The Tragedy of Grizzly Bear Management

Photo Source USFWS Mountain-Prairie | CC BY 2.0

A tragic fourth straight year of record-breaking grizzly bear mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) has been compounded by the concurrent tragedy of increasingly frequent human maulings and deaths.

Most of these injuries, fatal or otherwise, have involved big game hunters and outfitters involved in close encounters with bears. The rash of resulting media coverage has duly given ample space for quotes from wildlife managers.

According to their narrative, human deaths and injuries during recent years are directly attributable to a burgeoning population of fearless aggressive grizzlies that have expanded into “unsuitable” habitat.

The only remedy is to kill more bears, including essentially all that currently occupy the ecosystem periphery, preferably through a trophy hunt. End of story.

Except it isn’t the end of the story. Nor is it even particularly accurate. Most importantly, this official rendering assiduously ignores emerging dynamics that are more likely to be the true cause of escalating bear deaths and human injuries.

As a result, managers have deprived themselves of important insights potentially yielding solutions that both sustain the GYE grizzly bear population and increase human safety.

Worse yet, a fixation on politically and ideologically expedient messaging by government officials deceives the public and polarizes the debate.

So what are the facts? Certainly, many more grizzlies are dying and significantly more people are being injured. The distribution of the GYE bear population has also increased substantially during the last decade plus.

But we have few if any more bears now than we had 15 years ago. With roughly the same number of bears spread over a larger area, average densities of grizzlies are axiomatically lower than in the past, although obviously higher in certain places.

Most important for understanding the mounting conflicts between bears and especially hunters and livestock producers, grizzly bears in the GYE are eating more meat from elk, bison, and cattle than they did 15 years ago — in fact, orders of magnitude more meat from cows and substantially more meat from gut piles and other remains left by hunters.

They are also eating a lot less whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, which were both staple foods not that long ago; both eliminated in a mere few years largely by predators and pathogens unleashed directly or indirectly by humans.

There can be little doubt that Yellowstone’s grizzly bears are eating more human-associated meat in compensation for catastrophic human-caused losses of key native foods.

For good or bad, we’re also providing dietary alternatives, often in the form of foods that we prize or claim as our own. Even corn occasionally fills the bill, exemplified by the recent decent of bears on a corn maze near Clark, Wyoming.

Putting this all together, we likely have more grizzlies on the periphery of the Yellowstone ecosystem, especially on the east side in Wyoming where losses of whitebark pine were earliest and most severe.

But we don’t have more grizzlies overall. We also very likely have bears more assiduously seeking out grazing allotments and the environs frequented by big game hunters on a quest for much-need high-quality food in the form of livestock and gut piles.

Predictably, all of this more frequently brings grizzlies into conflict with people and, catastrophically for the bears, more frequently in contact with people who are well-armed and/or intolerant and/or well-connected to regional politicians.

Catastrophically for the people, especially hunters, more of them encounter grizzlies under circumstances that lead to attacks, either by bears defending themselves or bears laying claim to meat they logically think of as their own.

But slaughtering bears will not resolve this problem nor, more certainly, foster the long-term survival of Yellowstone’s population of grizzly bears.

These bears are already imperiled by isolation, genetic impoverishment, exploding human populations, and the unfolding holocaust being unleashed by climate warming.

A trophy hunt and increasingly lethal management of conflicts will only add to this intolerable burden. Yet, human safety is a paramount consideration.

There is a way out of this conundrum. First, state wildlife managers need to take their heads out of the sand and acknowledge what’s happening.

Second, they need to abandon the politically partisan, if not cynical, narrative seemingly designed for little else than justifying trophy hunting opportunities for a very small minority.

Third, government managers need to mandate implementation of well-proven coexistence techniques on federal jurisdictions while more actively encouraging adoption of these same tools on private lands.

None of this is rocket science. But it does require honesty, integrity, augmented investment of resources, and service of the broader public interest rather than the interests of a privileged few.

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