It's been brought to my attention that my article about the delisting of Yellowstone grizzly bears - published online by the Earth Times in November 2013 - has disappeared along with the entire Earth Times website, so here it is in it's complete, unedited form. Please note the links to the IGBST website at the end no longer show the data indicated in the article due to political forces removing it to support the delisting agenda
THE FALL OF THE WILD: Are We Losing Our Grizzly Bears?
The grizzly bear is one of the last symbols of wilderness remaining in North America. Already in danger from a failing habitat, the grizzly now faces its potential demise at the hands of political ladder-climbing. Will we act in time to preserve the species or allow this majestic and misunderstood creature to fade into the annals of history?
By Chris Nunnally
Each spring, I look forward to the arrival of summer with great anticipation. This is that time of year when I leave my cluttered city life behind and begin migrating to the Northern Rockies of Glacier National Park. I go in search of solitude, tranquility…and bears.
Grizzly bears are indispensable to me and one of the most powerful symbols of wilderness we have left. Statistically, they pose a ridiculously small threat (with falls, drownings, and exposure topping the “cause of death” lists in the national parks), but you still have to be alert and aware when recreating in their backyard. For me, the heightened sense of awareness that comes over me in grizzly country is the strongest feeling of life I have ever experienced. In my mind, that humility and awareness is the true value of wild country and is a large part of what I go out there in search of.
But how long will it last? The Glacier and Yellowstone ecosystems contain the only surviving grizzly bears in North America outside of Canada and Alaska and at least one of those populations is facing an uncertain future.
Due to increasingly warmer winter temperatures in Yellowstone, an infestation of the mountain pine beetle has spread to higher elevations where it has never before been able to survive and devastated the whitebark pines and the annual crop of nuts they produce, which are a vital source of late-season protein for grizzly bears. In 2010, the year of the infamous Soda Butte attack near Cooke City, Montana, overall whitebark pine health was dramatically low, an anomaly that cannot be ruled out as a causal factor in the attack.
The details of the Soda Butte incident are not entirely clear, the reasons why it occurred having been glossed over and left unexplained, the usual standard when it comes to bear attacks. While there do seem to have been some predatory aspects to the attack (one of those killed was fed upon, though it’s unknown if that was the bear’s intention going in or if it was an opportunistic feeding once it found itself with a dead body), Deborah Freele, who survived the attack, said that the bear did not let her go and move away until she stopped screaming and resisting and played dead. Had the attack been predatory in nature, playing dead would have only encouraged the bear to start feeding; the fact that it let go of Deborah and went away indicates the attack may have been defensive, as if something had given the bear concern for the safety of her cubs.
Killed two days after the attack, the mother bear was necropsied and isotopes from her blood, serum, and hair revealed that for the previous two years, she and her cubs had lived on a near exclusive plant-based diet with no indications of human food or garbage present. Isotopes of sulfur, which would indicate consumption of whitebark pine nuts – what the family should have been eating that time of year – were not present, nor were any indications of having eaten meat. Even though it was late July, the bears still wore their winter coats and they weighed in at the low end of the normal range for average bears. They were extremely malnourished.
It is well documented in many studies that the nutritional value of a good pine nut crop not only greatly increases a bear’s odds of surviving winter hibernation but also results in better cub reproduction. When a female bear successfully mates, the pregnancy does not automatically take. If the female enters her den with enough stored fat and protein to support herself and young, the pregnancy will develop into a cub; if she has not built up sufficient reserves, the pregnancy will terminate itself. With the continuing loss of the whitebark, mortality rates will inevitably increase. Natural vegetation alone will not suffice to keep bears healthy.
Making matters worse, other important food sources for bears are also on their way out: berries do not grow in Yellowstone with the abundance that they do in Glacier. Cutthroat trout are threatened by lake trout, which have been illegally introduced into Yellowstone Lake. The migration patterns of army cutworm moths are being influenced by pesticide spraying in the Midwest and Alberta. The wolf reintroduction program has resulted in an over-population that has robbed the bears of a large number of winter-killed carcasses, an often critical food source for bears just emerging from their dens in spring.
The International Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) maintains a list of bear mortality records in Yellowstone and whitebark pine cone reduction data from 2009 through 2013. The correlation between the two is undeniable. Field operations in 2009 show 80-88% of whitebarks dead or dying. That year, nine abnormal bear incidents resulting in bear mortality were recorded (in filtering through the records, I tried to eliminate any incidents that may have involved defense of cubs or carcasses and focus only on those that were unusual or in which bears raided campsites or residential areas in search of food), with one labeled as “cause unknown, under investigation”.
