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Let Them Eat Grizzly Cake

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According to popular history, Marie Antoinette, Queen of pre-Revolution France, quipped “Let them eat cake” when told that her subjects were starving. The peasants shortly thereafter rendered their verdict on her purported behavior by applying a very sharp blade to the back of her neck.

Fast forward to the present, and we have managers of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population offering us their version of “Let them eat cake.” This in response to the recent collapse of some critical bear foods, served up as propaganda, and without any prospect of pitchfork-waving crowds demanding some form of accountability.

A Little Background

By way of background, between the 1970s and early 2000s Yellowstone’s grizzlies got the vast majority of their calories and nutrients from just four foods: seeds of whitebark pine excavated from squirrel middens in high-elevation forests, meat from elk and bison, cutthroat trout spawning in streams tributary to Yellowstone Lake, and army cutworm moths in concentrations among alpine rocks.

And then a series of catastrophes. Most seed-producing whitebark pine was killed by an outbreak of bark beetles unleashed by a warming climate (roughly 2003 to the present). Virtually all of the cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake were killed off by the one-two punch of predation by lake trout, a non-native, and deteriorating conditions of spawning streams (the mid-1990s to the present). On top of this, all of Yellowstone’s elk herds but one suffered serious declines, as has one of Yellowstone’s two bison herds (starting, as with cutthroat trout, in the mid-1990s). The only bright spot for the nonce is cutworm moths, but with the near-certain prospect of losing this food source to attrition of alpine environments as our climate continues to warm.

Houston, We Have No Problem

And what about the response of those whom we have entrusted with the welfare of Yellowstone’s grizzlies? Well…indifference, denial, propaganda, spin, even glee. And, even more alarming, backed by the systematic promulgation of partisan science by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) backed, in turn, by a monopolistic death-grip on all of the relevant data (for more, follow this link). This monopoly alone calls into question the government’s science, on top of the obvious bias evident in which questions the IGBST asks, how they frame these questions, how they deal with uncertainty, and the extent, overall, to which scientific results are selectively represented (or even misrepresented) by government spokespeople (for a sampler, follow this link and this link).

Perhaps to the credit of the government’s scientists, they fervently protest that they are objective and unbiased. And, by all indications, they truly believe so. But protestations of this sort rarely if ever guarantee objectivity. In fact, I would argue that such professions are more a sign that those making them have little capacity for self-reflection than they are an indication of reality. We are all biased and captive to our subjectivity. I suspect that the only path to something that even approximates objectivity is through acute awareness of this basic fact.

But enough of that. My main focus here is on the claims being made by agency spokespeople as part of a rhetoric of denial.

And what are they saying? A number of things.

A Salad Equals a Steak

First, they claim that loss of foods doesn’t matter because grizzly bears are omnivores. Which is to say, if the bears lose one food source they can simply substitute another. Or, put another way, omnivory somehow equals indifference to food quality and quantity. This rather interesting claim has been made by government scientists and managers alike, including Frank van Manen and Chuck Schwartz before him of the US Geological Survey, but more notably by Chris Servheen, the long-time US Fish & Wildlife Service Recovery Coordinator—charged with insuring recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.

Well…I hardly know where to begin. Up front, I probably need to confess my amazement given that these college-educated people are implicitly or even explicitly claiming that being an omnivore (as grizzly bears are) somehow inures you to your food. But clearly that isn’t so. As fellow omnivores, we know that a salad does not equal a steak and that, at some point, a person could starve no matter what volume of leafy greens they eat. As is the well-proven case for bears, thanks to a wealth of research by Dr. Charles Robbins of Washington State University (for more on his work follow this link).

In fact, the nutritional value of bear foods varies by orders of magnitude, driven by differences in protein, fat, sugar, starch, and fiber content and, with that, differences in concentrations of digestible energy and nutrients. Foliage from things such as dandelions and grass offers bears the least, starchy roots and carbohydrate-rich mushrooms somewhat more, sugary berries and fatty seeds somewhat more yet, and proteinaceous and fat-rich animal foods the most of all. The landscape-level abundance of a given food also matters, but, as I pointed out above, bears could starve even with access to a super-abundance of dandelions or grass and, by contrast, do quite well with only episodic access to something like a bison carcass (for more see this page on Digestion).

