became very detrimental to bears,” Jonkel says. “I think a lot of good people walked away because they didn’t want to put up with it, [his] talking down to people, and such. I remember one time early on, he was doing a talk up in Hamilton and somebody asked a fair question. He said, ‘I don’t need to explain that to you. You wouldn’t understand it anyhow.’ Well, there are probably 100 people who are still 15 years later madder than hell about that. Rural people don’t forget.

“I knew he had those characteristics when he was a graduate student. But he also would help me when I had reports due, and I needed to get this done and needed to get that done. Everybody else wanted to go run the trap line and run the ridges and let the wind blow through their hair. Chris would help me. I appreciated that.”

Many others echo Craighead and Jonkel’s criticism of Servheen. Years ago, someone nicknamed him “Self” as in “Self Servheen.” Like any nickname with the ring of truth, this one stuck and even field biologists could be heard saying things like, “I wonder what Self would think of this?”But Servheen’s greatest critic by far is not a rancher or anti-grizzly politician, but a diminutive, wiry woman named Louisa Willcox, a resident of Livingston, Montana, who has made grizzly conservation her life’s work.

Yellowstone grizzly. Photo by Doug Peacock.

I was writing for the weekly Missoula Independent in 1997 when I first met Willcox socially. She phoned me one day to say she’d heard a rumor that Servheen was holding a meeting of some importance in Missoula. After calling his office all day without getting a response, I got up early the next morning and sat by his door on the University of Montana campus until he came in.

 “Who told you about it?” he demanded. Willcox hadn’t requested anonymity, but I didn’t think her identity mattered and told him so. We went round and round, getting nowhere. “Was it Louisa Willcox?” he finally asked. I had to admit Willcox was my source. “It’s not a public meeting,” he snapped, and our conversation clearly was over.

Seven years after my first awkward meeting with Servheen, he agreed to talk with me. People say he’s mellowed over the years, and if this second encounter was any evidence, he has. The conversation was cordial, enlightening even. We talked for nearly an hour about grizzly politics before I broached what I knew was a sensitive subject: I asked him how his relationship with Willcox became so damaged. “Louisa Willcox has gone out of her way. She’s tried to get me fired; that kind of goes beyond the issues of grizzly bears,” he says. “I’m not sure why she’s got that burr under her saddle. I mean, I don’t think any other environmental group has tried to get me fired. She’s got that unique approach to things.”

Willcox, however, says she never tried to get Servheen fired, but that Chris has told other people the same thing. But when I ask her about the bad blood between them, she has no answer.  “That’s a good question, I don’t remember. I’ve never understood it,” she says finally. “I’ve tried repeatedly to reach out. I have a whole correspondence file where I’ve tried to ask questions.

“At one point I drove over there and just showed up in his office and said, let’s talk. I feel like I’ve tried to break down his barrier. But if there’s any comfort, it’s not just me. Look at the number of scientists who are in the same boat.”

A few scientists have had very public spats with Servheen: Dave Mattson and Janet Roybal both had their stories publicized in Todd Wilkinson’s book on the subject of censored government biologists, Science Under Siege. Others acknowledge their schisms off the record, not eager to open old wounds or damage a fragile working relationship.

Willcox moved to the region at about the same time as Servheen. She had worked in Lander, Wyoming, for the National Outdoor Leadership School in the mid-1970s. After a stint in Yale’s graduate forestry program, she returned to sign on with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “I did my major paper—it must have been 1983—on grizzly bears in Yellowstone. That was the year that there was a leaked memo from the Department of the Interior that indicated that there may be as few as 47 reproducing females left,” she says. “That got me pretty interested, the whole sense that maybe these bears wouldn’t be around.”

Willcox worked her way through the ranks of conservation groups, and now heads up the grizzly office of the Natural Resources Defense Council in the small town of Livingston, Montana, about 50 miles north of Yellowstone. Servheen, on the other hand, stuck with government work and was hired to run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Office.

