Grizzly bears move into new areas, lower elevations
by Kelsey Dayton
— September 17, 2013
In June, a grizzly bear was spotted near Beaver Creek outside Lander, an area that up until three years ago wasn’t known for grizzly bears. Bears are being spotted near Big Piney and in the Wyoming Range and south of Meeteetse, areas that were not considered bear habitat in recent history.
As the population of the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem expands, grizzlies are expanding their range. That expansion, along with a year of low whitebark pine cone production — a staple of the grizzly’s diet — means outdoor enthusiasts need to be hyper-vigilant this fall, even when recreating in areas where they’ve never seen signs of bears.
“A guy hunting the irrigation ditches in November would never have considered encountering a grizzly, but that’s going to happen,” said Brian DeBolt, large carnivore conflict coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish.
It is to be expected that grizzlies expand their territory as the population increases. The worry is where they are moving, DeBolt said. They are headed into places where there are subdivisions, livestock, and heavy recreation use like the Wyoming Range and the Southern Wind River Mountains.
“Every year we see grizzly bears occupying new areas in Wyoming,” DeBolt said. “Bears are expanding into areas where there is just a lot of human activity. And of course, the more bears you have and the more people you have, the more conflicts you have. The more conflicts you have the more grizzly bear mortality you are going to see.”
The Greater Yellowstone’s bear population is estimated at more than 700 bears, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator. The grizzly’s distribution has increased 200 percent since 1981 and they are pushing out in all directions from the Greater Yellowstone area.
Reports of bear sightings in areas where grizzlies didn’t live before isn’t surprising, said Frank van Manen, team leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. “I don’t think those are flukes,” he said. Those are the first observations of the animals moving into the area. Typically the first sightings are of young males who have sought an area where they don’t have to bump into bigger males.
“I think it’s a sign of things to come,” van Manen said.
This year bears will also likely be at lower elevations seeking food. Whitebark pine cone production is down. Surveys show an average of 5.2 cones per tree compared to 33 cones per tree last year, said Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor with Wyoming Game and Fish. The cones, which are high in fat and found at high elevations, are an important food source for bears in the fall as they prepare for hibernation.
“When naturally abundant food is low, we do often see an increase number of conflicts with bears,” DeBolt said.
It’s not that bears are more aggressive, they just will be appearing in new areas looking for alternative food sources. Bears will likely to turn truffles or roots from plants like yampa, according to van Manen. These alternative food sources are found at lower elevations than the cones.
They also will seek out more meat sources for their diet. Whitebark pine seeds are nutritious, rich in fats and easy for bears to find in good years. “It’s a lot of bang for your buck, so to speak,” van Manen said.
The low cone production this year is, in part, cyclical, he said. Whitebark pine trees have years where they produce 30 cones per tree, like last year which yielded a good crop. That’s sometimes followed by a year of low Whitebark pine production, like this year. The new variable is the impact of the mountain pine beetle and blister rust which has killed Whitebark pine trees throughout the ecosystem. Even when trees are producing a lot of cones, there aren’t as many trees, so ecosystem-wide there aren’t as many cones.
The impact is something scientists are trying to understand, not just because this year is a low year. Finding out how the decline in the trees and cone production is affecting grizzly bears is one of the last missing pieces of information as mangers prepare to remove the bears from the endangered species list.
The grizzly bear was formally delisted in 2007, but a court ruled in 2009 that wildlife managers need to show how the bears are adapting to the decline in whitebark pine and how that plays out in the long-term.
“That’s not an easy question to answer,” van Manen said.
This summer managers have been compiling data on what bears are eating, as well as how, when one food source dwindles, it impacts the animals’ health and what food sources the omnivores turn to replace it in their diet. Researchers compiled information from previous studies and also monitored bears with telemetry, flights and algorithms to see where they were spending time to figure out what they were eating. For instance, if a bear was spending a lot of time on a high elevation screen slope, they were likely eating army cutworm moths. And, scientists can follow the path bears followed using the GPS from radio collars to determine what food sources were in the area.
The final report will be presented at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting held in November in Bozeman, Mont.
“I could honestly not tell you what our assessment is yet,” van Manen said.
What is known is that this fall, hunters and all people headed into the outdoors should be extra vigilant. A hunter was injured Sept. 12 in the Teton wilderness, the fifth bear attack in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this year.
Wyoming Game and Fish stressed the importance of carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it. Van Manen also recommends checking with agencies about bear activity.
“You could be in areas where historically there haven’t been any sightings,” he said. “Until now.”
— “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] Follower 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.