Yellowstone-area grizzly bears are dying at a record clip ahead of the first legal hunt in 44 years, though scientists and managers say they need more data to judge the mortality’s significance.
Through the second week of August, 33 grizzlies have been found dead or deemed “probable” deaths, according to an online database maintained by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. That count, at this point in the year, surpasses numbers from all other years listed in the database, though federal scientists keeping tabs on the population say they aren’t yet alarmed.
“The season where everything is usually determined in terms of grizzly bear mortality is still coming up,” federal grizzly scientist Frank van Manen said Aug. 8. “Basically, the deciding weeks will be in late September or early October. It really depends on how we fare through those weeks.”
Hunting is the reason early fall is an influential season for grizzly deaths. Between black bear hunters mistakenly shooting grizzlies and bears shot in self-defense, an average of 10 grizzlies are killed each year. For the first time since 1974 purposeful hunting will be another cause of mortality.
If lawsuits don’t first restore Endangered Species Act protections, hunts sanctioned by Wyoming and Idaho will target 23 grizzlies this fall. Montana has opted not to hunt in the first full calendar year the states have had jurisdiction over Ursus arctos horribilis in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In the week after the News&Guide interviewed van Manen, four dead grizzlies were added to the mortality database.
Of the 33 total grizzlies found or suspected dead, 28 were mortalities that likely occurred in 2018. Five were discovered this year, but they were described as likely mortalities from 2017 or before. One of the most recent entries, added Tuesday, was of an adult male grizzly believed to have died in 2016 whose skeletal remains, including his skull, were discovered in the Buffalo Fork drainage.
Even factoring past years’ dead bears that showed up this year, the 28 that were killed or died naturally through mid-August surpasses all seasonal counts from recent years, which have charted into or near record territory. Mid-August mortality counts from 2015 through 2017 ranged from 18 to 27 mortalities.
The death counts from the past four years have been the highest ever, and one longtime grizzly bear conservationist described this overall increasing trend as “shocking.”
“If there is any good news, it’s that there is quite a lot that can be done to reduce livestock conflict and quite a lot that can be done to resolve hunter conflict as well,” said Louisa Willcox, a founder of GrizzlyTimes.org, an advocacy website.
But Willcox worries that high death rates will become the norm if resources to promote coexistence and reduce grizzly conflicts dry up because they’re now a state-managed species.
“The relationship between [Endangered Species Act] listing and money for conflict resolution is not apparent to a lot of people,” she said. “But when a species is on the list, the Forest Service gets more money. The states get more Section Six money through the Fish and Wildlife Service, and then you got the Fish and Wildlife Service itself.”
Livestock conflict is the primary culprit in grizzly bear deaths so far in 2018, listed as the cause of 14 bears euthanized to date. Another eight grizzly deaths show up as “under investigation,” which often corresponds with self-defense shooting deaths. Other grizzlies have died from intraspecies fighting, because they’ve become too bold in habituated areas or because of oddball causes, like an adult male that drowned in a cement-sided canal outside of Ralston in June.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s head carnivore biologist, Dan Thompson, said that no one cause of death is jumping off the page this year.
Like van Manen, Thompson’s take is that it’s premature to pass judgment on the significance of 2018 deaths for the region’s grizzly population.
“Obviously we’re keeping track of things,” Thompson said, “but nothing right now is giving us reason for extra concern or worry, in my opinion.”
Grizzly mortality takes on new meaning in 2018, because it directly influences the number of animals available for hunting next year. Before federal wildlife managers turned jurisdiction over to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, they required the states to sign off on a plan that imposed limits on hunting based on the population size, predetermined “mortality thresholds” and the numbers of males, females and cubs that died the previous year.
“The mortality that’s occurring now, and through this fall, is going to impact the potential hunt for the following year,” Thompson said.
High rates of death can even stop the hunt altogether. For example, the states couldn’t have held hypothetical hunts in 2016 due to female grizzlies that died in 2015.
Because the states go through the mortality math exercise to set hunting seasons in the winter, all deaths discovered in 2018 will be counted towards next year’s hunt. So the 33 dead grizzlies that became known this year, in other words, is the consequential number, instead of the 28 deaths that occurred this year. The timing of this accounting has been a cause of conflict between the states and conservation groups.
“At the end of the day,” Thompson said, “everything’s factored in.”