“If I was going to scale or rank two people who I felt had worked around this issue for a long time, who had extraordinary interest in the welfare of the bear, Chris and Louisa would be at the top of the list,” says biologist Tim Kaminski. “If you ask the next question which is, gee, why don’t they work together? I would say it’s because they don’t agree on anything.”

Which is not exactly true. One of Servheen and Willcox’s shared strengths is their vision. Louisa has been a driving force behind the development of grand scale grizzly conservation. Bear advocates envision the day when grizzlies inhabit all the wild lands between Yellowstone and the north country of Canada: skirting cattle ranches, dashing across highway under- and overpasses (built just for that purpose) to the relative safety of the vast central Idaho wilderness, where they could establish a another stronghold. The adventurous among them could keep going, grazing their way through the developed narrow river valley bottoms of western Montana, crossing more two- and four-lane highways to hit Glacier and beyond. With two thousand grizzlies living in the lower 48 states, connected to stable populations in Canada and Alaska, advocates theorize that bears would have a decent chance of surviving just about anything thrown at them: global warming, disease, changing political climates. “The conservation initiative is a broad vision that embraces this concept not just for grizzlies but for all wildlife species,” says biologist Lance Craighead. Getting there is not rocket science, but a matter of social and political will. Conservationists have a name for this plan: they call it Yellowstone to Yukon. It is a beautiful idea with serious logistical problems.

In reality, grizzlies haven’t been allowed much beyond the bounds of Yellowstone’s recovery zone and its immediate surroundings. Those making a move—subadult males, mostly—have been shot or trapped, tranquilized, and helicoptered back home. In effect, the recovery zone has been a protective prison.

A proposal to reintroduce grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of central Idaho, a logical corridor for genetic interchange between the Yellowstone and Glacier populations, stalled politically with George W. Bush’s election to the White House in 2000. Even if regional politicians had been willing (and they certainly were not: former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne characterized the plan as the federal government foisting “anti-social, flesh-eating” monsters upon the citizens of his state), the climate in Idaho was, and is, openly hostile.

On the north end of the Rockies, biologists say that Alberta, Canada’s grizzly bears are in such bad shape—stressed by hunger, dodging humans in a landscape dominated by oil, gas, and tourist-related development–that their body chemistry appeared to be changing. “These are not fat and happy bears. These are skinny, food-stressed bears all the time,” says Canadian biologist Mike Gibeau. “We have the lowest reproductive rate of any population of grizzly bears yet studied… In conclusion, so far as relying on bears in Canada to bolster populations in the United States, I’m not sure that it would be wise to count on Alberta. You guys have to make your own destiny.”

But Servheen has foresight similar to Willcox’s, and wants to see grizzlies in these wild lands as well. His agency was the lead architect of the plan to move grizzlies back into the Bitterroots, and he believes that day is going to come. “The habitat is there. The need is there. We know we can do it,” he says. “It’s just a question of political will. Things will change. We go from one administration to another, swaying back and forth, and I think eventually we’ll get to it.”

If they don’t get to it, the Conservation Strategy goes a step further, mandating that the feds fly grizzlies into Yellowstone from other ecosystems (two bears per generation, probably subadult females from Glacier or British Columbia) to augment the population’s isolated gene pool, if there’s no evidence that bears are making the trip on their own in the next 20 years.

Putting aside the questionable wisdom of moving grizzlies around like livestock, Willcox says the premise of the Conservation Strategy itself is flawed: Yellowstone is not likely to remain ideal habitat for grizzlies over the long term, especially with changes wrought by global warming. She suggests allowing grizzlies to colonize new ground, essentially letting the four-legged experts determine what areas are “biologically suitable,” with humans granting a little quarter in the “socially acceptable” realm.

 “The Wyoming Range comes into play,” Willcox says of mountains south of Jackson Hole, on the western edge of Sublette County, WY. “They’ve got some of the most healthy, big chunks of whitebark pine that’s unoccupied habitat. Promoting grizzly bear use of some of these outlying areas where whitebark pine is still healthy would be a smart idea, instead of drawing a line in the sand and saying you’re going to shoot every bear that tries to get down there.”

