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How many grizzlies are enough?

— filed under: ,
By Douglas H. Chadwick
National Geographic

Today, Canada and the United States hold roughly 50,000 [grizzlies] and 350 million Homo sapiens. During an average year, the bears kill two, while smoking-related illnesses claim the lives of 400,000 annually in the U.S. alone, suicide takes 49,000-plus, auto collisions with deer 130, fatal maulings by dogs 32, and being crushed by a crowd 22.

On a midsummer tundra day in Alaska, I hiked to a hillside overlooking a cascade. The waters thrummed and thundered, somersaulted and sprayed rainbow mist. Throngs of arm-length salmon leaped the opposite direction, fighting to reach spawning grounds closer to the mountains. Amid that tumult, nearly sixty grizzly bears muscled along parting the currents like boulders, plunged open-mouthed into eddies, swiped at flying fish, mock-wrestled in the shallows, and napped on the shores next to watchful bald eagles and gulls. The place was as alive as it is possible to be, and it made me feel the same way.

I dropped down to the base of a rock ledge for a fresh view. Shortly after noon, a bear suddenly appeared around the corner. It was coming my direction fast – too fast for me to do anything but press back against the stone and keep still. Closer, closer. I stopped breathing. I felt the fur of the grizzly’s shoulder brush my chest, and …

The animal hurried by, looking the other way. Its sole interest lay in steering clear of a huge male that had arrived at the river’s edge. Though left gasping, I wasn’t completely surprised to have been ignored. Here in wild sushi heaven, the bears routinely tolerated humans at close range. Sometimes, they fished side by side with wolves, their arch-enemies under different conditions.

Later that day, one mother grizzly laid down ten feet from me to nurse two little cubs. I know of salmon streams where females with young not only act comfortable around people but even make a point of staying near them.  This is likely because they’re aware that grown males, which can be dangerous to cubs, tend to keep away from the humans. Before going fishing among other adults, females have been known to drop off their cubs by viewing stations, turning the bear observers into bear babysitters.

Nineteenth century taxonomists labeled North America’s grizzly/brown bears Ursus arctos horribilis. Today, Canada and the United States hold roughly 50,000 of those and 350 million Homo sapiens. During an average year, the bears kill two, while smoking-related illnesses claim the lives of 400,000 annually in the U.S. alone, suicide takes 49,000-plus, auto collisions with deer 130, fatal maulings by dogs 32, and being crushed by a crowd 22. By comparison, demise-by-slavering-bruin is not a public safety issue. It is a psychological problem.

We can’t seem to help monsterizing grizz in tales told around campfires, in sporting magazines, and on TV and movie screens. Yet these bears also happen to be among the most playful, inquisitive, and keenly intelligent life forms keeping us company on the planet. Built to learn, they keep learning over a lifespan of 30 years or more. Dr. Charles Robbins, who studies bear physiology and behavior at Washington State University, considers grizzlies smarter than dogs and perhaps as bright as young children.

This isn’t to say being clever makes grizzlies less formidable. Still, between our mental abilities and those of the bears, we ought to be able to figure out ways to co-exist better than we have in the past. We’ve been trying for several decades now with a promising degree of success. And that, I think, is the most sensational grizzly story of all.

By 1975, when grizzlies were listed as a threatened species south of Canada, they had lost 98 percent of their range and numbers there. Barely a thousand remained. The decline continued into the mid-1980’s. Across the roughly 20 million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) with 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park at the core, the population shrank to perhaps 150 or fewer. Its all-important count of females with cubs fell below 20.

Grizzlies survived in four other Lower 48 ecosystems: Montana’s Northern Continental Divide, anchored by Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex; westernmost Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak area; northern Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains; and Washington’s North Cascades. Each enclave was struggling, but the collapse in the GYE received the most attention. After all, this was America’s best-known big bruin country. Its grizzlies, now the southernmost left on the continent, were entirely cut off from other populations and fading fast.

The GYE sprawls across 21 different mountain ranges in parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Two national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton – six federal forests, and various state forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management properties, and other publicly owned lands make up two thirds of the area. Traditionally, each agency focused solely on the natural resources within its particular borders. Restoring mega-bruins whose individual home ranges sprawl across hundreds of square miles called for a whole new era of cooperation.

