Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Analyzing the Whitebark Pine Crisis

A recent article from ( addresses the inevitable increase of bear attacks in Yellowstone National Park. They report that two hikers were killed in two separate maulings and that a total of ten people were attacked across the West this year. A number of scientists seem to be baffled and apparently still have not made the connection between the conflict increases and the decline of the whitebark pines and the nutrient-rich cones that they produce, a favorite late-season meal for the bears. With very little info coming out about the whitebark situation (yet with plenty of articles reporting on the "baffling" nature of this heightened aggression in the bears), I decided to do a little digging. On the website for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, I found some interesting numbers and the numbers pretty much tell the story.

On their site, the IGBST maintains a list of bear mortality records in Yellowstone and whitebark pine health data from 2009 through 2011 and the correlation between the two is undeniable. 2009 shows one of the strongest whitebark pine production years on record and the bear mortality reflects that. In going through the records, I tried to eliminate attacks that could have been in defense of cubs or carcasses and focus only on those that were abnormal or in which bears raided campsites and residential areas in search of food. In all, 9 of these incidents were recorded, with one labeled as "cause unknown" and "under investigation". That's actually not as high of a number as it sounds and is probably fairly average, maybe just slightly above.

The change recorded in 2010 is very dramatic. Whitebark pine production is shown to be alarmingly low - not the lowest on record, but a sharp turn nonetheless - with mortalities heavily increasing. Remember this is the year of the Soda Butte incident, which caused quite a stir in the bear communities. A grand total of 28 incidents occurred that summer, making the 9 of the previous year look infinitesimal by comparison and most were very abnormal. Five of these are classified as "cause unknown, under investigation" while some others are incredibly disturbing. On October 19, a bear stalked a hunter from the elk he had just killed (apparently ignoring the carcass) and twice approached to a very close range, leaving the hunter no choice but to shoot it after the second pass. On October 23, a man was threatened by a bear. After attempting to drive it away with warning shots, he blasted it with pepper spray. The bear refused to be deterred and was killed when it went after the man a second time. On October 24, a similar scenario played out. A man tried to deter an approaching bear with gunshots and ultimately bear spray but both proved ineffective and he had to shoot it at close range. It's very telling that these three incidents occurred in October when the bears were attempting to fatten up for hibernation. The cones of the whitebark pine are their primary source of fat and very few were available to them. The loss of winter-kill carcasses thanks to the wolf reintroduction program no doubt plays a heavy part in their food shortage crisis as well.

2011 shows some improvement in the health and production of the whitebark pines but still not quite where the numbers need to be and a large number of abnormal bear incidents were still reported, totaling 27, with ten of those being "unknown, under investigation". In one case, a bear who killed a hiker presumably in a surprise encounter in July was later found present at the site of another death in August.

This data presents a very clear picture, yet so many scientists are still studying the whitebark pine situation - or just pretending to - and wildly speculating on the cause of the increased conflicts, while many bear advocates and enthusiasts have been left feeling as if they're standing on very shaky ground by these attacks. No doubt the rising bear population in Yellowstone is playing a big part, as there aren't enough food resources to go around. If this trend continues, the bears will spread outside of the park boundaries, if they haven't already, and the intolerance they're going to run into, and are already being met with, will not be pretty.

For more info and a look at the data gathered by the IGBST, go here:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Data vs. Dogma

In all the controversy surrounding bears, nothing gets people more riled up than the issue of feeding them. It's long been the idea that feeding bears will ultimately make them dangerous to people but, as with all things bear, a closer look should be taken and more consideration should be given to the complexities and varied personalities of the animals before one simple vague answer is provided. This line of thinking came about as a result of the infamous "night of the grizzlies", though strong evidence suggests that the bear responsible for Julie Helgeson's death was not a garbage feeder. The park service wanted the matter closed, though, and did not put much stock in said evidence. Thus was born the idea that bears exposed to human food would inexplicably become man-eaters. Yet Charlie Russell fed his bears without them becoming a threat to him or losing the ability to function as wild animals, as did Charlie Vandergaw, Benjamin Kilham, Lynn Rogers, Jack and Patti Becklund, etc., etc. So what's going on here? Why have these people not fallen prey to a vicious bloodbath or created a situation where someone else would?

