Grizzlies need care despite high numbers
Conservation leader says it is too early to remove federal protection from threatened species.
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 7, 2011
Removing grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act protection in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would be premature and not based on known science, the head of a regional conservation group said last week.
Greater Yellowstone Coalition Executive Director Mike Clark made the comments Thursday while on a trip to Jackson.
His comments came at a time when officials with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are pushing to remove the grizzly from federal protection.
Although grizzly numbers are believed to be up, local and state agencies have yet to come up with plans to manage a sustainable population of bears, Clark said. Threats such as whitebark pine loss and climate change are going to have a major impact on bears and their food.
“We’re particularly concerned with what’s happening with grizzlies,” Clark said. “Whether it’s time to de-list is a matter of debate.”
Grizzlies really only exist where there are few roads, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the only regions of the country where those kinds of wild places persist, he said. As state and federal agencies push to alter protection laws, the reality is that bears need more room to cope with these threats, he said.
“If you look at the maps that show suitable habitat for bears, and you look at where they’re allowed to go, it’s very different,” Clark said. “They have the ability to recolonize areas where they have been driven out for 150 years. The question is, will we let them?”
Ideally, wildlife corridors would be established among populations of bears. That would allow for an interchange of genes and prevent groups from becoming island populations.
That’s not currently going on, to the potential detriment of the Yellowstone population.
“There’s no evidence over the past 100 years that grizzlies have moved out of our region into another, or from another region into this region,” Clark said. “Our belief is that we ought to manage these big landscapes so there is some natural genetic exchange. The only way is to establish corridors that link these areas together.”
State and federal officials have proposed capturing grizzly bears and moving them to other populations to facilitate that genetic exchange, but that idea isn’t consistent with the Endangered Species Act, Clark said.
“We ought to be able to have this occurring naturally rather than arbitrarily,” he said.
The question is not of bear management but of people management, Clark said. Humans killed about 75 bears in Greater Yellowstone last year, equal to about 13 percent of the population.
“In this part of the world, they are surrounded by people,” he said. “We’ve been involved in an experiment to see if we can coexist with these bears.”
That experiment has largely been successful, but it will continue to be successful only if the federal agencies, counties and states ensure there are adequate regulations, Clark said.
“There ought to be enforceable agreements among the counties and the feds,” he said. “It would be an accountability question. If a county or a state or an agency was ignoring their regulations, there would be legal standing for us to go in and say, ‘Let’s change that.’”
Those regulations would include ensuring human food, including garbage, is inaccessible to bears. Agencies should also require hunters to carry and use bear spray, Clark said.
“The major drain is hunters encountering grizzlies by surprise and killing them,” he said.
Learning to live with the huge omnivore is a challenge being met only here, he said.
“This is an example of how unique Greater Yellowstone really is,” Clark said. “It’s the only place in the world that’s doing it in this kind of way. How do we coexist with these animals?”