Scientists and managers teamed up to do a better job of defining critical bear habitat and limiting development within it. Where many a bear had been terminated for causing problems with livestock pastured on public lands, the grazing leases were relocated. Officials worked harder to control other attractants as well, fencing off garbage dumps in rural communities, replacing standard trash bins with bear-proof versions, and installing hanging poles to keep supplies up out of paw’s reach at backcountry campsites.

Carnivores by anatomy, grizzlies are highly adaptable omnivores in practice. They sniff opportunity in anything from the celery sticks in a tourist’s cooler to the flavored lip balm in a hiker’s pack; and from the freshly skinned elk a hunter holds overnight in the woods to the fruit trees, horse pellets, dog chow, or seeds in a birdfeeder at a country home.

Where rewarded with food, the bears make a habit of returning. They quickly grasp the connection. The problem, as every bear manager knows, is that too many people don’t. They keep leaving out open invitations to big, hairy company. Somebody could end up killed; 99.9 percent of the time, it’s the grizzly. Progress in driving home the message that “a fed bear is a dead bear” was slow. Nevertheless, as the agencies and non-profit conservation groups expanded public bear awareness programs, that effort, too, began to make a difference.

The current count of grizzlies in the GYE is at least 500, possibly 600. It has been rising 4 to 7 percent annually, and the number of females with cubs has held above 50 for the past six years. As for the total population south of Canada, experts say it has reached 1,500 or more.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees imperiled species, chose to define the grizzlies of the five Lower 48 ecosystems as distinct population segments and deal with each separately. In 2007, the agency declared the GYE segment recovered. No sooner was it removed from the Endangered Species List than environmental groups sued, calling the de-listing premature. A federal court agreed and in 2009 reinstated the bears’ threatened status. But the wildlife service challenged the court’s decision, leaving that population in a sort of legal limbo.

Although some of the threats GYE grizzlies face have been reduced, none has gone away; not proposals to develop the backcountry; not livestock conflicts; not sportsmen shooting a grizzly in self-defense or because they thought it was a legally huntable black bear; not poaching out of sheer malice; not increasing off-road vehicle use; not expanding subdivision of open lands for new homes; and not unsecured food and garbage luring bears into trouble.

One special concern remains the GYE bears’ genetic diversity – the lowest among Lower 48 grizzlies. For an isolated population, the effects of inbreeding can become more problematic with every generation. A second major worry is that GYE grizzlies depend more heavily on whitebark pine seeds (raided from squirrel caches during autumn) for nourishment than any other group. Suffused with fats and oils, the seeds provide as much as half the protein in Yellowstone area grizzlies’ diet.

Heavier-than-usual whitebark seed production is reflected in bigger grizzly litter sizes, increased survival of young, and shorter times between pregnancies. And since this pine favors high altitudes, which are typically remote settings, bears feeding there seldom come into contact with people. Poor crops are linked to the opposite results – lower reproduction and a greater potential for conflict as the bears roam lower elevations with more human activity. At the moment, 95 percent of Yellowstone’s once-abundant whitebark stands are under assault from a European fungus and native mountain pine beetles.

Warmer average winter temperatures have allowed the beetles to multiply at an abnormally fast pace and overwinter farther upslope. Not only did the federal court cite the impact of global warming as a substantial threat to Yellowstone’s grizzlies, whitebark pine has itself become a candidate for listing as an imperiled species. 

Organizations such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition , a leading force for conservation in the region, refer to the grizzly as an indicator species. It means that where a landscape is big and bountiful enough to harbor great bears, the full array of other creatures belonging to that part of the world is likely to be present and in good condition. A prime example can be found on the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, a mix of snowy crags, forested slopes, and sagebrush foothills that sweeps down from the high eastern boundary of Yellowstone Park toward the Great Plains. The best bear habitat in the GYE lies mostly outside the national parks, and the Front hosts some of the highest grizzly densities of all amid tremendous elk herds, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, wolverines, black bears, bobcats, moose, mountain lions, mountain goats, wolves, nesting golden eagles, and prairie falcons outracing the wind.

Because they play an oversized role in shaping the ecosystems they inhabit, grizzlies are also referred to as a keystone species. They affect prey populations directly through hunting, scavenge large carcasses in between, and redistribute tons of nutrients. Gobbling tens of thousands of berries daily in late summer and fall, they disperse the seeds from valley bottoms to subalpine slopes. They are also the chief earthmovers in many habitats, putting those long claws to work tilling the soil in search of roots and bulbs, renewing plant communities in the process.