Allen Piche has been feeding black bears in British Columbia for 25 years with no problems either. A total of 24 bears would often frequent his home for companionship and dog food, only 2 miles from Christina Lake, an urban populated area. During that time, no bears caused problems at the lake, but Allen was arrested and tried because of the possibility that something could happen. Shortly thereafter, a rash of bear problems broke out at the lake and 18 persistent black bears were shot and killed, in an area that usually only receives half a dozen bear visits per summer season. The obvious conclusion put forth by the Ministry of Environment is that Allen's bears had become so dependent on human food that they had essentially forgotten how to be wild and went to the nearest human community in search of hand-outs. A scarcity of natural foods that year just made the situation even more volatile. Remarkably, when Allen was allowed to return home, 20 of his 24 bears returned to greet him, alive and well. None of them had been responsible for the issues at Christina Lake! The missing four had departed earlier in the summer and had not returned. Speaking with his immediate neighbors, Allen was delighted to find that none of them had had any problems with bears and did not have any hanging around.

Allen continued to provide some food for the bears - though much less this time - and noted that they began to spend more and more time foraging in the nearby woods. Undercover officers posing as curious photographers caught Allen in the act and he was re-arrested.

Allen has been a friend of mine through Facebook for some time now, ever since his discovery of my blog. We spoke several times about diversionary feeding, as he was making a case to present to the Ministry, showing how that could be used to get the bears back into the wild, and he read my post Of Bears and Bureaucrats (February 2, 2011), which relates how John and Frank Craighead studied garbage bears in Yellowstone and found that not only did they not pose a greater threat to people, they were still fully functional as wild bears. When the Craigheads presented evidence that the dumps should be closed slowly so that the bears could be properly weaned off the garbage rather then be left hanging, park managers disregarded the data and created a near-catastrophe. Allen was inspired by what the Craigheads had discovered and intended to use it in his defense, in hopes of persuading the Ministry to think before they act.

Diversionary feeding is a very new idea, so new that many researchers balk at it because it involves humans feeding bears. When problem bears surface, feeding stations are placed deep in the woods as a means of drawing them back into the wild, and these stations are moved further and further each day until the bears have been removed to a comfortable distance. The few states that have put diversionary feeding plans into effect as a more peaceful solution than bullets have reported an almost 100% success rate at solving problem bear issues. When Allen presented this idea to the Ministry, they were livid at the thought of providing bears with food because of the chaos they were sure would occur, despite the fact that all of the data Allen had gathered supported his side of the argument and the Ministry had nothing but old ideologies to support theirs. Still, Allen is not a wildlife biologist and 25 years of hands-on, practical experience is apparently invalidated by that little detail, whereas the Ministry officers hold the degrees and the official titles and all the lack of facts and experience that go with that, so of course they won. Now Allen awaits sentencing for the feeding, while the Ministry concentrates its attention on shooting more bears at Christina Lake, convinced that Allen's bears are causing all the problems. What's ironic is that, considering the lack of natural foods at the time, Allen's feeding of the bears acted as a sort of diversionary feeding program in itself, keeping these specific bears OUT of trouble, stopping them from going down in search of scraps at Christina Lake, where they still have not set one foot! They did not grow to depend solely on human food, they merely used it as a necessary supplement whenever natural foods were unavailable. Unlikely that the Ministry will ever be willing to see this, though.

On the Lily the Black Bear Facebook page, Lynn Rogers posted his thoughts on this issue and summed it up brilliantly: "Education about the true nature of black bears and about what creates bear-human conflict and what can prevent it can save so many bears. The same principles undoubtedly apply to bears around the world. It is hard to get past the untested assumptions that have been the basis for professional bear management for so long. It is hard to get past the exaggerated fear that drives liability concerns and leads to so many bears being killed unnecessarily. It is hard for most people to see black bears for what they are - basically shy animals trying to make a living while staying out of trouble. Not demons. Not the angry beasts of magazine covers and TV programs. Just the bears that we have come to know and understand in our 45 years of research. If bears behaved the way many experts and the media say they do, we could not have done what we have done with them these several decades."

On the issue of the continual head-butting between new facts and old ideas, Rogers provided a link to this blog post that sums it all up extraordinarily well:

For more info, you can check out Allen's website at:
His "Observations" page is of special note, a presentation of facts attained through real, practical research: