A Grande Cache animal advocate is distraught after an abandoned grizzly bear cub she nursed back to health was destroyed by provincial wildlife officials.
“I was absolutely devastated,” said Brandy Gienger of the Grande Cache Animal Society. “I was heartbroken when I passed him over to the fish and game officers because I knew that he was going to be euthanized.
“I knew that (they) were just telling me what I wanted to hear so they didn’t have to create a scene with someone.”
On May 3, a work crew informed Gienger of an abandoned bear cub along Highway 40 near the Sheep Creek Bridge. The animal society called Alberta Fish and Wildlife, who told Gienger to leave the animal because its mother was probably out hunting.
The bear was still there among the rocks three days later. On the fourth day, the cub was gone, so Gienger assumed it had been picked up by its mother or fish and wildlife.
One day later though, someone called to say the bear was still in the same area by the highway. That evening, they went to collect the cub, who they decided to call Groot.
An Alberta wildlife rescue organization said it would work to rehabilitate the starving animal, and instructed Gienger how to care for him. Gienger kept him in a dark kennel to keep him from becoming habituated to humans, and fed him goat’s milk, which the famished bear cub loved.
By Thursday, they were ready to send the bear to the rescue centre when they got a call that conservation officers were on their way to collect him.
Gienger said she was reluctant because the bear was hours away from heading to a rescue. But she was assured the officials would “take the best interests” of the bear cub and take care of it.
On Friday morning, an apologetic provincial official told Gienger that the bear had been destroyed because he was severely dehydrated and his organs had stopped functioning properly. That ran counter to what Gienger had seen.
In a statement, Alberta Environment and Parks officials said steps were taken to find a facility that would accept a grizzly bear for permanent care, such as a zoo. However, they were unsuccessful, and said they had no choice to euthanize the “emaciated, dehydrated, lethargic” bear which was “near death.”
“This was a very sad situation, but unfortunately, officials felt the most humane thing to do was to limit the animal’s suffering,” the statement reads. “The decision to humanely euthanize this grizzly bear cub was not made lightly.”
Alberta recently approved a rehabilitation protocol for orphaned black bears, the statement added. However, the “rehabilitation requirements for grizzly bears are different, often requiring specialized care for a longer period of time.”
GRANDE CACHE, Alta. — Concerns are being raised about Alberta’s new policy on rehabilitating orphaned bears after a grizzly cub was killed by wildlife officers this week.
The province lifted a ban on private rehabilitation of cubs last month, but it only applies to black bears.
Two women rescued a grizzly bear cub near Grande Cache this week after watching it for five days to see if its mother would return for it. They went down to the area on Wednesday to check on the bear and found it emaciated, weak and starving.
“We brought it home and fed it some goat’s milk,” said Brandy Gienger, who’s with the Grande Cache Animal Society.
They had two rehabilitation facilities that were willing to take the bear, which they named Grout, but provincial wildlife officers showed up Thursday and took the cub away.
Woollard said they were told Friday that the bear has been put down by the officers.
“They just destroyed him,” said Gienger. “I’m devastated. I am absolutely disgusted with this.”
“They didn’t give him a chance at all.”
Officials with the province said in a statement that they tried to find a zoo that would accept the bear under permanent care, but they weren’t able to find one.
“The bear was emaciated, dehydrated, lethargic, and near death and specialists did not believe it would survive,” said the email. “To limit the bear’s suffering, the bear was euthanized.”
Gienger said the bear was responding well after being fed the goat’s milk.
Her friend, Kyla Woollard, said they’ve heard from the province and hope officials can change the orphaned bear policy to include grizzlies.
“I’m still upset at the fact that something that was so innocent had to lose its life,” she said. “When they passed the law to rehabilitate black bears, I feel like they should have made a law to rehabilitate all animals.”
The province recently approved the orphaned black bear protocol, but they said in their statement that every animal is different.
“The rehabilitation requirements for grizzly bears are different, often requiring specialized care for a longer period of time,” they said in the statement.
Grizzly bears were listed as threatened in Alberta in 2010 when it was determined there were only about 700 left. The numbers led to a recovery strategy aimed at reducing the number of deaths caused by people.
On 23 May, Wyoming officials will vote on whether to allow the hunting of up to two dozen grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park this September. The proposed hunt has reignited controversy over whether or not this population of grizzlies has recovered from decades of hunting and habitat destruction — an issue that was central to the US government’s decision to take the bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem off the endangered-species list in 2017.
