Will the grizzly bear flourish or falter after decades under ESA?
– December 24, 2013
On December 11, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), made up of representatives from different government agencies, recommended grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem be removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act. The recommendation could mark the end of more than 35 years of federal management of the grizzly, or it could be the continuation of contentious debate about the future and fate of the bears.
Grizzlies were first listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 with a recovery population goal of 500 bears, including 48 females with cubs. In 2007 the bears were delisted when the animal’s population was at an estimated 600, but the ruling was challenged in court. In 2009 a federal court ruling reinstated the threatened status of the bears, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider the impacts of global warming and the reduction of whitebark pine, an important food source for Yellowstone bears.
At the IGBC meeting earlier this month, the IGBC study team, made up of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, presented a food synthesis study and research meant to address the court’s concerns about the impact of the decline of whitebark pine. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will next evaluate the IGBC recommendation to delist the bears. If they decide to proceed with delisting they will write a new rule removing the bear’s threatened status. While IGBC’s recommendation is simply a recommendation, most see it as the first step toward delisting and in 2007, the last time the committee made a recommendation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services agreed and the bear population, according to scientists has been growing ever since the original recommendation.
The health and future of grizzly bears are topics that ignite passionate and varied opinions. Peaks to Plains tracked down a variety stakeholders and asked them to share their views on the complexities of grizzly bear management, recovery, and the research used to decide the fate of the bears. Here’s what they said:
Chris Servheen, Grizzly bear recovery coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
There are more than 700 grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In 2013, biologists counted 58 females with cubs — the most ever counted in the area, and well beyond the original recovery goal set in the 1970s, Servheen noted.
They are expanding their range, pushing into areas where they haven’t been seen for 100 years, like the Owl Creek range, the Southern Wind River Mountains and the Beartooth Plateau, a sign the greater Yellowstone is reaching its carrying capacity for the number of bears it can support, Servheen said.
He said wildlife authorities have met recovery objectives, and the bears were ready for delisting in 2007 when they were taken off the list. Despite the federal court overruling the delisting based on the failure to consider whitebark pine, everything else held up in the 2009 court challenge: the mortality rates, the distribution and the conservation strategies.
Whitebark pine has declined significantly since 2000, yet there hasn’t been a big impact on the bear population, Servheen said. Grizzly bears aren’t dependent on whitebark pine. Whitebark isn’t available every year anyway, he said, and the bears are omnivores that eat a variety of foods. The shift in diet hasn’t shown any measurable impact on the bear’s body size or reproductive rate.
“It’s indicative the bears are adapting well,” said Servheen.
Christine Wilcox, research scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council
Wilcox isn’t convinced the bear population is growing, or that the population is where the IGBC study team suggests. She notes the study team itself is still trying to figure out the most accurate way to count bears.
“It’s not entirely transparent where their numbers are coming from,” she said.
Nor is the research fully completed. It hasn’t gone through full peer review and the data isn’t available to other scientists. “They are making policy decisions on information that is not yet published,” she said.
That’s cause for concern about the methodology and analysis the study team is using. While the USGS — which aids in efforts to count grizzlies — is considered an independent agency, it is under the authority of the Department of Interior, which is under extreme political pressure to get the bears delisted.
“It’s hard to have faith in their objectivity,” she said. There should be a complete independent scientific evaluation of the population data, Wilcox contends, and any management action should wait for that process to be completed.
There are other issues that need to be addressed, such as whether there’s suitable habitat linking bear populations. A certain level of connectivity between geographically dispersed bear populations should be secure before the grizzly bear is delisted.
“When we look at it from a broader sense of recovery with the bears, we are not quite there,” she said. “Overall, my feeling is this is a premature act and we don’t have the information we really need to make a fully-informed decision.”
Frank van Manen, team leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, and a supervisory research wildlife biologist
There is no doubt whitebark pine is declining due to the mountain pine beetle, van Manen said. It is a diminished resource for the bears, even though beetle kill has been waning since 2009, he said. A synthesis of literature on bears in the greater Yellowstone suggests they eat 234 different food items and species, and 75 were used frequently. That shows bears can adapt and shift their diets as needed, van Manen said. Bears are eating fewer whitebark pine nuts, however the bears still maintain the same body condition. Some foods do take more effort to obtain, but bears seem to be doing it without a significant loss to overall body condition.
There was an increase in mortality from 2000 to 2012, but it was primarily outside the recovery zone and related to the expanding population — not necessarily food sources, van Manen said.
The bear population is slowing in growth, but that could be due to the increase in density as the area reaches its carrying capacity for the animals. “Even though we’ve seen a slowing of population growth, we don’t see any patterns that would concern us with the future of this population,” he said.
The research presented to the IGBC is in various stages of peer review. It has been reviewed internally by other USGS scientists and bear biologists and some pieces are being reviewed by various journals. “I know people are questioning our research,” he said, “ but we are following a standard procedure with the USGS to produce reliable science.”
David Mattson, visiting senior research scientist and lecturer at Yale, and former member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team between 1979 and 1993
It’s true bears are omnivores and have adapted their diet to eat more meat, Mattson said during a teleconference this month. But getting meat is much more hazardous for the bears than foraging for whitebark pine nuts.