Political reality intervenes here. Sublette County Commissioners passed in 2002 a resolution declaring grizzly bears and gray wolves to be “economically and socially unacceptable,” following on the heels of similar resolutions in nearby Fremont and Lincoln counties, which prohibited the presence of these animals outright. While these resolutions have no legal standing, they are nonetheless a clear statement of local sentiment.

But politics is Servheen’s game, and he plays it well. He’s woven a complex web of alliances, including Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department, and attempts to bring in conservationists by appealing to their loyalty to the Endangered Species Act. “We’ve had very few successes under the Act,” he tells me (and every other reporter who’s come calling of late). “There are a lot of people that say it’s just a failure and it needs to be revised or changed or even eliminated. Unless we start showing success, those people will gain more and credibility and more of a following.”

His office has developed reams of paperwork outlining detailed monitoring programs in which he appears to have complete faith. The tough questions about food, habitat and mortality are all answered with a nod to the piles of reports lying on and around his desk.

“We have a pretty good handle on where bears are now. One estimate right now: [is that] there are 588 bears as of last year in the system, and about 10 percent of those occur outside of the recovery zone. We’ve got, like I say, 10 percent of the bears with radios on. But if we start to see changes in the distribution of home ranges, in association with changes in the foods, we can adjust the boundaries to places where bears need to go and protections in those areas in order to minimize mortalities.

“I feel comfortable that we’ve got a good idea, we’ve got a good system to monitor all the important things, and we’ve got a responsive, dynamic system that will change in response to needs.”

I suggest to Servheen that conservationists’ concerns about delisting are rooted in mistrust: we all hear the bar talk about killing wolves and grizzlies. “Maybe they’ll all get parvo [a canine virus] and we won’t have to shoot them ourselves,” was the hopeful conclusion at one dinner party where the conversation turned to wolves. And the fact is, our grandparents and our neighbors’ grandparents did drive these animals to the brink of extinction. Servheen dismisses these worries as paranoia. “This idea that somehow nefarious people could start to do bad things and nobody would know about it is not the case,” he says. “Mortality limits still exist after recovery and delisting. And there’s still a management program to manage that. It’s a public process with public meetings and public exposure. So it’s not like people can start shooting grizzly bears or the states can decide okay, we’re going to forget what we agreed to.

 “It’s almost like having a teenager and he or she wants to drive,” says Servheen. “They get their license and you say, okay, here are the keys. Keep the car out of the ditch or you won’t be able to drive again. So the incentive is really on the teenager now to do the right thing. If he drives off and drives into the ditch and wrecks the car, the problem for him is he’s not going to be able to drive again. The states are essentially the teenager in this approach. They want control of the bear. They know the things they need to do to manage the bear properly. And if they drive the car into the ditch, it’s going to be a very public wreck.”

But it’s not just their neighbors that conservationists worry about. The Conservation Strategy provides very little in the way of a safety net in case of trouble in the grizzly world. The feds are setting up a committee of federal, state, local and tribal representatives to keep watch over the entire program. But changes on the ground could happen very fast (researchers believe the difference between an increasing and declining population could hinge on a mere handful of deaths a year), while the regulatory mechanisms take a long time to kick in.

If the mortality standards are exceeded, for instance, it will take at least three years to trigger a breach in policy (as managers plan to work off a three-year running tally of deaths). In such a case, any member may request that the committee consider a “biology and monitoring review.” If the committee votes to conduct such a review, it has to be completed within six months. The end result is not action of some sort—say, a hiatus in the hunting season—but a report. “If the situation, after completion of the Biology and Monitoring Review, is such that all or some of the desired population and habitat standards specified in this Conservation Strategy are not being met, and cannot be met in the opinion of the [committee], then the [committee] will petition the Fish and Wildlife Service for relisting.”