Seventy-three scientists sent a letter to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead on 25 April, asking him to halt the hunt until a panel of independent experts can review data on the size of the grizzly (Ursos arctos horribilis) population in this area.They are concerned that government tallies overestimate the number of bears in the ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park, which spans roughly 80,000 square kilometres and is one of the largest continuous wilderness areas in the contiguous United States.
Critics challenge the federal government’s methods for assessing whether the grizzly population has become large enough to face a hunting season1. Those estimates might be too high because of a number of factors, says David Mattson, a wildlife researcher in Livingston, Montana, who retired from the US Geological Survey (USGS) in 2013. They include increased monitoring efforts in the past 30 years, better visibility of bears to aerial surveys — because of shifts in where the animals look for food — and assumptions that females will continue to reproduce until they die. There’s evidence that as female grizzlies age, they tend to reproduce less, Mattson says.
Wildlife scientist Frank van Manen, who leads the USGS Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) in Bozeman, Montana, disagrees with critics of the government estimates. The IGBST collects grizzly population data using a range of methods, including aerial surveys and tagging individual bears2, van Manen says, and the numbers from each method agree. He says that the current population estimate of 718 bears is “extremely conservative”.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department proposed the hunt in February on the basis of those population assessments, and gave the public until 30 April to submit comments on draft regulations. If the rules were to pass, hunters could take up to 12 bears in the monitored region surrounding Yellowstone National Park — an area of about 50,000 square kilometres. They would be allowed to kill a further 12 bears outside that monitoring area, but still in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The state’s wildlife commission is currently reviewing public comments ahead of the late-May vote.
When the US Department of the Interior ended federal protections for the Yellowstone grizzly bear last year, the agency turned management of the animals over to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — the three states in which the animals live. Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission is gathering public comments on a possible hunt. But Montana officials decided to skip this year’s hunting season, citing pending lawsuits claiming that the animals remain threatened.
Mattson and the other researchers who wrote to the governor about the hunt listed several concerns in their letter. Some of the bear’s food, including cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), will probably become even scarcer in the future as a result of environmental changes, the researchers say. This will threaten the survival of some bears and push them to hunt livestock or look for food near houses, increasing their run-ins with people, says Mattson. This could lead to a rise in the number of animals killed as a result of these conflicts, which would further shrink the population.
Even if the current population estimates are accurate, removing 24 animals through hunting could have detrimental effects, says Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who is based in Victor, Idaho. In 2017, 56 bears died in the IGBST monitoring area as a result of natural causes or conflicts with people. “If the same amount dies this year, we could be looking at up to 80 bears removed from the population,” Santarsiere says. “That’s about 10% of the current population.”
And killing females might pose even higher risks to the survival of Yellowstone grizzlies, Santarsiere says. The Wyoming proposal would allow the killing of no more than two females in the area around Yellowstone monitored by the IGBST, but it doesn’t put a cap on the number of females that hunters can take outside this area in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Females can carry up to four cubs at a time, Santarsiere says, “so killing one female could equal removing five bears from the population”.
The USGS’s Van Manen says the hunting proposal won’t pose a risk to the bear population. Only two hunters at a time would be allowed in the monitoring area, and the hunts would stop as soon as two females had been killed in this region, he says.
Wyoming officials seem to be intent on moving forward with this, says Louisa Willcox, a wildlife activist based in Livingston, Montana, who has been in contact with the state’s Game and Fish Department. “It’s extremely unlikely that the scientists’ comments will make them pause.”
Nature557, 148-149 (2018)
“The big challenge is still to deliver emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed, especially in a world where economies are driven by consumption.”
Sonja van Renssen.The inconvenient truth of failed climate policies. Nature Climate Change MAY 2018
Grizzly bears in Denali National Park (Photo by Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service via Flickr)
He said it. He really did. To everyone’s surprise, on March 23, at the North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro-Woolley, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — the same Ryan Zinke who had recommended shrinking Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and who had announced last June that Yellowstone’s grizzlies would be dropped from the endangered species list — declared that he was all for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades.
“We are moving forward with plans to restore the bear to the North Cascades,” Zinke said, stating unequivocally that the stalled process of preparing an environmental impact statement for grizzly restoration there would be completed by the end of this year.
If that really happens, then — 43 years after grizzlies were first listed under the Endangered Species Act — federal agencies can start bringing them back to the Cascades.
Once upon a time, hundreds of grizzlies roamed the North Cascades, as they roamed virtually all the rest of the Western United States. But for more than a century, people shot and trapped them, and the big bears were virtually all gone by the time North Cascades National Park was created in 1968. A year before that, at least one grizzly had still roamed the mountains; somebody shot it within what soon became the park.
Eight years later, grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. A federal recovery plan subsequently designated six grizzly bear recovery zones. One recovery zone covered 6 million acres, nearly all of it national park and national forest land in the North Cascades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came out with a North Cascades chapter to the national grizzly bear restoration plan 21 years ago, but it was never funded until late in the Obama administration. The environmental impact statement (EIS) process then began, but the Interior Department halted it last year.
Now, if the EIS gets finished as Interior Secretary Zinke promises, the feds can move ahead with restoration.
In the years after that lone grizzly was shot in 1967, people have occasionally reported seeing something that sure looked like a grizzly bear, and biologists have assumed a handful of bears at least dropped by. But for years, no one has found hard evidence. The draft EIS explains that in the previous 10 years, there were only four confirmed sightings in the North Cascades — all north of the border with Canada.
Despite extensive research, says Jack Oelfke, head of cultural and natural resources for North Cascades National Park, “we have not had a verified sighting of a grizzly bear on the U.S. side of the border in this ecosystem since the mid-1990s.” In other words, “the population is functionally extirpated. So, it is safe to say that any bears that might be seen on the U.S. side of the border are ‘tourists,’ and are not residents … but that we haven’t even verified a ‘tourist’ bear since the mid-1990s.”
No one expects that grizzlies, left to their own devices, will form a self-sustaining population in the North Cascades ever again. Washington’s current wolf packs were started by individual animals that just walked into the state. Why don’t grizzlies do the same? There are bears north of the border in British Columbia; the closest populations are endangered themselves. Besides, to get here from the north, a bear faces a number of barriers near the border: They would have to swim the Fraser River — not a big challenge for a bear — and cross railroad lines, roads, the Trans-Canada Highway. All together, the barriers are formidable.
If we, as a society, want a grizzly population in the North Cascades, we’ll have to start by hauling in bears from someplace else. Some people don’t like the idea. In 1995, just two years after the recovery plan came out, the state Legislature declared unequivocally, “Grizzly bears shall not be transplanted or introduced into the state.” That law, however, has no legal bearing on national park or national forest lands in the North Cascades. If bears are transported here from Canada or Montana, though, the law would keep state agencies from taking part in restoration efforts.
Joe Scott, international programs director for Conservation Northwest, sees a contradiction: Virtually no one objects to letting nature take its course. If grizzlies show up on their own and take up residence in the North Cascades, that’s OK. But if they get chauffeured in, it’s not so universally accepted. Still, you would have bears there either way.
Before federal agencies would move grizzlies into the North Cascades, Scott says, “They’ve got to find the right bears.” When the restoration planning process started, the national park’s Oelfke says, “we laid out criteria.” First, they’d only take bears from a population that seemed healthy enough to part with some. And they would avoid bears that had any history of conflict with human beings. A bear that already had a taste for garbage would not be a good fit. Problem bears get shot, no matter where they wind up. “Any bear that associates human beings with food is a goner,” Scott says.
The feds, it’s envisioned, would pick bears from an ecosystem that contained foods also found in the North Cascades. Then, they would pick young bears, between 2 and 5 years old. Older bears would be much more likely to pack up and leave. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm notes, “Older bears have already invested a portion of their lives in learning their home territories.” Why wouldn’t they go back? (Everyone involved in the North Cascades planning process knows the story of Winston, a grizzly from British Columbia’s Coast Range mountains that was placed experimentally in the North Cascades years ago. He was collared, so scientists monitoring him knew that he hung out for a while near Ross Lake, then headed for home, crossing roads and walking through people’s yards without being seen. They don’t want more Winstons.)
The scientists would also choose more young females than young males to rebuild the population. Plus, females would be less likely to head back home. The bears might come from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem around Glacier National Park or maybe from Wells Gray Provincial Park, well north of Kamloops in eastern British Columbia.
Populations of predators have certainly been introduced into habitat they had historically roamed. The classic example is Yellowstone wolves. Closer to home, you can look at fishers in the Olympics and Cascades. But grizzlies have only been introduced once — — it is still being done — in the Cabinet Mountains of northwestern Montana, part of the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone.
