Joseph Bullington And Johnathan Hettinger
Wednesday, August 29, 2018
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Photo by Mike Myers (mmyersphoto.com)

A grizzly bear looks up from feeding on caraway roots Tuesday evening in a ranch field in Tom Miner Basin.

A federal judge in Missoula will decide Thursday whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unlawfully removed Endangered Species Act protections for the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A ruling favoring the plaintiffs — a coalition of six lawsuits filed by conservation organizations and American Indian tribes — would halt the proposed hunt of grizzly bears in Wyoming, scheduled to start Saturday.

The FWS decision, made in June 2017, found that the 700 or so grizzly bears in the region had recovered to a point that the species no longer needed federal protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Under that decision, management of the animals is relinquished to the states. Wyoming and Idaho planned grizzly bear hunts for this fall for the first time in more than 40 years.

The delisting has been praised by some wildlife organizations, hunters, ranchers and other groups as both a victory for the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, and a way to stop the predation of livestock.

But environmental groups and other grizzly researchers challenged the decision, questioning whether the feds relied on the best available science or incorrectly carved out the Yellowstone grizzly as a distinct population from other grizzlies in the continental United States.

The hearing, scheduled for Thursday, is deja vu for bear biologists, activists, hunters and other players. The judge has expressed a desire to rule this week in order to get in ahead of the hunts. In 2007, the FWS made a decision to delist the Yellowstone population, but a judge vacated that decision in 2009, ruling that the service had been arbitrary and capricious in its evaluation of the effects of the whitebark pine seed decline on grizzlies.

Again, the decision all comes down to food.

Researcher David Mattson, a Paradise Valley resident who has studied grizzly bears for more than 30 years, has found that a declining availability of food — especially the whitebark pine — is leading to a more meat-based diet for bears.

The diet includes livestock and game carcasses in the national forests and private land surrounding Yellowstone, which means more human-bear conflicts — the leading cause of bear death.

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in human-caused bear deaths, with each of the past three years ranking in the top four most lethal.

A grizzly history

For centuries before Europeans arrived in North America, grizzly bears lived across most of the West — from the mountains of Mexico to the tundras of northern Canada, from the redwood forests of California to the mid-grass prairies of Nebraska. They relied for food on bison on the Great Plains and spawning salmon along the rivers of the Northwest.

But in the 19th century, the westward push of Europeans drove the grizzlies, like the bison, to the brink of extinction. The increasing density of settlers and a government-funded bounty program cut the bears’ population, some 50,000 in the year 1800, by 98 percent and drove them from 98 percent of their former range. The surviving grizzlies retreated to the safety of the high mountains of the Northern Rockies.

By the time the grizzly was listed in 1975 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, fewer than 2,000 remained in the continental U.S. The bears concentrated in the two areas where we see them today: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide. According to Mattson, this distribution is not random — it mirrors the range of the whitebark pine.

In fall, grizzlies put on hundreds of pounds of fat to get through five months of hibernation, and so they need a high-calorie food source. In areas where whitebark pine is found, the bears feed heavily on the pine nuts, which are rich in fat, protein and carbohydrates. In autumns of good seed crop, grizzlies will feed almost exclusively on the seeds — mostly raided from the caches of red squirrels.

Importantly, whitebark pine grows at high altitudes, near the treeline and far from roads and human developments, which means bears feeding on pine nuts aren’t likely to run into people. And that is at least part of the reason that grizzly populations clung on around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

“Put simply,” Mattson writes on his website, “grizzlies were more likely to survive in areas where key food resources kept them out of harm’s way, that is, away from armed people with bad attitudes.”

By contrast, bears that fed on salmon or bison tended to concentrate along rivers — the areas first settled by Europeans — and those populations were quickly wiped out.

About a decade ago, however, people in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem noticed the tops of mountains turning red — whitebark pines were rapidly dying off, killed in large part by mountain pine beetles, whose numbers have increased due to warmer winters caused by climate change. As a result, grizzlies sought other food sources and have found the needed replacement calories largely from meat.

But the dietary shift has driven the bears down out of the mountains and into conflicts with ranchers, hunters and other people — conflicts that often end with the bears being shot.

The disagreement

On these points, the FWS, which has delisted the species under the Endangered Species Act, and Mattson, who strongly opposes the delisting, largely agree. They also agree that the population has flatlined in recent years.

But here, the agreement ends.

The FWS reads the slowing of population growth as a sign that the grizzly bear has reached its carrying capacity.

On the other side, Mattson, and others, see the loss of the whitebark pine not as a trivial change in diet but as a monumental shift with serious consequences for the grizzly.

Over eight years, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team studied the problem and, in the 2017 “final rule” delisting the species, again, the agency stated that their studies “support the interpretation that slowing of population growth during the last decade was associated more with increasing grizzly bear density than the decline in whitebark pine.”

Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the research had tunnel vision, because it asked if the bears were starving because of the loss of whitebark pine, rather than looking at the effects of human-bear conflict on the population.

“They never looked at a shift to a meat-based diet and looked at mortality rates,” Santarsiere said.

The center asked the team to look at those rates, but the team ultimately did not, she said.

