A bear near Pilgrim Creek Road two years ago. (Courtesy Jackie Skaggs with the National Park Service.)
A bear near Pilgrim Creek Road two years ago. (Courtesy Jackie Skaggs with the National Park Service.)

Grizzly bears move into new areas, lower elevations

by Kelsey Dayton
— September 17, 2013

In June, a grizzly bear was spotted near Beaver Creek outside Lander, an area that up until three years ago wasn’t known for grizzly bears. Bears are being spotted near Big Piney and in the Wyoming Range and south of Meeteetse, areas that were not considered bear habitat in recent history.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

As the population of the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem expands, grizzlies are expanding their range. That expansion, along with a year of low whitebark pine cone production — a staple of the grizzly’s diet — means outdoor enthusiasts need to be hyper-vigilant this fall, even when recreating in areas where they’ve never seen signs of bears.

“A guy hunting the irrigation ditches in November would never have considered encountering a grizzly, but that’s going to happen,” said Brian DeBolt, large carnivore conflict coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish.

It is to be expected that grizzlies expand their territory as the population increases. The worry is where they are moving, DeBolt said. They are headed into places where there are subdivisions, livestock, and heavy recreation use like the Wyoming Range and the Southern Wind River Mountains.

“Every year we see grizzly bears occupying new areas in Wyoming,” DeBolt said. “Bears are expanding into areas where there is just a lot of human activity. And of course, the more bears you have and the more people you have, the more conflicts you have. The more conflicts you have the more grizzly bear mortality you are going to see.”

The Greater Yellowstone’s bear population is estimated at more than 700 bears, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator. The grizzly’s distribution has increased 200 percent since 1981 and they are pushing out in all directions from the Greater Yellowstone area.

blondie the griz_Jackie Skaggs_June 2011
Grizzly bears are expanding their range, in part, due to a low Whitebark pine cone production this year. (Courtesy Jackie Skaggs, National Park Service — click to enlarge)

Reports of bear sightings in areas where grizzlies didn’t live before isn’t surprising, said Frank van Manen, team leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. “I don’t think those are flukes,” he said. Those are the first observations of the animals moving into the area. Typically the first sightings are of young males who have sought an area where they don’t have to bump into bigger males.

“I think it’s a sign of things to come,” van Manen said.

This year bears will also likely be at lower elevations seeking food. Whitebark pine cone production is down. Surveys show an average of 5.2 cones per tree compared to 33 cones per tree last year, said Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor with Wyoming Game and Fish. The cones, which are high in fat  and found at high elevations, are an important food source for bears in the fall as they prepare for hibernation.

“When naturally abundant food is low, we do often see an increase number of conflicts with bears,” DeBolt said.

It’s not that bears are more aggressive, they just will be appearing in new areas looking for alternative food sources. Bears will likely to turn truffles or roots from plants like yampa, according to van Manen. These alternative food sources are found at lower elevations than the cones.

They also will seek out more meat sources for their diet. Whitebark pine seeds are nutritious, rich in fats and easy for bears to find in good years. “It’s a lot of bang for your buck, so to speak,” van Manen said.

The low cone production this year is, in part, cyclical, he said. Whitebark pine trees have years where they produce 30 cones per tree, like last year which yielded a good crop. That’s sometimes followed by a year of low Whitebark pine production, like this year. The new variable is the impact of the mountain pine beetle and blister rust which has killed Whitebark pine trees throughout the ecosystem. Even when trees are producing a lot of cones, there aren’t as many  trees, so ecosystem-wide there aren’t as many cones.

The impact is something scientists are trying to understand, not just because this year is a low year. Finding out how the decline in the trees and cone production is affecting grizzly bears is one of the last missing pieces of information as mangers prepare to remove the bears from the endangered species list.

The grizzly bear was formally delisted in 2007, but a court ruled in 2009 that wildlife managers need to show how the bears are adapting to the decline in whitebark pine and how that plays out in the long-term.

“That’s not an easy question to answer,” van Manen said.

This summer managers have been compiling data on what bears are eating, as well as how, when one food source dwindles, it impacts the animals’ health and what food sources the omnivores turn to replace it in their diet. Researchers compiled information from previous studies and also monitored bears with telemetry, flights and algorithms to see where they were spending time to figure out what they were eating. For instance, if a bear was spending a lot of time on a high elevation screen slope, they were likely eating army cutworm moths. And, scientists can follow the path bears followed using the GPS from radio collars to determine what food sources were in the area.

The final report will be presented at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting held in November in Bozeman, Mont.

“I could honestly not tell you what our assessment is yet,” van Manen said.

What is known is that this fall, hunters and all people headed into the outdoors should be extra vigilant. A hunter was injured Sept. 12 in the Teton wilderness, the fifth bear attack in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this year.

Wyoming Game and Fish stressed the importance of carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it. Van Manen also recommends checking with agencies about bear activity.

“You could be in areas where historically there haven’t been any sightings,” he said. “Until now.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. 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 kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I wonder who counted the Bears,and Elk @ the time of the pilgrims,,,my gut tells me nonsense,,, from the history I have read it is not the case,,, respectfully

  2. A survey Of residents conducted by an independent survey group in August of 2001 found that half of residents in Wyoming don’t want grizzly bears in the areas they recreate in. So why are grizzlies being given priority over the safety of half the residents in this state? Grizzlies are moving into outlying areas for one reason: They are overpopulating available habitat. Half the people of Wyoming need to stand up and be heard. Grizzly bears should not be allowed to expand their range to all of the mountains of western and Northwestern Wyoming. Period.