The project there appears to be successful, offering a template for restoration in the North Cascades, according to Kasworm, who has led the Montana work from the beginning. “We have taken a population that ran in the single digits and brought it back to about 25,” he explains.
It is what he calls “a slow progression.” He and his colleagues started in 1990, introducing four bears as a test between that year and 1994. It took another 10 years, until 2004, to find the first DNA evidence that the bears had started reproducing. Now, he says, they’re going on the fourth generation.
The recovery plan Zinke backed for the North Cascades has a no-action alternative — just keep on keeping on and if grizzlies show up, that will be nice — and three action alternatives, all of which envision a population of up to 200 grizzly bears a century from now. Scott says that some people seem to have “a perception that the ultimate objectives are meant to be immediate. It’ll take a century to get to 200 bears — if all goes well.”
“The most [bears] I’ve heard of being moved in any one year is a handful,” he explains. Alternative C — which Conservation Northwest favors — would bring in up to 25 bears over the first 10 years. Not all of those bears would survive. Some would walk away. At best, the population would grow by a couple of bears each year.
The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service received 127,000 public comments on their draft EIS. Not all were favorable. That was hardly a surprise. Ranchers who already feel beleaguered by wolf packs don’t welcome the prospect of more large predators. And, of course, the idea of a charging grizzly bear is beyond scary, even though, in reality, fewer people are killed by grizzlies than perish in avalanches, according to statistics compiled by Backpacker magazine some years ago.. The seven avalanche deaths in Washington this winter exceed the number of people killed by bears of any kind in all of North America during any year since the turn of the century.
Occasionally, (bear) shit does happen. A man I know was hiking some years ago in Glacier National Park, on a trail along which no bear activity had been reported, when he and a friend saw what they thought was a big dog out in a field. The dog ran toward them. It turned out to be a young male grizzly. It mauled the two people. There’s no way to sugar-coat that.
Oelfke with the North Cascades National Park doesn’t try. He does point out, though, that society has decided to save species, and that entails certain risks. As does spending time in designated wilderness areas.
Then there’s climate change to consider. Would climate change, the elephant in so many rooms, ultimately make the North Cascades a lousy place for grizzly bears, no matter how many are trucked in? Probably not. Officials will do more work on climate change “to pin down what the anticipated changes will be,” Oelfke says. But he says that grizzly bears are noted for their “incredible flexibility” about food. He notes “Their range before [European] settlement,” he notes, “was from the far north all the way to Mexico.” In the North Cascades, “a variety of habitats exist,” Oelfke says, “and thus a variety of food resources.” The bears are “such generalists that even with some changes in habitat, they may not become affected” by the higher temperatures, thinner snowpacks and more frequent downpours predicted for Washington, he says.
Their chances will, of course, be better if Zinke’s support represents a trend, rather than an anomaly. After Zinke’s Sedro-Woolley speech, Conservation Northwest’s executive director, Mitch Friedman,told The Seattle Times’ Lynda Mapes, “Let me catch my breath. Nixon went to China. Zinke is going to bring the grizzly bear back to the North Cascades.”
And why not? “Wildlife conservation used to be a bipartisan issue,” Scott says. “It would be nice to think that wildlife would once again become a bipartisan issue.”
Estimated to be a couple of months old, this black bear was rescued in southern Manitoba after its mother was found dead. Alberta is lifting a ban on rehabilitating orphaned black bear cubs under the age of 12 months. (Manitoba Bear Rehabilitation Centre)
Orphaned black bear cubs have been given a reprieve by a new provincial policy that allows for them to be rehabilitated.
The new policy reverses a ban that’s been on the books since 2010.
Lisa Dahlseide, a wildlife biologist with the Cochrane Ecological Institute, says that ban resulted in the euthanizing of at least 24 black bear cubs, according to data collected from a report released in 2015.
“[The change has been] a long time coming for black bear cubs,” she said. “It really is good news, because no longer will the Alberta government be euthanizing them.”
Instead, orphaned black bears under 12 months of age can be rehabilitated at places like the Cochrane Ecological Institute, or any other wildlife rehabilitation centre across the province that has approved facilities for bear cubs.
This is a photo of an enclosure where orphaned black bear cubs are rehabilitated, at the Cochrane Ecological Institute. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC News)
The rehabilitation process involves a combination of human interaction, and teaching it how to survive without people involved.