The final rule cited a 2014 study that “showed that grizzly bears did not roam over larger areas or canvas more area within their fall ranges as whitebark pine declined rapidly starting in the early 2000s, and suggested bears found alternative foods within their fall ranges.”

However, residents of the Tom Miner Basin, a rugged ranch valley located in the foothills of the Gallatin Mountains just north of Yellowstone National Park, believe bear behavior changed over that time period.

Basin resident Trina Smith said that, around 2008, large numbers of grizzlies began visiting the area to feed on caraway roots in the fields, particularly in the late summer and early fall. In fact, grizzlies feeding in the fields of the basin have become such a phenomenon that some ranches in the area have installed signs along their fences to explain to the gathered bear-watchers why the bruins are there and what they’re eating.

On Tuesday evening, Tom Miner Creek Road was jammed with cars and tourists from at least 12 states watching three grizzlies foraging for roots — one of them just off the side of the road.

This is why Mattson thinks the decline of whitebark pine is so significant.

“It affects where bears are in the landscape in relation to lethal people,” he said — and that impacts how many bears die.

According to Mattson, at the same time their population has flatlined, the distribution of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies has expanded. It’s simple math, he said: The same population and increased distribution means less density, not more, and so density does not explain the escalating grizzly mortality of recent years.

The hunt

In its final rule, the FWS determined that a possible increase in grizzly mortality would be offset by fewer bears being hunted.

“While we do not consider the effects of climate change to be a direct threat to grizzly bear habitat in the GYE, it could influence the timing and frequency of some grizzly bear-human conflicts with possible increases in grizzly bear mortality,” the resolution states. “This possible increase in grizzly bear mortality risk is not expected to be a threat because of coordinated total mortality limits within the Designated Monitoring Area.”

Hunting organizations also recognized that hunting would likely be limited when the delisting was announced.

“We do caution everybody to manage their expectations about the potential of hunting grizzly bears,” said David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which joined the suit as an intervenor in favor of the delisting, after the service’s decision was announced. “The reality is there will be very minimal hunting of grizzly bears for the next several years. Those who oppose the delisting are going to try and use ‘trophy hunting’ as a major obstacle and reason not to delist grizzly bears. It’s purely rhetoric and propaganda.”

The Wyoming hunt — slated to start Sept. 1 — could result in up to 10 grizzlies being killed. Under the system, 22 licenses were handed out, including two to anti-hunt activists, out of more than 7,000 applicants. Under the current rules, though, the season would end when the first female grizzly is killed. In contrast, Idaho has only given out one tag — limited to an Idaho resident — for a male grizzly. Montana held off on holding a hunt.

According to Mattson, the hunt could escalate grizzly mortality further because it will dramatically change the “landscape of conflict,” because hunters in search of bears will go into formerly secure habitat.

Grizzly activist Louisa Willcox, who is married to Mattson, thinks the hunt could also harm the ability of the island population of the Yellowstone grizzlies to connect with the bears up north and share needed genetic diversity.

“The most vulnerable bears (in a hunt) are the ones who get the farthest out,” Willcox said, “and those are the bears you need most to connect.”

Due to their isolation, Mattson said the Yellowstone grizzlies are the least genetically diverse of any grizzlies in North America except the bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska. FWS, in its delisting decision, also notes that the lack of genetic diversity is a problem and recommends, if connectivity with the northern bears can’t be achieved, the importing of bears to the Yellowstone area every 10 years.

“If you have to import bears every 10 years,” said Willcox, “is the population really recovered? Or is it on artificial respiration?”

What’s going to change?

Santarsiere, who is arguing the case on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, said Thursday is an important day.

“I think it’s going to be a monumental day for grizzly bears one way or another,” Santarsiere said.

She said the judge will not be talking about trophy hunting because it’s not a part of the lawsuit, but the issue is the elephant in the room.

Santarsiere said that even if the plaintiffs lose, they will file an immediate appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, asking them to stay the hunt until it has a chance to decide on the merits of the case. Whether or not the grizzly bear is delisted Thursday, bears will feed in the Tom Miner basin. They’ll be in the national forests. They’ll be on ranches, running into hunters and interacting more with humans.

“Bears die every year without hunting in conflict situations,” said Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula. “We’re investing in preventing conflicts and investing in addressing tolerance of grizzly bears on the landscape and understanding how grizzly bears and people live together. It’s a key to the future. Because we’re gonna have grizzly bears and we’re gonna have people on the landscape.”

Paradise Valley resident Doug Peacock, who has spent more than 40 years watching and living with grizzlies in their backcountry ranges, said living with grizzlies hasn’t been given a fair try.

“The possibilities of interacting with grizzlies safely are unknown because we don’t try it — we shoot ‘em on sight,” Peacock said.

He thinks we’ll see lots of dead grizzlies in the coming years, even if the bear remains listed as threatened.

“I think the reason is buried in our humanity, or lack of humanity,” he said. “We’re so afraid of things we don’t know.”

“The grizzly is the last reminder to the most arrogant species on earth that we’re not necessarily in charge all the time,” he said. “We’re just a different flavor of meat. And that’s good for us.”