A third term often applied to grizzlies is umbrella species, since guarding their critical habitat adds a layer of security for all their wild neighbors. Backpackers, mountaineers, fishermen, naturalists, tourists – all the people drawn to truly untamed settings and rich wild communities – find their values defended as well.

At the same time, there’s no shortage of political and economic pressures to de-list grizzlies so restrictions on industrial activities can be lifted or at least eased. The Shoshone National Forest, which oversees much of the Front, has been fielding proposals to open pristine public lands to mineral development for years. Recently, a push to extract oil and gas has been gaining momentum.

Is it possible to somehow produce more fossil fuel and more grizzlies at the same time? Maybe in a more perfect world. You won’t find win-win models father north along the Rocky Mountain Front in Alberta, where an invasion of new roads, drill rigs, pumps, and pipelines has cost wildlife dearly. Not long ago, the grizzlies of that vast province numbered in the many thousands. Today, fewer are found there than in the GYE. So much for importing grizzlies from Canada if we lose those in the contiguous states.

I’ve met folks in the Rockies who feel it’s high time we did lose some grizzlies. In years without any serious bear problems, news outlets don’t run stories on the order of “Hundreds of Thousands Stroll through Wild Grizzly Bear Households Unscratched!” I wish they would, because sooner or later there comes an interval with tragic conflicts and all kinds of media coverage. Lethal attacks on a hiker and, separately, a camper in GYE national forests took place during the summer of 2010. Summer of 2011 brought two cases of a hiker in Yellowstone Park killed by grizz. That fall, a hunter near the Idaho/Montana border shot a grizzly he thought was a black bear, and when the wounded animal attacked, the man’s hunting partner fatally shot him while aiming for the bear.

Several mauling injuries involving elk hunters, hikers, and campers also occurred in the GYE and Montana over the same period. People interpreting all this as the start of a deadly trend began lobbying to end grizzly protection, warning that recovery efforts have gone too far. A number of guides, outfitters and sportsmen eager for trophy grizzly hunting to get underway again have been making the same argument.

How many grizzly bears are enough? If they keep expanding their range and numbers, society will have to weigh that question carefully. At the moment, however, all 1,500 to 1,600 in the lower 48 states could be lined up in a Wal-Mart parking lot with plenty of room left over. The 500 to 600 from the GYE would fit inside the store; not peacefully, mind you, but I’m trying to make the point that grizzlies are not exactly overrunning the mountain West. Three of the five grizzly bear ecosystems south of Canada contain fewer than 40 animals each.

If you wish to live a long, safe life here, these are my recommendations: Exercise more, cut down on fatty foods, and lobby for stricter drunk driving laws. I don’t want to make light of anyone’s fears, only to stay realistic about the levels of harm we face.

As for practical advice to prevent an actual mauling, first, don’t feed these animals – ever, not on purpose or by inadvertently leaving out attractants. Second, carry bear spray on outings; none of the victims I mentioned did. Contrary to what a lot of tough-guy outdoorsmen believe, those little cannisters of red pepper-infused oil are far more effective than guns in deterring aggression. Studies have shown the spray’s success rate to be nearly 100 percent. Give yourself a snootful, as I once did by mistake, and you’ll understand why. 

Bears force us to think hard about what we really mean when we say we want to preserve nature. A sample here and there? Multitudes of certain majestic creatures but only token numbers of others – just enough to let us say we didn’t drive them completely extinct? The decision to try to include healthy populations of North America’s largest, most powerful land-based predator in our future signaled an historical turnaround in attitude for most of society. What will it take to see this remarkable effort through?

Re-connecting Yellowstone’s bears to the other four Lower 48 grizzly bear ecosystems via bridges, or corridors, of wildlands would boost the chances of survival for all those groups over the long run. They need the freedom to roam – to migrate, disperse, probe new landscapes, and meet up with others of their kind – on a regional scale. Without it, maintaining healthy gene pools, adjusting to a changing climate, and coping with periodic stresses such as drought, wildfires, disease epidemics, infestations, and invasions by non-native species through the centuries is all but impossible. As ever, the umbrella species concept comes into play, for modern conservation biology tells us that the best hope of sustaining other creatures in the same ecosystems involves both taking care of the strongholds and linking them together into a vibrant network.

Grizzlies energize some of the grandest landscapes in North America. And all the while, these bears expand our awareness of nature, redefine our relationship with it, encourage us to tie together fragmented ecosystems, and thereby restore wholeness to the living world. How much of this is enough? I don’t know, but “Less” doesn’t sound like the right answer.

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