Cattle Grazing = Death Traps for Yellowstone Grizzly Bears

Scientists estimate 46,500 -72,200 grizzly bears ranged over a million square miles of the West when European settlers showed up more than two centuries ago. Today about 1550 grizzly bears occupy only 3% of their former range in five demographically isolated populations in the Northern Rockies that face threats of inbreeding.

Grizzly bears were listed as “threatened” in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 – nearly a half century ago. The Endangered Species Act exists for one reason: to protect and recover threatened and endangered species until they are no longer vulnerable to current and foreseeable threats.

One of the major hurdles for grizzly bear recovery is to have one connected, genetically sound population – not five isolated inbred populations.  Due to the physical disconnect from other populations, the Yellowstone grizzlies remain vulnerable to inbreeding and continue to require the legal protections of the Endangered Species Act.

As the range of grizzlies expands, the most promising corridor for reconnecting Yellowstone’s bears with other populations is the area including and surrounding the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness Area on Yellowstone National Park’s northern border.

And that’s where the problem comes in – and why the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and seven other conservation groups recently sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the decision to renew and expand the East Paradise cattle grazing allotments.  Simply put, sticking cattle in grizzly habitat has one predictable result – a death sentence for the grizzlies.

The East Paradise decision also moves up the cattle grazing season from July 1 to June 1, virtually ensuring the cows and new calves will run into grizzly bears that are hungry after hibernating all winter.  Traditionally, grizzlies stalk early season elk and deer calves for an easy meal.  But now, thanks to this reckless public lands grazing decision, hungry grizzlies will also find cattle calves as another easy meal.

Calves account for almost all grizzly bear depredation and the younger the calf, the greater the odds of falling victim to these predators—with peak vulnerability up to 5 months old.  Depredation is virtually guaranteed if cattle are left unattended for weeks on end as they are in the East Paradise and many other grazing allotments.

It is not like we have a shortage of threatened or endangered cows!  Montana has an estimated 2.6 million cows – 1,733 cows for every one of the estimated 1500 grizzlies scattered over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the rest of Montana.  As historic foods such as highly nutritious whitebark pine nuts and Yellowstone cutthroat trout decline due to climate change and the planting of non-native fish, grizzly bears are expanding their range and eating more meat – and are now at greater risk of being killed as they conflict with humans and livestock in a desperate search for food.

Although most human-caused grizzly mortalities occur near roads through poaching, mis-identification by black bear hunters, and collisions, when bears hassle cattle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services is called in to kill them. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Fish and Wildlife reports that from 1980 to 2001 of the 191 total grizzly mortalities, 82% or 156 were human caused mortalities.  Of these 156 killed grizzlies, nine bears were killed to protect livestock interests.

From 2002 to 2020, however, the numbers jumped significantly.  Of the 563 grizzlies that died 86% or 483 were killed by humans.  Of these 483 grizzlies killed by people, 122 bears were killed to protect livestock – more than one in four!  In Wyoming’s Upper Green River grazing allotments on the south side of Yellowstone the Fish and Wildlife Services recently authorized killing 72 grizzly bears over 10 years to protect cattle.

We’re giving the Forest Service 60 days to reconsider their grazing decision and do the right thing for America’s grizzly bear recovery efforts.  The agency should simply retire these grazing allotments that are enticing grizzly bears into death traps with an easy meal and restore the native vegetation that’s been battered by livestock to provide healthy, secure habitat so grizzly bears can safely move between Yellowstone and other ecosystems.

But if the Forest Service decides to go ahead with their ill-advised grazing leases, we will take them to federal court. We’d greatly appreciate your help in doing everything possible to attain safe travel corridors and the highest level of security for bears by retiring grazing allotment death traps for grizzly bears.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.