And do we have direct evidence that the quality and quantity of food matters to bears and bear populations? Absolutely. Bears that eat lots of meat grow larger. Females that eat energy-rich diets get fatter and have more cubs. And populations with access to abundant high-quality foods can be packed into a landscape at densities 5, 10, even 50 times greater than populations trying to eke out an existence in barrenlands of the arctic (for more, see this link).

Grizzly Bears are Latin Taxonomists

Second, government apologists claim that grizzlies in Yellowstone are somehow further inured to losses of key foods because these bears are known to eat “≥266 species within 200 genera from 4 kingdoms, including 175 plant, 37 invertebrate, 34 mammal, 7 fungi, 7 bird, 4 fish, 1 amphibian, and 1 algae species as well as 1 soil type.” Whew. As if this kind of recitation means anything at all, or as if one food on such a list is freely substitutable for another. But, then, the scientists who wrote the paper reporting this result and the agency spokespeople who widely flogged it were clearly trying to convince their audience that such an enumeration somehow, again, translated into indifference on the part of grizzlies to the exact composition of foods in their environment as well as a non-effect of food on individuals or populations.

Again I confess to being amazed. This litany does not translate into any kind of equivalence of energy, nutrients, or landscape-level abundance among these “foods.” And all of these things matter to grizzlies. Moreover, such a list is constructed based on taxonomic distinctions made by humans, not bears. And the finer-grained the taxonomic distinctions, the more you can inflate such a litany—as the authors of this paper did. Or, to put it another way, bears orient to foods, not on the basis of some Latin nomenclature developed and sustained by a bunch of academic taxonomists, but rather on the basis of functional traits such as nutrient composition, digestibility, architecture, characteristic density, ease of capture, and so on. Bears are not wandering around with a Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest under their arms, keying out the particular bluegrass they are about to eat, proclaiming “It’s Poa pratensis!” prior to nipping off a leaf or two.

It’s Meat, No It’s Mushrooms, No, It’s Dandelions!  

Third, there is the phenomenon of government scientists trotting out the latest “food fad.” You see evidence of this especially during the last 5 or so years as debate over the implications of losing whitebark pine has heated up. Which is to say that agency spokespeople have been scrambling to come up with content for the public relations campaign they are promulgating to dismiss our unfolding food crisis.

More specifically, two years ago Kerry Gunther of Yellowstone Park was quoted as claiming that grizzlies were doing fine because they were filling themselves up on dandelions. The year before that IGBST scientists were proclaiming that grizzlies were compensating for food losses in the core of the ecosystem by eating quantities of false truffles. And the years before that, Chuck Schwartz, then of the IGBST, was asserting that all was fine because Yellowstone’s grizzlies were eating more meat. And, of course, Chris Servheen of the USFWS echoed all of these claims as they came and went.

Never mind that dandelions are, at best, a starvation food (see my comment above). Or that, as my friend Doug Peacock observed, you could also quite handily starve trying to subsist exclusively on false truffles, or any other mushroom for that matter. Or that government spokespeople were conveniently skipping over the fact that elk and bison populations had declined in the Yellowstone ecosystem and that, even if not, consumption of meat is an incredibly hazardous undertaking for any grizzly that embarks on that course (More on that later). So…whatever served the immediate political purpose—invoking sparse and often transient evidence, and with utter disregard for nutritional basics.

Hmm…

Meat? No Problem

Finally, you have the IGBST rushing to produce a 2013 white paper in which the government’s appointed scientists provided an advance summary of a large smoosh of data analysis presumably showing that loss of whitebark pine seeds didn’t matter to Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Never mind that little of what they reported had not yet been published in scientific journals. Never mind that the methods, assumptions, data, and results were only cursorily described. Never mind that there was a large body of scientific evidence published prior to this white paper showing, in fact, that whitebark pine did matter…did affect the birth and death rates of Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Never mind that whitebark pine had been shown to be a particularly important food of Yellowstone’s female grizzly bears, the reproductive engine of the population.