“Generally they come and they’re very small,” Dahlseide said. “They’re still drinking milk, because they’re mammals. And so what happens is it’s very limited exposure with people — they only have one human that interacts with them to give them the bottle. As soon as they are done with bottle feeding, then that human interaction is done with as well.”
Adding water features to enclosures
At the Cochrane Ecological Institute, Dahlseide said orphaned bears stay in large enclosures — ranging from six to 20 acres — which are full of native food, as well as trees and other interactive things to give them exercise and learn to get fed without relying on people.
“There’s a lot that goes into rehabbing them to avoid habituation and food conditioning,” she said.
The institute is currently raising funds, through donations, to add water features to each enclosure, which is part of the requirements for the new government protocol.
“That’s actually a really good thing for the bears,” Dahlseide said. “Hopefully those water features can be stocked with fish, so they can get that experience.”
The new protocols include the stipulation that each bear enclosure must have a water feature. (Paul Conrad/Associated Press)
Other bears and other species not included
The new policy does not apply to orphaned grizzly bears, which are still euthanized — a policy that Dahlseide says is wrong-headed.
“Science has actually shown there are no known negative human conflicts with grizzly bears, post-relief,” Dahlseide said. “Other places in the world do rehabilitate them successfully — so I’m hoping the provincial government will be considering them and hopefully including them in the bear protocol as well.”
She pointed to the research of naturalist Charlie Russell, who has done extensive studies of grizzlies, Dahlseide said there’s no reason for people to be afraid.
“His research with bears has proven that bears are not an animal that really needs to be feared. If we trust them, they’ll trust us as well.”
‘No evidence, data or science to support those bans’
The list of orphaned animals banned from rehabilitation is not confined to grizzlies, either, Dahlseide said, adding “and again, the province has no evidence, data or science to support those bans. So we want to see that lifted for all species.”
Rallies are planned on Saturday in Calgary and Edmonton, calling for the lifting of the ban on all orphaned animals.
The Calgary rally takes place at Municipal Plaza, next to city hall, between 3 and 7 p.m.
“We wanted to show our support for the grizzly bears, the foxes, coyotes, wolves, bighorn sheep, and elk — the list goes on and on,” Dahlseide said. “All the animals that the province currently doesn’t allow for rehabilitation.”
In previous years, the spring grizzly bear hunt in B.C. would be getting underway by April, but a ban was imposed last year and new provincial regulations came into effect over the weekend to strengthen it.
A ban on trophy hunting was announced last August and, by December, all non-First Nations grizzly bear hunting throughout the province was illegal.
As of April 1, taxidermists and tanners in B.C. have to report any grizzly bears or grizzly bear parts brought to them within 10 days or face a $230 fine.
He said the additional changes on hunting this month come at a “monumental point in time” but there is still room for improvement.
“That fine needs to be probably 10 times the current amount in order to incentivize these individuals to keep honest and follow the reporting requirements, otherwise it’s just the cost of doing business,” he told Gregor Craigie, the host of CBC’s On The Island.
Other changes for hunters
About 250 grizzlies are killed annually by hunters in B.C., according to a provincial estimate reported when the ban was first introduced.
“We are hoping that the grizzly hunt ban will signal a new era in how both the B.C. government and British Columbians in general will interact and relate to all our carnivores in the province,” Genovali said.
Under the new regulations, hunters must carry all their species licences during a hunting trip.
They must now also collect all the edible portions of large animals they kill, including cougars, mule deer, white-tailed deer, fallow deer, moose, elk, mountain sheep, mountain goat, caribou, bison and black bears.
On The Island
New grizzly bear hunting regulations take effect to strengthen ban
The NDP government amended the Wildlife Act regulations, starting over the weekend, to help enforce the ban on grizzly bear hunting. 6:13
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has decided not to hold a Yellowstone-area grizzly bear hunting season this year. This is welcome news and makes a lot of sense. We applaud the agency’s decision and want to do everything we can to work together to avoid any need (or excuse) for a grizzly hunting season in the future.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) “delisted” grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—an area that includes portions of southwestern Montana, northwestern Wyoming, and northeastern Idaho. This means that in those areas, Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears have been removed and the states could now hold limited hunting seasons.
Wyoming plans to move forward with a grizzly hunting season this year. Idaho will likely discuss the issue during its Fish and Game Commission meeting next month. We are encouraged that, in the meantime, Montana has shown restraint and decided not to hold a hunt in 2018.