Now, Fish and Wildlife Service has a backlog of proposals for listing under the Endangered Species Act that stretches across 286 species, which, according to one analysis, have been waiting 17 years on average for a decision. Given those conditions, it’s easy to see why conservationists fear a grizzly population in trouble could go extinct waiting for help.

“It’s sort of a matter of arranging deck chairs on a boat instead of developing backup systems in the engine room which is what they should be doing,” Willcox says. “They’re setting up a whole monitoring system that doesn’t have any trigger mechanisms… Litigation, even if we’re successful, it may be too little, too late because when you’ve already eliminated 99 percent of bears from their former habitat, you’re playing with fire with the last one percent. You’d think we should have learned something about how easy it is to kill bears and how hard it is to grow them and I think there’s an enormous amount of hubris in this whole endeavor.”

The entire delisting process requires that people trust authorities to act not according to political expediencies, but with the best interests of the grizzly at heart. Servheen, for instance, has a long, acrimonious history with the main opponents of delisting. They don’t trust him. A change in the acceptable mortality limits in June 2005 illustrates how these feelings were perpetuated:

Mortality and population (births and deaths) are the underpinnings to the success of grizzly recovery. They’re dependent on things like food, habitat—especially habitat—and security from humans, but whether or not grizzlies will survive depends in the most basic sense on how many bears there are and how fast they die.

 Dozens of biologists have spent thousands of hours devising ways to pin these numbers down. When the Fish and Wildlife’s Conservation Strategy was released in 2003, officials decided to shoot for a population of 500 grizzlies. Biologists calculated that such a group of bears could sustain a human-caused mortality rate not to exceed an annual average of four percent over a six year period. This was presented as a conservative figure, based on a benchmark study by Richard Harris in 1986, concluding that a population like Yellowstone could probably sustain a loss of grizzlies at 6.5 percent annually. “The current ratio of known and probable-to-unknown mortalities is 2:1; therefore an upper limit of 4% documented mortality allows for an actual mortality limit of 6%,” the Conservation Strategy explains. While .5 percent may have been a slim comfort margin, it was a margin nonetheless. On June 18, 2005, the Associated Press reported that Servheen was recommending the annual mortality limit be raised to 9 percent for females, 15 percent for males: 

[A] federal wildlife official said Friday he doesn’t expect deaths to rise much as a result. Rather, Chris Servheen said the planned change is intended to allow wildlife officials to better track how—and how many—bears are dying. ‘The goal is to do a better job of accounting for mortalities,’ said Servheen. Servheen said the proposed method, backed by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, would also track all bear deaths, not just those caused by humans.

When I ask Chuck Schwartz, who heads up the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, about the change, he points me to his group’s 2005 Wildlife Monograph. In one chapter, Harris—who set the original 6.5 percent mortality limit—compares the two methods. “The current approach to grizzly bear management in the GYE [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] is for management agencies to consider all forms of mortality, but to establish an annual limit only for human-caused mortality,” he writes. “We proposed that rather than counting human-caused mortalities, management agencies should focus on survival rates irrespective of the cause of death.”

Harris lays out a series of mathematical formulas and computer models which he says comes up with comparable survival rates for both the 6.5 percent method of counting only human-killed grizzlies, and the higher limits for counting all dead grizzlies.

Previously, the idea of counting every dead bear couldn’t pass the straight face test. A 1991 study by biologists Dave Mattson and Richard Knight estimated that natural deaths account for 69 percent of backcountry mortality; two other studies, by John Craighead in 1974, and Richard Knight in 1984, calculated that the government records only 40 to 60 percent of actual grizzly deaths. But in the 2005 monograph, the biologists conclude that natural mortality is unusual these days because they documented only five such cases out of 64 deaths.

Accepting these changes, it seems, is not about trust: it’s about ego. What makes us think we can know every bear that lives and dies merely by calculating its existence?

