Grizzly bear delisting uncertain despite strong numbersBy Kelsey Dayton — April 30, 2013
There’s little disagreement about the grizzly bear comeback in the Yellowstone region. But how big a comeback it is, and the question of whether it’s sustainable, is still wrought with controversy.
At a recent grizzly bear management meeting in Jackson, local photographer Tom Mangelsen said he was “disturbed” and “disgusted” by what he considers a “headlong desire to delist bears” and turn management over to the states and allow the bears to be hunted. He said those who have devoted their lives to studying the bears owe the animals more.
“There will be blood on your hands, your hearts and on your souls,” Mangelsen said.
Mangelsen spoke at a recent meeting of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which will make recommendations about the future management of the iconic animal. The path forward isn’t clear despite a growing understanding of the biology and environmental science that must back up a management plan.
Scientists’ understanding of the bear’s population and mortality is increasingly sophisticated, and it provides some certainty that the species is robust — perhaps enough to be delisted under the Endangered Species Act.
Bears that once resided in the “recovery zone” are now spotted almost 70 miles away. A school in Park County has an electric fence around the playground to deter grizzly bears, and wildlife managers are running out of places to relocate bears that get into trouble with garbage or livestock.
Yet while the grizzly bear population appears strong, the courts have said that isn’t enough for delisting. There must be a better understanding of how the animals are adapting to an important food source that is disappearing – pine nuts from white bark pine – and what that means for future populations.
Grizzly bears were delisted in 2007, but the decision was overturned in 2009. The court said the study team failed to explain how the decline in white bark pine affects the population.
Literature from 1891 to 2012 suggests that bears consumed 234 different species, 75 of those frequently and 153 of those opportunistically, said Frank van Manen with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. It was a surprise because while van Manen knew the bears were omnivores he hadn’t expected that breadth in diet.
It is one of about 10 different components researchers will analyze this summer to better understand what the decline in white bark pine means to the bears.
Last summer, scientists began to look at things such as changes in habitat use in areas where the trees have died, as well as body condition — for example fat and mass — of animals over time in areas where white bark pine has declined, van Manen said.
Each component tells something important individually, but not until the research is compiled will it give researchers a sense of what is happening overall in the ecosystem, he said. For now, it is too early to draw any conclusions.
“What I do know is we’re dealing with a very complex landscape and a very complex issue,” Manen said.
Researchers also must evaluate details of social interactions between bears, which might explain why an animal moves away from an area with ample sources of food.
Van Manen plans to compile and analyze the research this summer and present the findings to the committee in October, he said.
If the research shows the decline in white bark pine doesn’t adversely impact grizzlies, the committee can take that information to the courts to argue for delisting. The committee will propose a new rule for delisting which will go to public comment, likely in early 2014. Once public comments are evaluated the bear could be delisted sometime in 2014, said Chris Servheen, Grizzly Bear Recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
One thing those at the interagency meeting in Jackson this month do know for certain is that the grizzly population is expanding, and it is likely larger than estimated.
“They are filling in the suitable habitat, that’s for sure,” said Dan Bjornlie, a large carnivore biologist with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. “There aren’t many areas that haven’t been filled yet.”
The percentage of the bears now found in Montana and Idaho is growing, but Wyoming is home to the largest portion of the population with about 43 percent, according to Bjornlie. The bears are venturing into new places, and land managers will need to adapt management plans to account for bears in those areas, he said.
There’s a concerted effort among researchers to refine their methods for estimating the grizzly bear population. The current method is “biased low,” said Mark Haroldson with the USGS Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Under this method, there is a population of about 610 bears in the conservation management area. Using a new method to count the population, which takes into account a higher survivorship in the male population, the number is believed to be about 718.
The goal is to keep the bear population with at least 48 females with cubs. Using data from 1983-2001, that is the equivalent of about 500 bears, or 600 bears using more recent data.
The newer method to count bears is currently out for public comment until May 21.
Also proposed is a new way to count bear deaths. In 2012 there were 54 documented deaths — 34 were caused by humans. That includes bears killed because they became a danger or killed livestock.
Currently bear deaths are counted throughout the management area. Population counts include opportunistic sightings from the whole area, but the counts rely on aerial surveys from an area less than half the size of the management area in what is considered suitable and currently occupied habitat.
If the proposed new plan was in place, where mortality and population are counted in the same area, male bears wouldn’t have exceeded the 15 percent mortality limit this year. Five of the male bears that died were outside the proposed boundaries, Haroldson said.
“Bears have been expanding for three decades now, and we keep chasing our tale on that expansion,” Haroldson said.
With the current method, bear deaths are counted in areas that aren’t suitable for bears to live in.
“In a sense we’ve been penalizing ourselves for bears that are dispersing or trying to disperse from the area,” he said.
Sam Coutts, an outfitter from the Hoback area said he felt managers were finally making progress in getting an accurate count of the bears. He wants the bears delisted, and he believes the population estimates are too low.
“The failure of this organization is not having an accurate count,” he said.
To go before a judge and prove the bears can be delisted, proponents will need to have numbers they are confident in and which accurately reflect the population, which Coutts believes is much bigger than estimates have shown.
Christine Wilcox, a research scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council, isn’t so sure, although she agrees getting an accurate estimate of the population is important.
Wilcox believes there are between 500 and 700 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but there are still threats to the animals that reproduce slowly and aren’t linked to other ecosystems, especially if the population is actually closer to 500 than 700, she said. The population is no longer growing and could be declining, she said. With those numbers it’s important to be conservative in management.
There needs to be more certainty about the future of the bears before they are delisted, Wilcox said.
No one predicted the mountain pine beetle epidemic that wiped out a key food source.
“They (grizzlies) are using the landscape differently and I don’t think there is enough information to see if that’s sustainable,” she said.
There could be other unpredicted changes in the future that could impact the animals in unforeseen ways.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen to the ecosystem based on climate change,” she said.
Wilcox said she was encouraged to hear managers say delisting will depend on science – in particular, research on white bark pine.
Not everyone is pleased with the work of the committee. The bears will suffer the same fate as wolves, which are being “slaughtered,” said Mangelsen, the Jackson area photographer. “It’s a sad state that we have to kill these large carnivores because some people make a lot of money off it.”
Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton.
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