In her comments recommending against a hunt this year, FWP Director Martha Williams emphasized focusing on managing grizzly bears for long-term recovery and conflict prevention. She explained that FWP will be “continuing to work hard at responding proactively to bear conflicts and educating people and communities in grizzly country how to be bear aware.”
Indeed, FWP’s wildlife specialists have long worked with communities like Missoula to prevent human-bear conflicts. And the agency’s website has a veritable library of practical advice about living with bears, such as how to recreate safely in bear country, avoid bear attractants, and use bear spray.
This is critically important work for bears and humans alike. Emphasizing conflict prevention is the exact direction that grizzly bear management in Montana should continue to take, whether grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act or not. In recent years, NRDC has collaborated with ranchers, conservation colleagues, and state and federal wildlife managers—including FWP—to reduce conflicts with large carnivores like grizzlies. We look forward to supporting and partnering with FWP in the coming years to do even more.
In the meantime, FWP’s decision not to hunt grizzlies makes sense for multiple reasons. After more than 40 years on the list of threatened and endangered species, Yellowstone-area grizzlies were removed less than a year ago. The population remains completely isolated from any other grizzly bear population. It also remains too small to ensure long-term genetic health. Rather than killing these bears as soon as we can, we should stay focused on helping them further recover.
In addition, litigation over FWS’s grizzly delisting rule is ongoing. Shortly after the final rule was published, a federal appellate court rejected an identical approach taken by FWS to delist Western Great Lakes wolves. As we’ve told the agency, this means FWS—as the Court required it to do with Great Lakes wolves—should rescind its grizzly delisting rule, start over with any proposal to delist Yellowstone grizzlies, and re-list the bears in the meantime. Until these legal challenges and shortcomings are resolved, it makes little sense to even consider a hunt.
Grizzly bears are Montana’s state animal. They are the emblem of our wildlife management agency. They are one of the reasons I feel so proud and fortunate to have grown up in this state—and so humble when I head into its mountains. We don’t need to hunt these magnificent creatures. Instead, by working together and being proactive, we can figure out how to protect property and keep livestock, and ourselves, safe in grizzly country. We can figure out how to reconnect Yellowstone-area bears with their nearest neighbors to the northwest. It will take work. But as Director Williams herself has reflected, “the honor of living in one of the few remaining states with healthy grizzly populations makes that effort more than worthwhile.”
This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.
Wyoming announced its plans to open grizzly bear hunting, now that the bruins in Greater Yellowstone no longer have the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
The reaction has been predictable. The people who didn’t want grizzlies delisted in the first place loudly protested.
“Wyoming’s reckless hunt ignores the fact that grizzly bears remain endangered in Yellowstone and across the west,” Andrea Santarsiere, an East Idaho-based senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “It’s tragic that these imperiled animals will be shot and killed so trophy hunters can stick heads on their walls.”
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams said her agency will manage grizzly bears for long-term recovery. It plans to prevent conflicts with humans by “continuing to work hard at responding proactively to bear conflicts, and educating people and communities in grizzly country how to be bear aware,” she said.
To meet the overall population goals, 17 male and two female grizzlies are allowed to be killed within the so-called demographic monitoring area around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Wyoming has the largest area and quota, allowing 12 bears killed. It is also allowing the same number in ranches and other areas surrounding the central grizzly habitat.
Montana would have been allowed six males. Idaho would be allowed only one inside the habitat area, which includes most of Island Park and parts of Ashton in East Idaho next to Yellowstone.
Federal officials have told the Idaho commission to consider requiring all hunters to take a mandatory bear identification class, to ensure they kill what they’re after.
Idaho game managers may also ask the commission to allow additional grizzlies to be killed outside of that habitat area, in a region west to Interstate 15. That request would likely focus on the Palisades Wilderness Study Area south of the Tetons and the Big Hole Mountains west of Teton Valley. It also could include part of the Centennial Mountains. The latter is the most important wildlife corridor linking two of the largest, wildest landscapes left in the Lower 48: the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the 22-million-acre Salmon-Selway ecosystem of Central Idaho.
If commissioners allow hunting in this critical wildlife corridor, they will make it harder for grizzly bears to migrate into Central Idaho — a region largely protected as wilderness without roads and development, and where grizzly bears were extirpated in the 1950s. Bears are still protected there under the Endangered Species Act, but only a few have wandered in from surrounding populations to the north, east and southeast.
