Grizzlies Losing Ground Around Yellowstone

Times Staff Writer

On April 12 of last year, state Game and Fish officers shot dead a dangerous nuisance known as Bear #G92, after the grizzly repeatedly broke into buildings searching for food on a ranch near here.

The 5-year-old male was the first of 19 grizzly bears to die in the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park and one of 50 killed in the lower 48 states, making 2004 the worst year for grizzly mortality since the animal was added to the endangered species list in 1975.

The death rate in Yellowstone, where the grizzly population is estimated at 600, was 2 1/2 times higher than the 15-year average.


Most worrying to wildlife biologists was the fact that females made up 60% of the dead.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to remove Yellowstone’s grizzly bears from the endangered species list this year. Moreover, new management plans may allow hunting of the bears outside the park.

The Yellowstone contingent is the largest of a handful of grizzly populations in the contiguous states and the only one facing imminent removal from the endangered species list. Their range encompasses Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park and nearby lands in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The law protects the bears in Yellowstone, part of Grand Teton and in a circle of land outside known as the “primary recovery area.”

A formidable symbol of the American wilderness, and a hugely popular public attraction in Yellowstone, the grizzly bear would be the biggest animal to come off the endangered species list since the California gray whale was delisted in 1994.

Despite the record number of dead bears last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service contends the grizzlies, whose population has more than doubled in the three decades it has been on the list, no longer need the special protection afforded by the law.

“We’re victims of our own success,” said Chris Servheen, Fish and Wildlife’s grizzly bear coordinator.

“The bears are expanding their numbers and their range. They are now in places they haven’t been in 80 or 100 years. These mortality rates are to be expected when bears punch out into areas where there are more people.”


But Servheen emphasizes that the bears will be closely monitored after they are delisted. If their numbers drop below 500, a management review will be triggered. An overall decline of more than 4% or a 1.2% annual drop in the female population would also trigger a review, Servheen said, and that could lead to an emergency relisting.

Bear experts believe that an isolated population of fewer than 500 could lose its genetic diversity and become vulnerable to disease and birth defects.

Some biologists, notably Dave Mattson, a specialist on population assessment who has been studying the Yellowstone grizzlies since 1979, are wary of managing by numbers. “We really don’t have any precise ways to count bears or track their growth and decline,” Mattson said. “Even if you start with 500 bears, an annual decline of 2% to 5% over 15 to 30 years could take them down to 200.”

According to estimates at the time, there were between 150 and 220 Yellowstone grizzlies when they were placed on the endangered species list.

Mattson, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, said he had not taken a position on delisting, but he worried that not enough was known about comparatively new threats such as climate change and the proliferation of nonnative species that could deplete some of the bears’ food sources by 90%.

Some opponents of delisting contend that last year’s mortality rate underscores the bears’ vulnerability to encroaching development. They argue that once exempt from the highest level of federal protection, the bears will be safe only inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, areas too small to sustain a viable population of grizzlies.

In 2001, the Bush administration shelved a plan to reintroduce grizzlies in a wilderness area along the Idaho-Montana border, despite strong public sentiment in favor of the move. Many experts believed it would have been a major step in assuring the long-term survival of grizzlies because the isolated Yellowstone bears would have been able to intermingle with the introduced population.

How the Yellowstone bears fare could well be the most conspicuous test case of the Bush administration’s policy on endangered species.

The administration wants to modify the Endangered Species Act to make it harder to add to the list and easier to remove species from it. It also wants to make it harder to set aside “critical habitat” -- wildlife sanctuaries covering millions of acres where commercial and industrial development is restricted.

Even if the Yellowstone grizzlies are delisted, federal and state officials point out that protections will remain in place on more than 9,200 square miles of the grizzlies’ core habitat in the parks and adjacent federal lands. But about 2 million acres of federal and private land where about one-third of the bears are believed to live will be more open to logging, recreation and development.

That concerns Louisa Willcox, who heads the Montana-based Wild Bear Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The new plans don’t allow for a fallback when food sources in bear habitat diminish or change, said Wilcox, who has worked for conservation causes in Wyoming and Montana for more than 20 years.

“Bears have to have some options,” Wilcox said. “One of the problems with the delisting scenario is there is no system to respond to these changes.”

In the 19th century, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed across one-third of the continental United States. Now, an estimated 1,200 bears occupy 2% of their original land base.

Wandering grizzlies can still terrorize rural neighborhoods, chew up calves and occasionally maul people. In Yellowstone Park, about 30 people have been injured and two killed in bear attacks since 1975.

Much has changed in the mountains and forested valleys of the Yellowstone region since the bears were designated as endangered species. Some counties bordering the park have grown by nearly 30%.

Traditional conflicts between bears and livestock are compounded by exurban sprawl creeping up valleys across the intermountain West. Today, when a grizzly fords a stream to forage, it can find itself confronted with swing sets and patio furniture.

The burgeoning ranchettes near Cody along the North Fork and South Fork of the Shoshone River are in prime bear habitat. One, a 150-plus-home high-end development, will be the county’s first gated community.

Charles Preston, the curator of Cody’s Buffalo Bill Historic Center, is developing educational programs that teach about bear-human conflicts. Preston, an ornithologist, says folks here are not quite at the “torch and pitchfork stage” in response to the grizzly, but there is concern.

“We happen to live in the last great place. It’s a cliche, but it’s true,” he said. “The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the last intact predator ecosystem in the world, with the full complement of wildlife that existed at the time of Christopher Columbus. It’s a vignette of pristine America.”

Preston envisions a program that helps residents to embrace the region and all of its wildlife, enough to be moved to protect it.

It will be a tough sell in some places, especially in counties where the bears have been scarce until recent years.

Last month, commissioners in Fremont County, southeast of Yellowstone, declared the bears “socially unacceptable.” In all, four Wyoming county commissions have passed anti-grizzly resolutions.

Servheen, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who is a strong advocate of delisting the Yellowstone grizzlies, dismissed the resolutions as “colorful but meaningless,” saying that “a majority of people want bears around.”

But Wilcox pointed out that in Wyoming, county resolutions have the force of law and could trigger a rash of grizzly killings once the federal government had ceded authority over the animals to the states.

Before delisting can occur, state and federal agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho must establish bear management plans. While the plans are in various stages of development, the states are expected to authorize grizzly hunting for the first time in decades, though it would not be allowed in the national parks.

Even with the strict protections now afforded by the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies can be destroyed if they kill livestock or make a nuisance of themselves in areas where people live. Bears have been shot to death by hunters who claimed self-defense or said they mistook a grizzly for a black bear.

Some experts make the case that legal hunting will bolster support for the grizzlies’ survival.

“In some ways I see hunting of grizzly bears in the future as a positive tool,” said Kim Barber, the U.S. Forest Service’s grizzly bear and wolf coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region.

“The only way the bear is going to survive in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is to have public support for it. Hunting will help.”

But Chuck Neal, an ecologist and bear expert retired from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, said an anti-bear hysteria drives the hunting discussion. He’s particularly concerned that state and local officials -- susceptible to citizen pressure -- will establish bear management plans that permit bear killing in an array of circumstances.

“They are the kind of people whose idea of wildlife management is to kill anything that looks at them crossways. It’s a 19th century approach,” Neal said. “I don’t support state control of the [grizzly]. I fear bears are headed into a wall of lead.”