Tracking the Grizzly’s Number One Killer

Mike Kosmrl of the Jackson Hole News and Guide deserves kudos for the detailed article on hunter-caused grizzly bear deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – now the leading cause of bear mortality (see original article). Despite a precipitous drop in the number of hunters in recent decades, there has been a three-fold increase in bear deaths resulting from conflicts with hunters in the last 11 years. What is going on and what can be done about it?

Dan Thompson of Wyoming Game and Fish Department stated that this increase in conflicts is the result of increasing bear numbers and densities. These claims are not supported by the facts. According to research by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), the Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population has not grown since 2002, and may even be declining. This coincides with the collapse of whitebark pine during this period due to a climate-driven outbreak of highly lethal mountain pine beetles.

Because whitebark pine lives in remote high-elevation forests, bears foraging on seeds of these trees are far less likely to run into people and die at human hands. Without abundant whitebark pine seeds, grizzly bears are seeking more meat in the fall to compensate for the loss of this rich late season food. Not surprisingly, conflicts are escalating over livestock and big game.

Moreover, IGBST data show that densities of grizzly bears are not increasing in the GYE. While the distribution of bears has been increasing substantially since the whitebark pine die off, the population has not – so axiomatically, the density of bears has decreased population-wide.

So the increase in hunter conflicts is not explained by more bears in more places – a narrative that Wyoming is pushing to support its agenda to delist, or remove federal protections for grizzly bears. All of the available evidence suggests that, with the ecosystem unraveling, grizzly bears are being forced to spread out in search for alternative foods, especially meat.

Given these negative trends, there is much more that can and must be done to reduce conflicts in the interest of human and bear safety. The 2009 interagency mortality report (see original report), discussed in the article, provides a good roadmap to next steps, including:

1 Increase law enforcement. Funds for law enforcement have dropped precipitously over the years, and today there are far too few personnel to ensure that backcountry users are keeping clean camps, not shooting game near trails, hanging game away from camp, etc. This was a top priority recommendation from the agency conflict specialists. Education efforts, while laudable, are not enough. Yellowstone Park would not have succeeded in reducing its enormous problems with garbage and food storage if its programs had all been voluntary.

2 Require outfitters and guides to carry bear spray, know how to use it and have it ready. This makes sense since nearly half of the incidents reviewed involved outfitted hunting parties. There is precedence for such a requirement: Grand Teton Park and Montana’s Dillon BLM District require outfitters to carry bear spray.

3 Do not leave an undressed game animal overnight. A dead animal is a major bear attractant, especially if left overnight. Alaska Game and Fish asks hunters on Kodiak Island to shoot game early in the day to allow hunters to dress and secure it from the bear’s reach. Game removal should be expedited to avoid attracting bears.

4 Keep data on the details of hunter-related incidents in order to improve management. Unfortunately, this is not being done. Over the years, I have attempted to secure information on incidents that would help improve the practice of co-existence with grizzly bears, and have been flatly denied. Even the Jackson News and Guide only got a fraction of the data it asked for.  The public has paid for the collection of this data and should be able to review the information it owns.

The 2009 mortality report was the result of a brainstorm process years ago (before the hunter conflicts problem got as bad as it is today) and nothing has been done with it. Other processes were conducted in 2000 and before with similar results: nada. Why not? Are agencies just too busy pushing their delisting agenda to improve their management practice for the public benefit?

Further, the article mentions the failure of courts to punish those who violate laws protecting grizzly bears. Letting offenders off the hook condones careless and even malicious behavior. Aggressive prosecution is needed to protect the public trust and our system of democracy from the abuse of a few who take the law into their own hands. The problem of legal enforcement will only get worse after federal laws prohibiting killing of grizzly bears are removed, and enforcment is left up to anti-carnivore states like Wyoming.

Unfortunately, the government now is unmotivated to protect grizzly bears and, along with them, the public interest. A big reason is the unsubstantiated narrative that we have bears coming out our ears and that more need to be killed.

Despite platitudes to the contrary, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are gearing up to deal with grizzly bear conflicts by killing as many bears as possible if they succeed in wresting primary management authority from the federal government. If this happens, Yellowstone’s iconic grizzly bear will likely wind up back on the doorstep of extinction.

We can do better to make the world a safer place for bears and hunters, but the public must demand that the government act, not make excuses.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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