Never mind that publication of this white paper was perfectly timed to serve the political agenda of rushing to remove Endangered Species Act protections from Yellowstone’s grizzly bears (i.e., delisting). Never mind that immediately following release of this white paper, the cabal of government employees managing Yellowstone’s grizzly bears voted to support delisting. A political ploy on the part of purportedly neutral government scientists? Naah..really?

But, then, what about the substantive merits of this science, aside from the obviously political circumstance and imperative that flies in the face of any claims to objectivity? A full critique is beyond what I can present here. And there is much that could be said. Which is to say: I will limit myself to just one point related to compensatory increases in consumption of meat by Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

There are several compelling lines of evidence supporting the idea that grizzlies in this ecosystem are eating proportionately more meat from large herbivores—elk, bison, and livestock. I have little doubt that this turn to meat has, indeed, happened. And, as I pointed out above, meat—comprised primarily of highly digestible protein and fat—is a nutritionally fine food. Such, for a while, were the points being made by Yellowstone’s grizzly bear managers and scientists.

But…there’s more to the story. As it turns out, eating meat comes at a price. For young bears—cubs and yearlings—it means running into more wolves and unrelated adult grizzlies, which has translated into a lot more of these young bears dying from predation. For all bears, young and old, it means running into a lot more people and, as a result, dying at a much higher rate from lead poisoning.

Why? If you are a bear eating meat you will end up following elk hunters around and, as a consequence, either accidentally running into them at close quarters or contesting the carcass of an elk they may have killed and carelessly left out overnight. Either way, you typically end up dead. Or, increasingly, given the decline in elk and bison populations, you will end up on the periphery of the ecosystem in the midst of cows and sheep. To a bear, these livestock are not any different from any other large herbivore, except that they are ill-equipped to defend themselves as a consequence of our breeding for docility. So you end up killing calves or sheep and shortly thereafter, dead, usually because you are killed by a wildlife manager or a hired gun from Wildlife Services.

In fact, the numbers of grizzlies dying as a result of run-ins with hunters or conflicts over livestock have sky-rocketed since the mid- to late-2000s, hard on the heels of losing cutthroat trout and whitebark pine and coincident with declines in elk populations (see the graphs here).

And, of course, our wildlife managers never feature this highly problematic aspect of grizzlies eating more human-related meat as compensation for losing natural foods. If conflicts with ranchers or hunters are mentioned by state managers such as Wyoming’s Dan Thompson, it is only to be blamed on presumed increases in the grizzly bear population—an oft repeated myth in its own right (for more, follow this link). There is never any connection made with the progressive unraveling and impoverishment of the ecosystem.

Let Them Eat Cake…On Somebody Else’s Dime?

I end by pointing out what may be painfully obvious. I am upset and distressed by what I see as a profound betrayal of the public trust by those who are the supposed trustees—those public employees, paid very generous salaries (for example, the GS-14 pay rate), who should be speaking truth as part of an assiduously neutral and non-partisan implementation of public policy. Rather than this, what we get is an endless parade of propaganda that serves both a partisan political agenda (premature delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population) and, not coincidently, the career prospects of those who serve it up.

But, more than this, I am profoundly distressed by what I see as a betrayal of the potentially important service that science might otherwise provide to society. And this on the part (again) of well-paid government scientists who hold a monopoly on all of the relevant data. A situation that precludes independent inquiry that might otherwise be a corrective for often unconscious bias, or just simple error. A situation that the involved scientists assiduously perpetuate as part of a self-stated interest in advancing their careers (follow this link). Moreover, a situation that is supported by the full resources of the US Geological Survey and US Fish & Wildlife Service. Not to mention the involved state wildlife management agencies.

The solution? Perhaps as a start, we could create a more open scientific arena. Concurrently, we could put the brakes on the rush to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population until we have a more reliable picture of what’s going on, produced by a more reliable and independent process of inquiry. Then we could educate our public employees about the role they ideally play in a democratic society. And, perhaps, in addition, we could encourage the retirement of those of our presumed public servants who have contributed in such a major way to corrupting the arena of grizzly bear conservation and management.

More articles by:

David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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