Idaho still has grizzly bears up north in the Selkirk Mountains and the Cabinet-Yaaks near Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry. They remain protected as endangered, and the hunting proposal would not change that.
Meanwhile, our neighbor to the north, British Columbia, announced in December 2017 that it was ending grizzly hunting. The province has 15,000 grizzlies.
“It’s abundantly clear that most British Columbians do not support the killing of grizzlies,” said Doug Donaldson, British Columbia’s minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
There are many hunters who share delisting opponents’ distaste for grizzly hunting. Even more don’t like the practice of bear baiting, using food and other attractants to lure bears in. They consider it a violation of fair chase ethics, though a stronger case can be made for its use to deal with bears that become habituated to humans.
With such a low quota, Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore told hunters in 2017 not to expect a hunting season right away. The commission should stick with that advice for now.
Three 2-year-old grizzly bears are startled by an female elk as they playfully roam Swan Lake Flats in Yellowstone National Park. Idaho Statesman file
Ancient groves of Douglas fir trees still stand in North Cascades National Park. The little-visited park — it receives less than one percent of the annual visitation of Yellowstone — can resemble the misty, prehistoric woods before the Pacific Northwest was settled. Wolverines, cougars, moose, and hundreds of other species of animals dwell here, living among ponds and beneath towering, pinnacled mountains.
But although these woodlands in Washington State were also once rich in grizzly bears, the park hasn’t confirmed spotting any in years. After being thoroughly hunted, there may be none left.
“Withouthelp, that population will not recover on its own,” Frank van Manen, head of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said in an interview.
The nation’s top wildlife managers have been planning to recover grizzly bears in North Cascades since 1991. The process, though, is intensely bureaucratic, requiring years of evaluations, re-evaluations, and proposals (some of which are hundreds of pages long).
Now, though, after more than 20 years of research, it might actually happen.
But Zinke maintained that grizzly bear recovery is part of “continuing our commitment to conservation.”
He may have been swayed by the expanse and wildness of the North Cascades region. There aren’t many places left to recovery grizzly bears, and North Cascades is as good as it gets. The park is surrounded by national forests on three sides and several Canadian territorial parks adjoin the park to the north.
“It’s a tremendously wild area,” Chris Servheen, the former Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview. “There’s a tremendous amount of grizzly bear habitat.”
Recovering grizzly bears in the North Cascades means transporting bears from British Columbia into the park. According to the park’s plans, the bears will be helicoptered in, as that’s the only way to access extremely remote areas in a mostly roadless place.
There are four different options on the table right now, detailed in the park’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). One option, which Zinke apparently opposes, is doing nothing. If so, the remaining few bears will die out. The other three options propose restoring grizzly bear populations to approximately 200 individuals during the next 25, 60, or 100 years.
Helicoptering sedated bears to their homes in the deep backwoods of North Cascades, then, isn’t just a logistical challenge. It requires a long-term commitment from wilderness managers from multiple agencies. It’s also pricey.
“A well-funded project that has a broad base of public and political support can do the job,” Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus in animal behavior and ecology at the University of Calgary, said in an interview.
“It ain’t easy — but it sure is possible,” he said.
A shining example of where successful bear recovery has occurred is in Yellowstone National Park. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the population of 136 bears there as endangered, but the population has since grown to around 700 bears today. These bears were taken off the endangered species list last year.
North Cascades, with few bears left (perhaps none), may have a significantly more difficult hill to climb. Fortunately, decades of successful — and at times unsuccessful — bear management in Yellowstone show how it can be done.
“We have the tools in our toolbox to recover grizzlies in the North Cascades,” said Severheen. “We know how to do that.”
A critical factor, learned from Yellowstone, is keeping grizzly mothers alive.
“Ultimately, grizzly bear populations thrive or decline depending on the survival of adult females,” said van Manen.
Even into the early 1980s in Yellowstone, grizzly bear populations were declining. “There were too many adult females dying,” said van Manen. This was occurring in large part because bears were getting into garbage dumps, and they became habituated to humans, which then created conflicts with people. Many of these bears had to be killed.
But park managers solved these problems, and many others, including by encouraging cattle ranchers with allotments next to the park to voluntarily give up this leased land.
Although North Cascades and the surrounding forests provide a massive expanse of territory to reintroduce bears, some aren’t pleased with the government’s bear recovery plans.
