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Recent statements by agency managers and the media regarding this year’s unprecedented number of grizzly bear deaths and conflicts in Yellowstone have been, in a word, disappointing. They have lacked the information we need to learn from to avoid problems in the future – problems that can be expected to mount in the face of massive changes in natural grizzly bear foods. One could even argue that statements by officials, reiterated by the media, have been misleading, contradictory, and ignored issues essential to protecting the public trust.
We are talking here about a threatened population of one of the most iconic and popular animals in and around the nation’s oldest Park, Yellowstone. We are talking here too about whether management and decision-making serves the interests of a broad diverse public—local, regional, national and international—who have been deeply engaged over the last several decades in the fate of the last 1% of grizzly bears we have left in the lower-48 states. (Hundreds of thousands of comments were submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and state agencies from across the nation, expressing overwhelming opposition to the FWS decision to remove endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzlies in 2007.) And we’re talking about the safety of the public during a year that has witnessed so far 7 maulings, 2 human deaths and 411 human-bear conflicts (my tally from the recent Interagency Yellowstone Grizzly Bear (IGBC) meetings).
First, the misleading parts. Agency press releases claim that there are “at least 603 grizzly bears” in the population—“an all time high”. But given the great deal of acknowledged uncertainty in measuring a wide-ranging species like the grizzly bear, a point estimate is not particularly meaningful. The agencies know this, which is why a range is always reported in the government’s annual reports.
And so what are the actual numbers this year in the Yellowstone region? At the recent IGBC meeting, a range of 549-641 grizzly bears was given — not that different from 2009 (523-641), or 2008 (535-656), or 2007 (513-629) So it is simply untrue that bears reached “an all time high” this year, given the uncertainties inherent in the methods used, and the ranges reported over the past four years. The statement that there were “at least 603 bears” in the population also implies that this is a minimum number rather than a central estimate, which is flat out wrong. Why would the facts be spun this way if not to paint a rosier picture of the health of the grizzly bear population to boost the political argument that it should be delisted?
More misleading stuff. At the IGBC meetings, it was also reported by government scientists that the population is actually leveling off. That is to be expected in light of recent years of record-level mortalities—48 total estimated for 2008, 41 in 2009, and 49 (an all time record) known thus far this year—not counting the “multipliers” used to estimate unreported mortalities.(These multipliers factor in the bears that are thought to have died but have not been reported.) So we could be looking at a year like 2009, when 10-13% of the population was estimated to have died. That’s a lot of mortality for an animal that is the slowest to reproduce of any in North America.
But that story – of a population that is no longer growing, and may even be decreasing – was not told by the press, nor were the implications of a possible decline discussed at the meetings. Instead, the agencies, as well as the media, persist in claiming that the population continues to climb at 4-7% per year. This claim is misleading at best, because it is a retrospective look at historical data going back to 1996, before two key bear foods—cutthroat trout and whitebark pine—tanked . Said another way, incorporating the earlier good years in the estimates has the effect of washing out the impacts that occurred later, especially after cutthroat trout and whitebark pine collapsed.
Recent years of high mortality and human-bear conflicts, and the related leveling of the population, are completely consistent with what we know about the effects of losing whitebark pine on Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. The best available science (mostly done by government scientists) shows unequivocally that whitebark pine drives reproductive success and survival of grizzly bears. When whitebark pine seed crops are low, mortalities and conflict tend to increase. This, in fact, was the message given by various bear managers last summer when they warned people to be especially careful while recreating in grizzly bear habitat because it was a bad whitebark pine cone crop.
Truth be told, they are all bad whitebark pine years now. Last summer’s collaborative research by NRDC and the U.S. Forest Service evaluating the health of whitebark pine found that over 80% of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone was dead, dying, or soon to be dead because of an unprecedented, climate-driven outbreak of mountain pine beetles.
Despite the irrefutable evidence linking whitebark pine to grizzly-human conflicts, the agencies have flip-flopped in their representations of the science, claiming suddenly that whitebark pine now doesn’t matter anymore. No peer-reviewed scientific evidence has been offered that directly supports this claim. Instead, speculative interpretations have been featured. As a matter of fact, whitebark pine does matter because its absence drives rates of human-bear conflicts.
Comments by Chuck Schwartz, the government’s key bear scientist, at the recent IGBC meeting that “it’s about secure habitat, not whitebark pine” were disingenuous. Over 60% of grizzly bear habitat in the ecosystem contains either pure or mixed forests of whitebark pine. Prior to the loss of whitebark, most bears found refuge from humans in these remote forests whenever pine seeds were available for them to eat. The loss of whitebark pine means that bears have wandered increasingly in less secure habitats, where they have more often run into people, experienced conflicts, and ultimately died.
Earlier this summer, agency officials also predicted in the press that if whitebark pine crops were poor, grizzly bears would turn to meat and that, in fact, is what we have seen. At the IGBC meeting, Wyoming Game and Fish reported a record number of cattle depredations; and we’ve seen a large number of hunting-related conflicts as grizzlies turn more eagerly to capitalize on hunter-killed elk.
So the distribution and numbers of human-bear conflicts involving livestock, elk hunters, and other human-related foods, often near human communities, are consistent with a dramatic loss of whitebark pine. Why deny it, when public safety is at stake? Answer: when you have a political agenda, like delisting the grizzly bear.
If we face up to the tragic fact of whitebark pine loss, there are three obvious courses of action: redouble efforts to reduce conflicts with people, prepare people for arrival of bears on the periphery of the ecosystem, and protect more habitat to compensate for the loss of whitebark pine. Even though many agency scientists and managers claim that the ecosystem is “full”, maps using new agency data, shown at the recent IGBC meeting, show that there is still extensive under-occupied habitat in the Wyoming , Wind River and Palisades Ranges. So, bears seeking calories to make it through the winter will be searching for remote areas such as these – areas that they may not have occupied for decades. To a layperson, that may make it look like there are more bears in the ecosystem, when in fact there is the same number (perhaps even fewer) required to roam a bigger area to make ends meet.
But, the key question is: will we let them live in such places? Will we find it in our hearts to share this landscape with a population of bears that has lost two critical foods? Will we let bears live in the wild places they will need to compensate for the loss of former key staples, whitebark pine and cutthroat trout?
Rather than spinning the numbers, flip-flopping on the science and denying the problems, these are the real-world questions we should be addressing—for the safety of the public and the health of the Great Bear. And we should be discussing them in an open, fair, democratic way—one that tragically does not presently exist in the grizzly bear arena. There is much to do over the long winter months ahead to think through and address the very real problems of a significant collapse in key foods for bears, the consequences for bears and people alike, and the lack of a democratic arena within which to work toward lasting solutions.