  3. Rather than worrying about how many bears there are, perhaps we should be considering methods to convince them that it is a good idea not to wander into common human habitat.
    If they aren’t listed as endangered anymore, then what would be the problem with listing them, along with coyotes, wolves, and any other uncivilized animal pests, as such, and allowed endangered humans to defend their habitat, instead of forcing humans to take actions that could be considered comparable to retreating?
    Now then, if bears are looking for meat, and politicians continue to act like animal pests, perhaps we should take a page from the Romans, and throw them to the bears. It would be a more appropriate form of entertainment in a new age of bread and circuses than continuing to tolerate the routine predation that our elected officials are, increasingly, seeing fit to endanger their employers with.

  4. Before the Pilgrims stubbed their toes on Plymouth Rock , the interior of North America had about 100,000 Grizzly bears. They ranged from the shores of Hudson Bay in the northeast , all the way west to the Pacific Coast , and south thru the American Midwest , Plains and lower elevation of the Rockies all the way deep into Mexico, where grizzlies roamed in the mountains above present day Guadalajara. There were seven distinct subspecies. Those included the Sierra grizzly—the one depicted on the California state flag , and the Sonoran grizzly of the future American desert southwest and New Spain. There was a San Juan grizzly in the southern Rockies. A coastal grizzly in the temperate rain forests of our Pacific northwest. There was an incredibly fierce bear that lived in the middle of the country feared by all manner of Men including the Native Americans for its speed, stealth, and very long claws, the Plains Grizzly or ” White Bear ” even though it was mainly duff or blonde colored. It would actually stalk and kill humans for food. Lewis and Clark shot every one the came across, not atypically of the Euros to come. We had a Canadian Rockies grizzly who may or may not have been the same bear as today’s Yellowstone grizzly , the last survivor of the seven subspecies, stranded on its greater Yellowstone island.

    Today the Yellowstone grizzly has been forced back into the high country, not by choice. The Great Bear would very much rather be living yearround in the low country along the foothills of the Rockies, not in the subalpine or alpine wilderness, except in season. Grizzlies prefer the middle elevations and lusher riparian areas, just like all the other megafauna did before we humans wiped them out, too.

    There were also 12 million Elk in America at the time of Plymouth Rock, ranging from the Berkshires of Massachusetts all the way west , till we Great White Hunters killed all but 40,000 of those… 99.7 of them , and drove the rest into the high country away from the Plains . We realized our folly around 1900 ( thank you Teddy Roosevelt ) and began restoring Elk herds from a core Yellowstone herd. Current population of elk nationwide in places like Missouri and Arizona and all the Rocky Mountain states is maybe 800,000, half of all those in Colorado and Wyoming.

    Too bad we have not yet accorded the Grizzly the same grace of reintroduction and population rebuilding. Instead, Wyoming keeps them inside an invisible Zoo behind a boundary drawn to fit people, not bear habitat, and extirpating most bears who dare leave the zoo to go home, back to their ancient homeland the occupied for the last 12,000 years except for the last 150 years.

    There are many suitable habitat areas in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West where ” extra” Yellowstone grizzlies could and should be relocated , rather than kept bottled up inside an imaginary zoo and playing Musical Bears with culvert traps and road trips.

    We humans are still playing the role of Wildlife Conservation Fools. The bear management agencies are charlatans. But the bears are not amused b any of this . Too busy scrounging their next meal.

  5. Three things wrong here:

    1. Expansion of bears into new territory is due as much to declines in major foods such as whitebark pine (WBP) in the core area as it is to population increases, which have not been shown to be as much as the agencies claim. In much of the core and surrounding areas, WBP trees are dead. Nonetheless, the agencies’ method of assessing WBP cone production is not adequate. It’s based on counting cones on trees in transects originally placed to assess the impact of blister rust on WBP, not the mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestation, which has been rapid and extensive. Some of the transects have had to be retired because all the trees died. Yet, the agencies have not bothered adopted a more accurate survey method for WBP. Even a ground survey of all WBP forests would provide better information, even though it would take considerable time to do it.

    2. The agencies’ current “assessment” of how the decline of WBP is effecting bears is not based on actually going onto the ground to see directly what foods bears are switching to, but merely upon literature reviews of articles about the foods bears have been known to eat since studies began as well as making assumptions about what bears are eating based upon what habitat bears are found in through telemetry and measuring the health status of individually trapped bears. This approach is bad science because it ignores what is happening to the bear population as a whole in the ecosystem. Further, the assessment is due next month, way too soon to come to any scientifically defensible conclusion. The agencies need to go onto the ground and directly study what bears are eating. This would take time–more than the few months actually devoted to the selected exercise. However, given the politics of delisting and the refusal by the agencies to listen to valid criticism, there’s no doubt that the agencies’ conclusion will be that bears are A-OK despite the loss of WBP and therefore can be delisted beginning in 2014. That means more (successful) lawsuits from conservationists because of bad science and “arbitrary and capricious” decisions.

    3. The agencies’ rube goldberg statistical method of counting bears has long since been been disqualified by independent scientists, but rather than adopting a method known to be more accurate, such as the hair snare/DNA method that identifies individual bears, such as has been used in Glacier National Park, the agencies continue to tinker with the rube goldberg statistical method that no one has any faith in. In any case, their estimate of the numbers of bears has no valid scientific basis. The claim that there are 700 bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem is just that–a claim. I’ve heard the claim from Wyoming G&F Deputy Director John Emmerich that there are as many as 1000 bears in the ecosystem. That’s just absurd. The agencies have no credibility with bears.

    What bothers me most however is that despite the known controversies in grizzly bear conservation, and the constant slapdowns the agencies receive from the courts about the use of inadequate or bad science, the press continues to give weight to the agencies’ discredited opinions about bear management. That doesn’t help the credibility of the press.