Grizzly Deaths: Time to Admit to Yellowstone’s Killing Crisis

Yellowstone Grizzly. Photo: National Park Service.

Recovery of grizzly bears — and any endangered species — is a lot about minimizing deaths. But, unfortunately, during recent years Yellowstone grizzly bears have been dying at alarming and unsustainable rates. You would never know this, however, from discussions during the April grizzly bear managers’ meeting.

During 2015 through 2018, grizzly bear deaths shattered previous records — in a population that has been flatlined for nearly 20 years. In each of these four years, bear deaths exceeded the government’s thresholds for allowable mortality.

If allowable limits are breached two years in a row, bear managers are supposed to do something. But they have not even admitted to a problem. At last month’s meeting, managers were told that “grizzly mortalities are below threshold” — a clear contravention of the facts.

It is possible that managers’ might be confused by changes in reporting by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team charged with keeping mortality records. Rather suspiciously, the Study Team stopped reporting whether annual limits were violated beginning in 2015 — the first year that limits were, in fact, exceeded. (You can figure out whether these thresholds have been breached by scrutinizing the Study Team’s annual reports).

Minimizing bear deaths matters, given that excessive human-caused deaths helped land grizzly bears on the endangered species list in the first place. And with extremely low reproductive rates, grizzlies are especially vulnerable to high levels of mortality.

Grizzly bear deaths have increased dramatically since 2000, far in excess of anything that can be explained by changes in population size. Bear deaths surged after we lost most of our whitebark pine — a source of seeds that had been (and in some places still is) a staple of Yellowstone bears. Over 70 percent of Greater Yellowstone’s whitebark pine was killed in a brief 10-year period by an unprecedented outbreak of mountain pine beetles unleashed by a warming climate.

Resourceful bears have been compensating for losses of pine seeds by foraging more widely and seeking out other high-calorie foods, largely in the form of meat. Bears are increasingly predating on cows and scavenging elk meat left by hunters. Today, conflicts with hunters and livestock producers have replaced conflicts over garbage as the leading killers of grizzlies.

I have spent years poring over records of grizzly bear deaths — not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Most of the deaths look as if they could have been avoided — a conclusion confirmed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Take-home lessons are pretty basic: Use proven tools and common sense.

Proven techniques on ranchlands include appropriate use of riders, electric fence and livestock guardian dogs. For hunters, carrying bear spray and prompt removal of game carcasses from the field can prevent conflicts. None of this is rocket science.

But in recent years, we have been seeing a disturbing spike in deaths listed as “under investigation” for possible poaching. From 2015 to 2018, 25 grizzlies were listed as “under investigation” — far higher than any time since 1975 when the grizzly was listed under the Endangered Species Act. This begs the question, why? Are some people with a personal vendetta against bears taking the law in their own hands?

As bear deaths mount, the population is at a tipping point. Continued climate warming will produce additional unwelcomed changes, including loss of army cutworm moths, another staple of Yellowstone grizzlies that has, for now, picked up some of the slack left by dead whitebark pine. Moths rely on alpine flower nectar, but as tundra migrates off the top of the mountains during the next century, moth habitat will disappear.

It is time to admit to that we have a crisis and for managers to take actions that comport with existing plans. We know what is needed: better law enforcement, better coexistence practices and more prudent human behaviors. Ample details can be found in numerous reports prepared by agency officials during the last 35 plus years. But few of the many recommendations in these reports have been comprehensively implemented, largely because of insufficient funding, courage, and political support.

We can look to the National Park Service as a role model for what can be done. Visitors cannot enter Grand Teton or Yellowstone parks without being reminded that they need to keep a safe distance from bears, keep a clean camp and carry bear pepper spray. Anyone leaving coolers out at night will be cited and fined. On top of this, bear rangers and volunteers help manage interactions between bears and people along roadsides.

Before these practices were in place, conflicts with bears were commonplace, and people were frequently injured. Indeed, up until the 1980s Yellowstone National Park was the epicenter of grizzly bear deaths. Today, very few grizzlies die in the park.

During the last 20 years, more grizzlies have been seen in Grand Teton National Park — none more famous than the grizzly bear matriarch 399, who recently emerged with quadruplets. But despite her resilience and competence as a mother, 399 has so far replaced herself just once with a female who has also had cubs. Many of her offspring have been killed outside park borders, where law enforcement is lax and garbage often freely available. They have been killed by poachers and as a result of conflicts over livestock and unsecured human foods.

More needs to be done by state and federal agencies outside national park boundaries to ensure that grizzlies and people can peacefully coexist in a rapidly changing world. Admitting that too many bears are dying from human causes is the first step.

Grizzlies in and around our nation’s oldest park belong to all of us. We need the agencies charged with protecting Yellowstone’s iconic grizzlies to do more to keep our grizzlies alive.

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