Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent is fearful the proposed removal of federal protection for grizzly bears could diminish wildlife watching in the world’s first national park.
There is enough ambiguity in federal grizzly bear plans that Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk is worried they could lead to a declining population, he told WyoFile in an interview. Fewer bears would undercut one of the prime draws to Yellowstone, where the Park Service has found that 99 percent of those visiting hope to see a bear – grizzly or black – and 67 percent actually see one.
“This is one of the greatest wildlife-viewing opportunities,” Wenk said. A potential shift in the wildlife landscape “changes dramatically the visitor experience coming to Yellowstone.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to remove Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone-area grizzly population in coming months, subjecting bears outside national parks to potential state hunting seasons. Fish and Wildlife’s plans for post-delisting management call for a stable population, Wenk contends, but they don’t guarantee stability starting on the day grizzlies would be taken off the threatened species list.
The reason there is potential for a declining population lies in the scientific methods used to determine grizzly numbers, whether those methods will change, and whether such changes might result in the loss of hundreds of bears throughout the Yellowstone area.
As envisioned by Fish and Wildlife, bears will continue to be counted using what’s known as the Chao 2 method. Researchers generally agree it is a conservative model that underestimates the population. The latest calculation using Chao 2 estimates there are about 690 grizzlies in the “Demographic Monitoring Area” in and around Yellowstone. Federal post-delisting plans have a goal for three states around Yellowstone — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — to manage for an average of 674 grizzlies in the area.
But federal post-delisting plans also call for using the “best-available science” in monitoring grizzlies. That’s what worries Wenk.
What would happen, the superintendent asked, if a new, “best-available-science” population calculation method was adopted. What if a new method estimated there were 1,000 or 1,100 grizzlies in the area? Those are figures that many wildlife experts believe are more accurate than numbers derived from Chao 2. Already a counting method known as “mark-resight” has been touted by researchers as a more accurate estimator.
In such an instance — where the population estimate increases due to a change in methods — federal plans do not also call for raising the management goal of only 674 grizzlies. So instead of having only 19 bears above objective — as is the situation today — bear counters would see 319 or 419 bears above objective.
That could put something like 400 bears at risk, Wenk said, potentially altering the entire ecosystem.
“I believe it changes [the current situation] dramatically,” Wenk said. “My fear is if they use another method of counting … they’ll implement higher rates of mortality to drive the population down.”
If counting methods change, there also should be a recalibration of the management goal of 674 bears, the superintendent said. But federal and state plans don’t call for that.
“Nowhere does it use the word ‘recalibrate,’” Wenk said of the federal conservation strategy. “Nowhere does it give me the assurance that we’re managing for a stable population at the time of delisting.” Federal plans say Chao 2 will be used for the “foreseeable future.” But they don’t guarantee using Chao 2 forever. At the same time, they call for using the best available science, he said. The latest iteration of the federal Draft Conservation Strategy says “the grizzly bear and its habitat [will be] conserved as integral parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”
In the plans, hunting quotas are part of “discretionary mortality,” the level of which Fish and Wildlife and the three states have agreed to. Discretionary mortality includes hunting and other man-caused deaths, like removal of bears for killing livestock.
Discretionary mortality is set as a percentage of population and there is a different rate for females, cubs, and independent males. The allowable mortality rates slide according to the overall size of the grizzly population.
For example, when managers count more than 747 grizzlies, discretionary mortality of independent males can reach 22 percent of the independent males. When the overall population is less than 674, discretionary mortality for independent males could not exceed 15 percent.
Changing counting methods could create 300 or 400 “paper bears,” according to Wenk’s argument. That would allow higher hunting quotas without a change in the actual number of grizzlies.
Wenk’s arguments have found little support among other officials. On the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, he cast the lone vote in November against moving the federal delisting plans forward.
Wyoming Game and Fish Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said he’s talked extensively with Wenk about the topic and believes Yellowstone will be OK. Mortality limits agreed to by states and Fish and Wildlife are a “stopgap” that would keep numbers from falling.
“I strongly believe the mission of the parks and the mission of the state can be achieved simultaneously,” Nesvik said. “[Wenk’s] mission and their preservation model in the park is not impacted by the state’s mission and the state’s objectives outside the park.”
Even if managers find there are more than 750 grizzlies in the area, “there still is a cap or limit on the number of bears that can be taken,” he said. “We’re bound by those recovery criteria, that have mortality limits.”
Wyoming has allowed black bear hunting right up to park boundaries, with no corresponding loss of black bear viewing opportunities in national parks, Nesvik said. That population is “as high or higher than it’s ever been.”
“This really comes down to the fundamental belief of the state that the ESA science establishes what recovery is. When that’s achieved, management goals lie with the state. That’s what the law requires.”
Although Wenk said, “Obviously, I’m alone on the vote,” he has not been abandoned. Regional National Park Service director Sue Masica has echoed many of Wenk’s worries.
Masica recently wrote a response to Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, who had asked questions about delisting. Figures about visitors’ expectations of seeing Yellowstone bears that were cited earlier in this article come from Masica’s letter to Grijalva.
“This illustrates the strong desire and expectation of park visitors to see bears while they are in national parks,” Masica wrote in September.
Many grizzlies in Yellowstone and Grand Teton see people as non-threatening, she wrote. “This may make them more susceptible to future hunting when they leave the parks,” Masica wrote. “Bear viewing could be impacted by the harvest of bears that frequent roadsides, bear avoidance of people following encounters with hunters, or other factors.”
The Park Service has recommended that post-delisting management respect the Park Service mission and protect regional economic benefits like the area’s $638 million tourism industry. The Park Service seeks plans that reduce the risks of wounded bears entering parks and limits the likelihood that well-known or boundary bears would be killed.
Wyoming has said if hunting is allowed, it would target bears that get into conflicts and those on the fringes of the ecosystem. But the state has not ruled out park boundary hunting or even hunting in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, a 24,000-acre National Park Service unit between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
“NPS is concerned that a delisting decision without commitments to conservative harvest restrictions … could result in a serious setback for grizzly bear management,” Masica wrote. “Mortality rates of 20 to 22 percent for adult males may potentially disrupt the social structure of the population, possibly lowering cub production.”
Wyoming has not yet set hunting seasons or hunt areas. That can’t happen until grizzlies are taken off the threatened species list.