Conflicts with hunters is the No. 1 cause of death for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, said Steve Cain senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park.
That’s why it’s important to understand how bears and people use the landscape during the park’s annual elk reduction program. A new study aims to help answer several questions, including whether bears from the surrounding area come to the park to take advantage of the gut piles when the hunt starts, said Mike Ebinger, a research technician with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
To track bear movements outside Grand Teton researchers set up hair snares, which lure bears to an area with an attractant surrounded by a fence. The bear goes over or under the wire, leaving behind its hair. Scientists can analyze hair caught in the snares for DNA and can compare that to data compiled on Greater Yellowstone grizzlies.
Researchers also want to know how bears are moving on the landscape relative to the hundreds of gut piles left during the hunt. “That’s a lot of resources during a time period that’s critical for bears,” Ebinger said.
By tracking bears already fitted with GPS collars, Ebinger can see if bears move around during the elk hunt, or stay in the hunting areas.
The other component of the study looks at how bears and people interact with each other during the hunt. Hunters voluntarily carry GPS units to track their movements. Ebinger uses the data to see how close they come to collared bears and whether it’s the hunter stumbling upon the grizzly, or if the animals come upon the humans. The data could help hunters move more safely around the landscape by identifying where, when and how the bears are moving in relation to hunters.
The elk reduction program in Grand Teton National Park is a dangerous enough time for bears. Federal biologists recently increased their estimate of how many grizzlies will die at the hands of hunters during the hunt.
The goal of the study is not about changing hunting regulations or practices in the park, Ebinger said. It’s about providing data on what drives human-bear encounters and then finding ways to mitigate conflict risks. “We want to learn from it so we can be safer in bear country, so both people and bears can do what they need to do,” he said.
The research is among the first to look at bear and hunter interactions, according to Cain. The study is funded by a grant from Natural Resource Preservation Program, allowing U.S. Geological Survey scientists to perform research in the national park.
Hunters see bears every year, but there are rarely serious interactions between people and grizzlies, Cain said. In the last 25 years there have been three incidents of hunters mauled by grizzlies in the park and in the John D. Rockefeller Parkway, and one incident in which hunters killed a bear, according to Cain.
Hunters go out in the early morning and at dusk. They move quietly and often alone.
“I’m a hunter myself, and that adds up to things you shouldn’t be doing if you are trying to avoid grizzly bear encounters,” Cain said.
With more bears in the ecosystem the chance of hunter-bear encounters increases. And not just in the park. The data will be applicable to all areas where hunters and grizzlies share the landscape, researchers said. “The potential implications on this will grow well beyond the National Parks,” said Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
The data will be used by Wyoming Game and Fish, which is helping with the study, along with wildlife managers in Idaho and Montana.
“These concerns are really reflective of what wildlife managers in the entire ecosystem are facing,” van Manen said.
Current funding allows for two years of data collection and research, but Ebinger hopes the effort will be extended so researchers can account for changes such as variance in weather and food availability over several years.
Ebinger will begin analyzing the first set of data this winter. For the rest of the hunting season, researchers remind people to be alert.
“The big message is carry bear spray and don’t hunt alone,” Ebinger said. “If you make a lot of noise on the landscape, you are unlikely to run into bears, but you can’t do that hunting elk. That’s the real challenge — trying to be stealthy on the landscape and not run into a bear.”
Tips for hunters in bear country
° Don’t leave a carcass in the field overnight. It increases the chance a bear will claim it. If a bear does claim a carcass, don’t try to push the bear off. Contact a ranger.
° Stay out of low visibility areas.
° Be alert and ready in case you encounter a bear.
° Carry bear spray.