The number of grizzly bears has reached the point of recovery and it’s time to delist. So say ranchers and wildlife management officials in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem area. This area includes a large section of northwest Wyoming, southeastern Montana and eastern Idaho, as well as Yellow stone National Park.
It should be noted that the Yellowstone Ecosystem extends far beyond the boundaries of the national park and sometimes causes confusion by people who don’t want grizzly bears managed in an area they perceive to be the park.
The grizzly bear is currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to Scott Talbott, Director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. This is somewhat different than “endangered,” Talbott said. But the bottom line remains: They are federally protected in the Yellowstone Ecosys tem.
The bear has been under scrutiny for many years. Grizzlies were listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the authority of the ESA in 1975. At that time, 136 grizzlies were thought to live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The goal of an ESA listing is to recover a species to a self-sustaining, viable population. In the case of the grizzly the sustainable goal was set at 500.
Recovery levels were attained and the grizzly was delisted in 2007 with a conservation strategy in place. However several parties including environmental protectionist groups sued, arguing not enough evidence existed to show adequate habitat and that one of the bears’ primary food sources— whitebark pine nuts—was in decline. A judge ruled in favor of the environmentalists and the bear was relisted in 2009.
Talbott said a new study was completed and made public in December 2014. Since that time the study group has been working with USFWS and he said they are hopeful a new rule will be released soon, although there is not a clear timetable. “We (representatives from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) have repeatedly met with the service (USFWS) to initiate that process and move it forward,” Talbott told WLJ.
The study examined populations of bears based on guidelines that determined 500 to be a sustainable number. The agencies and scientists studying the animal reported 757 bears.
Another study reports numbers as high as 1,200 animals, but Talbot noted that difference is due to different study methods.
The Yellowstone Ecosystem subcommittee (YES) study team, which consists of state and federal biologists, uses a process known as Choa2, a statistical estimate for counting grizzly bear concentrations. This study provides the official count of 757, which Talbott calls a very conservative estimate.
The other group conducting bear population studies is the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), which uses a mark-resight estimate. This method looks at animals that are trapped and tagged due to conflicts. Officials then count how many times they are seen verses unmarked bears in the population. Talbott said this method hasn’t been finalized and provides a much higher number than the Chao2 method.
Dan Thompson, Large Carnivore Section Supervisor with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, spoke about the different numbers when counting the grizzly population, saying, “I know that people think we are being disingenuous but we’re trying to make sure that we’re not portraying something that’s not defendable by science. I’m very comfortable saying that the 757 number is accurate based on the data analysis technique we’ve used for years, but we know it’s biased low.”
Clearly we have exceeded all of the recovery criteria, Talbott said. “We feel we have a very strong assessment of whitebark pine habitat and have answered all of those questions and we need to move forward with delisting.”
Although the grizzly bear lives throughout the three-state ecosystem, its population is largest in Wyoming, with about 50 percent outside of the national park and only 25 percent within park boundaries. Talbott said the remaining population is pretty evenly split with 12.5 percent in Idaho and 12.5 percent in Montana.
YES and IGBC have both recommended that grizzly bears be removed from threatened status.
From a financial standpoint delisting also makes sense. Talbott said the state of Wyoming currently spends $1.4 million per year on grizzly bear management. A portion of that is spent to compensate landowners and livestock producers for confirmed losses from grizzly bears. The amount of compensation in 2007 was $83,000 and in FY 2015 the state paid $486,842 for livestock loss reimbursement.
Albert Sommers, a cattle rancher and President of the Upper Green River Cattle Association (UGRCA), who also serves in the Wyoming House of Representatives for District 20, talked with WLJ about some of the issues he and his organization have seen with the grizzly.
The UGRCA knows firsthand the impact of bear depredations. That association consists of about nine ranchers who have grazing allotments within the Yellowstone Ecosystem. He said they are permitted 7,000 cattle on the allotment of approximately 130,000 acres, and currently run between 5,900 to 6,000 head (a cow/calf pair counts as one).
Sommers said the first bear kill on their allotment was confirmed in 1993. Cattle losses between 1990-1994 from all sources and prior to the arrival of large carnivores including wolves were about 2 percent annually. As the bear increased its range and population, by 2000 calf losses were closer to 8-10 percent. Sommers said wolves are included in the conversation, but of 75 head of cattle killed last year, a majority were taken by grizzlies. He added that as of Aug. 14 of this year, more than 50 animals had been lost to bears and four to wolves.
Managing the bear means managing cattle, and Sommers said it’s harder to manage grass when the cattle won’t go into timbered pockets to graze because grizzlies are in the area. “We’ve moved from having riders just moving cattle to grass and watching for sick animals to having their primary goal being to look for depredated carcasses. That’s the only way you can get a management action,” he told WLJ. “We’re trying to think outside the box on what we can and can’t do to reduce predation, but there’s no silver bullet.”
Because a large population of bears resides in northwest Wyoming, conflicts with livestock are occurring more often. Talbott said the expansion of grizzly bears extends off of forest land to private property east of Cody, WY.
There have also been documented sightings west of Lander, WY, in the Wind River Mountains and as far south as the Big Piney, WY, area.
Our number one priority is human safety, Thompson said. “But with increased population and increased human activity, there’s more opportunity for conflict.”
Although human engagements with bears are rare, earlier this month Yellowstone National Park officials confirmed a hiker was killed by a grizzly bear attack within the park. Evidence pointed to a female bear as his attacker, they said. The bear was captured and euthanized and her cubs will be relocated to a zoo this fall.
So far there hasn’t been any movement by the USFWS or any other group to delist the bear. When a new rule is published it will go through the federal rule-making process, which includes a public comment period before being enacted.
All of the officials WLJ spoke with pointed out that if the bear is delisted it will still be managed. And while there may be limited hunting, it will not be a significant number. More importantly, delisting will give state wildlife officials more flexibility in dealing with problematic grizzlies. Currently when the decision is made to capture, relocate or put down a bear, the state must work with USFWS. Thompson said state and federal wildlife officials work together, but as long as the bear remains on the threatened list, all final decisions rest with the USFWS.
Sommers said he tells people that maintaining endangered species on the landscape requires working landscapes in the West to continue, and working landscapes are all about ranching. “If we want to keep sage-grouse, grizzly bears, wolves, all of that, we as a nation have to find a way to make it work for ranchers. And work for working landscapes—that is absolutely essential.”
Sommers concluded, “This is really good proof that the Endangered Species Act worked. So this is actually a success story, if the environmentalists will allow it to be a success story.”