Willcox suggests that the raising of acceptable mortality rates is motivated by politics, not biology. Yellowstone comes so close to that 4 percent figure on a regular basis that once you add in dead grizzlies from legal hunting and the state’s management activities, there’s little hope of maintaining it; she thinks the feds are raising the limits to head off that issue. “This is my sense of the real purpose,” she says. “Also pushing hard on upping the limits is Wyoming Game and Fish.”

According to Jonathan Langer, who works for Willcox at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Wyoming wildlife director John Emmerich attended the June 2005 Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting and pushed the committee to allow the state to have its own mortality limits, saying that low mortality in one area (like the park) could compensate for higher mortality in other areas (like his state). Several months after the fact, Emmerich declined to confirm this version of events for me, saying instead that Wyoming would accept the government’s mortality rates with an eye toward keeping his state’s grizzly population from getting any larger. “Some shifts in population distribution will occur but overall management direction would be designed to hold grizzly numbers at current levels in Wyoming outside of [the park],” he says.

Further driving a wedge of distrust between the government and some grizzly advocates is the fact that the government’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has diddled with the numbers for years. Probable deaths (deaths that were likely—due to a shooting, car accident or the like—but in which a corpse was not recovered, as opposed to “known” mortalities where a body is found) were not counted until 2000, nor were orphaned cubs-of-the-year (who are almost certain to die once their mother has been killed) included in the body count until that year. Grizzlies killed more than 10 miles outside the recovery zone still are not counted toward the total.

Finally, the calculations themselves are somewhat convoluted.

For example, people killed 19 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2004. With a population estimated at a minimum of 431 grizzlies, a death toll of 17.2 grizzlies would exceed 4 percent of the population. But two of those grizzlies were killed more than 10 miles outside of the recovery zone. “Both of these instances involved male grizzly bears that were misidentified and mistakenly killed by black bear hunters over bait,” according to the study team’s annual report. So the official total was only 17 grizzlies, under the 17.2 limit. However, 17 dead bears is not the number used. The number used is 13.3: that’s because biologists don’t count the annual total alone in determining whether the limits have been breached for any given year, but simply add it to the six-year running average of human-killed grizzlies, and then use that number. And since 13.3 (the six-year running average as of 2004) is under 17.2, the limit for dead grizzlies in 2004 officially was not exceeded.

“It’s not very clear,” biologist and team member Mark Haroldson agrees when I admit to confusion. “I get lots of questions on this.”

If all known and probable human-caused grizzly deaths were counted—and counted annually instead of on a running six-year average—the mortality limit would have been exceeded in nine of the last 16 years–including two of the last three–and is well on its way to being exceeded again in 2009 (with 16 official deaths as of late summer, before hunting season even opens). But by the study team’s calculations, however, only 1995 and 2008 proved to be overly lethal years.

The fact remains that for all the science, no one really knows how many bears live nor how many die. Dozens of papers have been written, plugging factors of food, mortality, road densities, and the like into computer models that all spit out formulas that invariably conclude grizzly bears don’t fit into computer models.

Author’s update: Following the removal of Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone grizzly in 2007, bear mortalities jumped from 13 and 16 deaths in 2005 and 2006 respectively, to 33 in 2007 and a record 52 in 2008. Until recently, the rule of thumb was to estimate one backcountry death for every known dead bear. Grizzly advocates speculate that public fears and hostilities toward bears have been set loose by delisting, and so people are more likely to shoot first and repent later. They point as well to the sudden and likely irreversible collapse of the region’s whitebark pine tree population (due to climatically-driven pine beetle infestations), the nut of which is the vital food for Yellowstone grizzlies in the fall.

This essay is adapted from In the Presence of Grizzlies: The Ancient Bond Between Men and Bears by Doug and ANDREA PEACOCK, The Lyons Press 2009.

ANDREA PEACOCK is the author of Wasting Libby, which will be published next year by CounterPunch/AK Press. They can be reached at: apeacock@wispwest.net