The local Board of Skagit County Commissioners, have repeatedly opposed the grizzly introduction, citing public safety concerns. A spokesperson for the commissioners said none were available for comment.
Some ranchers are also concerned about grizzly bears in the area — and not just because bears that roam outside the park might eat some cattle.
“Reintroducing as many as 200 man-eating predators into an area already reeling from exploding gray wolf populations is anything but neighborly,” Ethan Lane, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association federal lands executive director, said in a statement.
Coming across a grizzly in the vast North Cascades wilderness, however, is unlikely. This is especially the case during the first decade, when 10 or 15 bears might be wandering the woods.
“We’re talking thousands of square miles of country,” said Severheen. “People won’t even know they’re in there.”
Additionally, bears “are the ultimate omnivores,” said van Manen. They eat almost anything in the wild: Fish, berries, grass — but humans are not part of a bear’s diet.
Nor do bears seek out people (unless they’ve been attracted to something like a food dump).
“Anybody that spends much time in grizzly bear country recognizes that there is a pretty low probability of having an interaction with bears,” said Severheen.
The Interior Department says that the final EIS draft will be released in late summer 2018. It will consider 126,000 public comments. From there, the Park Service and its management partners will pick one of the recovery options.
Recovering a fallen icon of the American West is bold, expensive, and will inevitably have its opponents. But national parks are required to conserve these places as they naturally exist, and grizzly bears are an integral part of this environment.
“There should be recovery in the North Cascades,” said Severheen.
A species being removed from the ESA is rare and, in normal circumstances, should be celebrated. It means that a population has recovered enough to no longer require extra protections, which should be considered a good thing. And the grizzly bear has: When the species was listed in the 1970s, it was estimated that a mere 150 existed. Today, there are about 700 individuals.
This decision, however, seems unlikely to be met with applause. As the New York Times reports, environmental organizations are already lining up to sue to stop it. And 125 Native American tribes have banded together to oppose the delisting because they weren’t consulted in the decision-making. Also, any good feelings animal lovers get from the words “conservation success story” are likely to be squashed by the fact that the delisting means the bears could now be hunted. People really don’t like it when charismatic megafauna get killed.
Should the grizzly bear be delisted—or this just yet another awful environmental move by the Trump administration, divorced from science and decency? One political litmus test is to check what the Obama administration thought of the grizzly bear’s fate. In March 2016, Dan Ashe, then the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defended the delisting. And the recovery numbers do look strong (700 sure sounds small, but Yellowstone grizzlies are a top-of-the-food-chain predator living in a small land mass—what matters more is the populations’ stability, not its size).
But scientists have dramatically different opinions about how to read those numbers. Luke Whelan over at Wired has a good rundown of how the two sides of the debate see the issue. One school of thought says that because the bears’ populations have plateaued, that means they’ve hit the carrying capacity, or the number of animals the habitat can sustain, and are in good shape. Under this logic, delisting makes sense. The counterargument suggests that the carrying capacity is lower than it should be because its habitat and food sources have changed since the bear was listed in the ’70s, primarily due to climate change—which means that the bear needs to stay protected. In fact, most of the environmental groups planning to sue over the move basically want to keep the bear listed because of the threat climate change will increasingly pose. And climate change does pose a threat—warmer temperatures are causing white pine beetles to move further and further into grizzly habitat, killing pine trees and hurting a critical food source.
Who’s right? It’s hard to say definitively—it depends on how you read the science, and how you think the ESA should be applied based on that science. Arguing that climate change is going to pose a threat to an animal and therefore warrants (somewhat) proactive listing is a tough sell—honestly, on a long enough scale, climate change and the cascading food chain and habitat problems could justify listing most animals on the ESA. That would be an interesting precedent to set. It’s also unclear how ESA protection could help address the pine beetle problem. The ESA has limited resources and offers limited protections—indeed, many conservationists think it is actually most successful when wielded as a stick to inspire (or coerce) proactive solutions before a species requires listing, rather than as a real way to solve environmental problems. And through that lens, it’s clear that what the grizzly bear really needs is for climate change to be taken seriously, and minimized. The ESA can’t force that—it’s not equipped to.
When the government is this bad at accepting basic truths, it makes it hard to have faith that their decisions are good ones—even decisions that seem positive or reasonable. It also creates a world in which we have to fight to keep species listed on the ESA because we know we’re not going to do much else to stop climate change from screwing them over in the long run. It is exhausting and demoralizing to live in a world like this.