Grizzly bear delisting uncertain despite strong numbers

Grizzly delisting (David Vellozzi/Flickr — click to view)

A grizzly rests in a meadow in Yellowstone National Park. Despite population growth, it remains uncertain whether the animal will be delisted under the Endangered Species Act. (David Vellozzi/Flickr — click to view)

By 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.

A grizzly bear stands with her cubs in Yellowstone National Park. Florian Schulz photo, on view in Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, organized by the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Wash., on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody through Aug. 7.

A grizzly bear stands with her cubs in Yellowstone National Park. (Florian Schulz – click to view)

“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.

A grizzly bear digs in wet dirt near Cub Creek in Yellowstone National Park in June 2010. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile - click to enlarge)

A grizzly bear digs in wet dirt near Cub Creek in Yellowstone National Park in June 2010. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

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 Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton.

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Published on April 30, 2013

  • somsai

    Ursus arctos “still one of the world’s most widely distributed terrestrial mammals. Globally the population remains large, and is not significantly declining.”

    I don’t mean to get all sciency on anyone.

  • Kelsey Dayton

    The school referenced in the story is Wapiti Elementary School.
    Kelsey Dayton

  • Wendy Paxton

    The school “in Cody” that has bear fencing is Wapiti, which is 20 miles west of Cody, less than a mile from the National Forest boundary. Unless you’re talking about Valley School, which is more like 40 miles from Cody.

  • Kelsey Dayton

    It is Christine Wilcox. Louisa Wilcox has retired from the NRDC.
    Kelsey Dayton

  • George Miller

    Is that a school in Cody or a school in Wapiti that has a bear fence? They are quite a distance apart. One a village the other a town. g

  • Robert Hoskins

    First of all, it’s Louisa Wilcox, not Christine.

    Second, the so-called “new” method of counting bears the agencies have chosen is just a variation of the old, discredited jury-rigged statistical method of counting bears that even the scientists don’t fully understand. I’ve yet to met any agency biologist who can explain the method to an intelligent layman or woman or even other scientists. Nor do they actually know that it’s biased low. It could just as easily be biased high.

    Many independent scientists have asserted that the method is deeply flawed because its margin of error is too great. Scientifically, that means we truly don’t have a good idea of the number of bears in the Yellowstone Country. It’s a matter of “garbage in, garbage out.”

    Despite this indisputable fact, the agencies have refused to adopt a much more simple and accurate method, which we might call the “hair snare/DNA” method, that is being used successfully in northwestern Montana around Glacier National Park. This method entails spreading “hair snares” of barbed wire throughout the ecosystem in which bears are being counted. The snares are baited and the bears brush up against the barbed wire, leaving hair behind. The hair is collected and analyzed for its DNA. Because DNA is individual, a more accurate estimate of the total number of bears in the ecosystem can be made.

    I take this refusal of the agencies to adopt the more accurate hair snare/DNA method to mean the agencies already know their method of counting bears in the Yellowstone Country is inherently flawed and don’t want it so proven.

    Furthermore, their determination to no longer count bears that die outside so-called “suitable” habitat against the mortality quota is additional evidence that their current method is scientifically invalid. This is mere manipulation of the numbers with no scientific justification for political purposes.

    Third, given the agencies’ rather juvenile emotional response (that is, a temper tantrum) to court decisions to keep the bear listed because the agencies had failed to assess the impact of the loss of whitebark pine on bear recovery, we already know the outcome of their recent “research” on whitebark pine. Their studies will show “little or no impact because bears are switching successfully to other foods.” That’s been their claim all along, but it’s wrong.

    The mere fact that bears are omnivores that eat a wide variety of foods doesn’t change the more important fact that successful reproduction and recovery of bears in the Yellowstone Country depends upon just a few major high-quality, high-calorie, high-energy foods like whitebark pine seeds; the other major foods are meat, Army Cutworm moths, and cut-throat trout. All of these foods are in trouble from a variety of factors such as climate change except meat, but even meat is a problem because male bears often keep female bears with cubs away from carcasses.

    In short, it’s the female bears who are in trouble because they’re losing access to high quality foods. And if female bears are in trouble, then reproduction is in trouble, and recovery gets stalled. That is, in fact, what has happened.

    One can just as easily, and more accurately, conclude that switching to a wider variety of foods indicates that bears are desperately trying to replace higher quality foods with lower quality foods. The question is, are the lower quality foods abundant and nutritionally adequate enough to replace the higher quality foods to sustain reproduction? Scientifically, we don’t yet know. My own considered view is no–the lower quality foods are not enough to sustain reproduction.

    Therefore, delisting the bear is way premature. Much more must be done to ensure bear recovery before delisting it.

    Given the current biological and ecological bottlenecks bears are now facing, the only practical, reasonable, and moral policies are 1) to change to the more accurate hair snare/DNA counting method, 2) allow bears to expand to all biologically suitable habitat in and around the Yellowstone Country, without the artificial and dangerous limitation of so-called “socially” suitable habitat, so that bears can access a wider variety of quality foods, and 3) ensure that grizzlies can move between and among the ecosystems of the Rocky Mountain chain.


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