The change recorded in 2010 is very dramatic. Whitebark pine health is shown to be alarmingly low with mortalities heavily increasing. A grand total of 28 incidents occurred that summer, including the Soda Butte attack, making the 9 of the previous year look infinitesimal by comparison. Some of these were highly disturbing, including persistent stalking of hikers and elk hunters during the late season months.
2011 shows some improvement in the production of whitebark pine cones but that’s in a forest 90% depleted so a large number of abnormal bear encounters were still reported, totaling 27, with ten of those classified as “cause unknown, under investigation”. In all, 150 grizzlies died from 2008-2010; a record 51 in 2012 alone.
This data presents a very clear cause and effect picture yet, astonishingly, many of the very scientists who founded this information are now either outright denying any impact from the loss of whitebark pines or contend they are “still studying the issue”. Chris Servheen, Grizzly Recovery Coordinator, told me personally that there is no evidence that whitebark pine loss will negatively affect grizzlies. They’re omnivores, he argues, and will find other food sources.
On that point, he is absolutely correct because now those same hungry bears are roaming outside the park boundaries into human habitations, seeking supplemental protein to replace what’s been lost. The IGBST’s data supports this, showing the majority of bear mortalities in 2012-13 to be a result of cattle depredation and property damage in residential areas. Not only has this created the illusion of an exploding population of grizzlies, it’s drummed up the standard public reaction of fear and intolerance. Many people are calling for sport and big game hunting regulations to control this “overflowing population”, with no understanding of why bears were suddenly turning up in these unusual places.
In the summer of 2012, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar responded to Wyoming governor Matt Mead’s request that final assessment and delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) be completed and proposed by 2014. It is expected that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other agencies will finish their analysis of the situation by early next year and that the USFWS will then propose the delisting.
Yellowstone’s grizzlies were originally delisted by the Bush Administration in 2007 partly, according to Servheen, to show that the ESA was having some success. A Montana environmental group rightfully challenged this ruling on the grounds that there was no accurate way to count the number of grizzlies in Yellowstone to conclusively determine the size of the population and that the USFWS had failed to prove that the whitebark decline would not harm the bears. The delisting was successfully overturned in 2009.
The USFWS was dismayed by this decision and even seemed to take it as a personal affront. They immediately went into action drafting a second delisting proposal, this time with a “new approach”: to show – on paper – that the estimated 600 grizzlies of the Yellowstone ecosystem are actually more in the range of 1,000.
This is not about science or conservation. It’s a political game. Basically, whoever can “prove” that the grizzly bear population of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is stable and growing and can successfully get them delisted gets the keys to the car, so to speak, of bear management. Personal political stature is the only thing many of these people are really working for.
Having swallowed the “exploding bear population” line hook and all, Governor Mead has decided to allow sport and big game hunting of grizzlies in Wyoming should the delisting be successful. Mead has cited grizzlies as a “heightened threat to humans” and there are a number of locals who literally cannot wait for their macho moment to kill one.
This is a terrifying prospect. For one, grizzly bears have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any mammal in North America. They do not reach sexual maturity until five years of age, females remain with their cubs for up to two years and, depending on environmental conditions, may not reproduce again for three or four years after separating from previous young. With the failing health of the Yellowstone ecosystem, the reproductive rate is already below normal. Throw big game hunting into the mix and the mortality rate will very quickly exceed the birth rate, just as it did in the 2007 delisting. This species cannot survive such grim odds.
The better and sounder solution would be to let the bears move into the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where winter temperatures remain cold enough to prevent the mountain pine beetle’s intrusion and whitebarks are flourishing. Then let’s establish travel corridors across Montana, linking Yellowstone with Glacier, where the habitat is healthier and more diverse. This would, of course, involve getting bears over and under highways. With our technology and know-how this is very much an attainable goal, though apparently not as easy as simply drafting a potential extinction plan that could adversely affect the species to a disastrous extent.
And all the while, the voices of the multitude, the voices that could promulgate change, are silent on the issue. Many truly have no idea that such critical decisions are on the verge of being made and others fear bears to such an irrational extent that they honestly cannot conceive of coexisting with them. But it’s not too late. It’s not too late to let it be known where we stand on this issue; otherwise I fear we may wake up one day to find that the wild has been taken out of the wilderness.
For IBST mortality data visit: nrmsc.usgs.gov/science/igbst/mort
For IGBST whitebark pine data visit: nrmsc.usgs.gov/science/igbst/wbp
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Nunnally studies bears independently, has worked with them in captivity, maintains an educational blog, “Where the Bear Walks”, has authored a book by the same name, and writes freelance articles about bear issues. He divides his time between his hometown in Alabama and the rugged mountains of Alaska and Montana, which are among the last strongholds the grizzly bear still calls home.