Throughout most of the report, rarely is the demography broken down between males and females when it comes to food, Mattson said. Females, which eat twice as many pine nuts as males, have to increase their meat consumption, which means the females – and their cubs- are coming in closer contact with predators, like wolves, and also humans, as they seek out livestock.
“If you are killing livestock you are going to end up dead in pretty short order,” he said.
The research was framed as a contest between whitebark pine loss and bears reaching carrying capacity to explain the reason population growth has slowed. “If you are a scientist, it’s absurd,” he said. Carrying capacity isn’t static; it’s about balancing everything. “There is no way to say it’s either carrying capacity or whitebark pine, because it’s one and the same.”
Mattson contends that the research was rushed. Normally, studies go through internal and external peer review before being presented to the public. “Why is there this stampede to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear population?” he said. Part of the reason, according to Mattson, are that the states involved — Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — want management control, at least in part to institute hunts, he said.
Scott Talbott, director of Wyoming Game and Fish, and chairman of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee
“It’s pretty clear that grizzly bears have recovered in the Yellowstone ecosystem,” Talbott said.
The food synthesis report presented by the grizzly bear study team was compelling, showing the bears have shifted their diets and adapted to the decrease in whitebark pine. The population is continuing to grow and they are expanding into new areas.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever the population is threatened,” he said.
As the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Talbott supports state management of the grizzly bear, and says he has no doubt his agency is ready to take over managing the animals. The department has already demonstrated its capability in managing wolves. “We’re the ones collecting the data,” he said. “We’re the ones managing the conflicts. Right now the only thing happening with grizzly bear management is we’re managing conflicts.”
Talbott wants to see bears managed with the welfare of people in mind, as well as maintaining a viable population.
“Hunting would certainly be part of the management,” he said. “We anticipate we’d manage grizzly bears very similarly the way we manage black bears and mountain lions.”
Jesse Logan has a PhD in entomology and taught at Colorado State University and Virginia Tech before becoming project leader for bark beetle work for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in 1992. He is now retired.
The mountain pine beetle epidemic is unlike any before, Logan said. “What has already occurred is far greater than anything we have evidence to evaluate,” he said.
It happened so fast that whitebark pine didn’t have a time to adapt. Beetle kill of the tree species has slowed in some areas because the trees there are already dead. The hardest hit area is the bear recovery zone and the implications will be long-reach because of the long time periods it takes for trees to reach cone-bearing age.
Logan contends that the study team minimized the epidemic and that it uses an inappropriate time interval to consider the impact of the reduction in whitebark pine. There are significant time lags between when something happens and when a species react. It could be several years still before the real impact is known, he said.
While there are other food sources, whitebark pine has a high caloric value, and it involves little energy expenditure for the bears since red squirrels gather the nuts and aren’t a threat when grizzly bears raid the caches.
It’s not that more research needs to be done, Logan said, but the data used by the study team needs to be made available to other researchers. Logan has requested data from the research team several times, and he says he hasn’t gotten a satisfactory response.
Albert Sommers, rancher, president of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, and Wyoming state legislator
This summer Sommers watched a grizzly sow and three cubs move across the landscape in the Upper Green River basin. It wasn’t the first he’d seen. In the past six years Sommers and other ranchers have noticed an increase in bears in the area.
“Now we routinely see sows with cubs,” he said.
That not only means the bear population is healthy, in Sommers’ view. It also means more conflicts.
“We’ve seen the death loss of our calves go from what used to be around 2 percent to anywhere from 8 to 10 percent, and a large portion of that is attributed to grizzly bears,” he said.
Sommers said it’s time to delist the bears. The population has met all the requirements. State management would make dealing with conflicts faster and easier, and it would provide alternatives to mitigate conflicts — allow for higher takes in the Upper Green area, for example. It also would allow for fewer conditions the ranchers have to agree to in order to graze cattle on Forest Service land in the area.
“Hunting is a viable option, too,” Sommers said. “The biggest that would do is put a little more fear in the bear when they hear a gunshot.”
Robert Hoskins, Dubois, independent conservationist
For years Hoskins has studied grizzly bears and followed the work of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. As an independent naturalist and conservationist, he’s interested in how climate change impacts the landscape, and how species adapt. Plus, he just really likes bears.
“There’s something really mysterious and attractive about an animal like a bear in the wilderness and the woods, doing the things bears do,” he said.
Personal feelings aside, grizzly bear management has long been tainted by politics, he said. Anyone questioning research methods or numbers is ridiculed or belittled by the committee, he said.
The agenda hasn’t been about what is best for the bears, but about how they can be removed from Endangered Species Act protection as quickly as possible, and that intent can be seen in the research, according to Hoskins. Instead of asking whether the decline in whitebark pine is hurting bear populations, they set out to prove whitebark pine isn’t a factor for the grizzly. The main data comes from a synthesis of other studies instead of the study team conducting its own studies, with large samples, he said.
“I’ve got problems with the politics and I’ve got problems with the science,” he said.
Hoskins said he believes the National Research Council committee should provide an unbiased assessment of grizzly bear recovery from 1975 to present and make recommendations for improvements in the program.
“We really need a truly unbiased as possible evaluation of the grizzly bear conservation program from start to finish, from science to management,” he said. “But that means we don’t put in a delisting rule next year.”—“Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at [email protected] Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.