Are Grizzlies Recovered in the Yellowstone Country?
As grizzlies show up where they haven’t been seen for a century, what would delisting the Yellowstone population mean for elk and elk hunters?
In June 2011, a trail camera snapped a shot of a grizzly nine miles southwest of Lander, Wyoming—farther south than any other confirmed grizzly sighting east of the Wind River Range and barely 100 miles from the Colorado border. Another grizzly was photographed in the area in May of this year. According to the best estimates of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), upwards of 1,700 grizzlies now roam the Lower 48, more than at any time in the past century. They’re turning up in places they haven’t been seen in at least that long.
To the north in Montana, grizzlies are following river bottoms deep onto the plains from the 2-million-acre stronghold of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. Late last summer, a radio-collared sow with cubs showed up southwest of Shelby more than 50 air-miles from the slopes of the Rockies—the first time biologists have documented a female grizzly so far east of the Rocky Mountain Front. Young male bears have ventured even farther.
Since grizzly bears in the Lower 48 crash-landed on the endangered species list in 1975, three of the five distinct grizzly populations have remained small and increasingly isolated. Biologists estimate there are 40-50 grizzlies in the Selkirk Mountains on the northern border of Idaho and Washington; 30-40 in the Cabinet-Yaak region of northwest Montana overlapping into Idaho; and 20-30 in the north Cascades of Washington along the British Columbia border. The population in the northern Rockies of Montana, however, is robust and flourishing at more than 900 bears. And according to Chris Servheen, USFWS grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the past 30 years, the bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are fully recovered.
In 1980, the wildlands around Yellowstone held approximately 225 grizzlies. State and federal biologists say there are now somewhere between 600 and 1,000 bears in this area. Tracking and counting methods are far more sophisticated today, but over the past 32 years, the population has unquestionably doubled and possibly quadrupled. The bears have also greatly expanded their range within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which consists primarily of northwest Wyoming and southwest Montana and encompasses a swath of eastern Idaho. As bear densities increase in the prime habitat of the core grizzly zone, more and more are venturing beyond their typical haunts.
In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem successfully recovered and removed them from threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. By 2009, lawsuits had greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies back on the list. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy cited the decline of whitebark pines as the key component of that reversal. An Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is working now to address the questions and thresholds Judge Molloy raised, a process expected to take two years. In May, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to expedite that inquiry.
”The gravity of this topic cannot be overemphasized,” Mead wrote in a letter to Salazar. “The situation is severe and costly … two years is too long [for the whitebark pine evaluation] and the cost too great.”
Last year two people died following grizzly attacks in Yellowstone National Park, the first grizzly bear-caused fatalities in the park since 1986, and grizzlies killed two other people not far from the park’s borders. This is of vital interest to anyone who spends time in the region—most especially hunters. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, hunters have accounted for 70 percent of Wyoming’s grizzly bear attacks over the past decade. The majority were bowhunters chasing elk.
Mead cited multiple experts who have gone on record stating the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly population is “unquestionably recovered.” Chief among those who believe this population is healthy, stable and should be delisted is the man who’s been in charge of grizzly bear recovery for three decades. Servheen notes that while whitebark pinecones can be an important food source, they are certainly not a requirement.
“Grizzly bears are not dependent on whitebark pine,” he says. “The trees don’t produce cones annually, anyway. In the years the trees don’t produce cones, bears readily switch to other things to eat, and they’re used to doing that.”
He also points to the fact that grizzly populations are doing well in the northern Rockies of Montana, which held approximately 350 grizzlies in 1980.
“Whitebark pine has been extinct there for 30 years, but [today] there are 930 bears in the Bob Marshall, and that number is increasing at 3 percent a year,” Servheen says.
Grizzlies are aggressive scavengers, actively seeking winter-killed elk in the spring and gutpiles in the fall. They readily commandeer elk kills from mountain lions, wolves and people. Eleven months out of the year, though, grizzlies have negligible impact on live elk. They are opportunistic and certainly capable of killing adult elk, but the incidence is rare. Calves are another matter.
“There’s a short window in the spring—from right when the elk calves are born and for about a month—when bears can catch them,” Servheen says. And catch them they do. During that window, grizzly bears can be extremely efficient elk hunters. North of the park, where elk herds are struggling with single-digit calf recruitment, a joint study by the U.S. Geological Service and the National Park Service published in 2008 found grizzlies to be the greatest source of mortality for elk calves.
The kind of limited bear hunting that states might restore following delisting, though, wouldn’t put enough of a dent in the grizzly population to impact calf predation, says Mark Bruscino, large carnivore management section chief with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“Most studies [from Alaska and Canada] show that if you want to reduce predators to benefit ungulate calf recruitment, you need pretty large-scale reduction over a number of years,” Bruscino says. “We still have to meet restoration populations, so we could never do that. While we will be treating bears as a game animal when they come off the endangered species list, it probably won’t be at a level where we’d see any response.”
Bruscino says that while a grizzly hunt would do little to boost elk numbers, it could do a lot for hunter safety by making bears warier of humans. As for struggling elk herds, he says the key to bringing them back is the same as it has been for restoring grizzlies.
“The type of work the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation does is the best way to improve that,” Bruscino says. “It’s all about habitat, habitat, habitat.”
And elk aren’t the only benefactors.
“It certainly benefits bears, too,” Bruscino says. “The same habitat types that are good for elk are good for bears.”
Bruscino is optimistic that the management of grizzly bears will be under state control in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho soon.
“We hope to have grizzly bears as a huntable species in the next several years,” he says. “That would be great, because hunters have paid for a lot of the restoration that’s brought bears back to the levels they’re at now. If we can get to the point where we can hunt bears—and we’re very close—we will have succeeded in recovering the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone population. That will be the ultimate measure of success.”