The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears are running into trouble in developed areas and with livestock and hunters — and as a result are dying at high rates.
Natural food sources are lacking this fall, too.
So far 46 grizzlies are known to have died in 2015, and in the period from mid-September to mid-October the bears were falling at a rate of about one every other day.
Given the size of the grizzly population and declining amount of important food sources, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team leader Frank van Manen said the high mortality is not surprising.
“It’s to be expected, at some point,” van Manen said. “You’re going to have a low food year, and that’s partially what we’re experiencing.
“This is not a total failure year for whitebark pine, but it’s certainly not a good year,” he said. “That’s certainly part of the mix, but I think there’s more to it than whitebark pine.”
More anecdotally, other food sources, such as berries, also haven’t fared well this fall, van Manen said.
Both 2013 and 2014, the grizzly scientist pointed out, were good years for survival. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study databases show that total annual mortalities were in the high 20s.
But in the three preceding years, 2010 through 2012, an average of 50 grizzlies died each year. Paltry natural food conditions, van Manen said, are a “common denominator” among recent years when grizzlies have been dying at high rates.
Higher grizzly populations could also be a factor, though van Manen noted that numbers have been stagnant for more than a decade. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study last estimated 757 bears within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“Our population level is not changing much,” van Manen said. “Our estimate is slightly below last year, but if you look at the longer-term trend, the population has been at this level for the last 15 years. We’re not seeing much change in that, but it is at a pretty high level.”
The study team’s online mortality database shows that humans were involved in more than 80 percent of the ecosystem’s grizzly deaths this year, with the rest from natural causes.
The latest entry in the database, which listed 45 mortalities Tuesday, was posted Oct. 8, when a sow grizzly with a record of troubles was killed for eating apples on private land north of Teton Valley near Falls River.
The 46th grizzly death happened in the Upper Green River basin. The incident hasn’t yet been posted in the database, but was reported Saturday by the online news outlet WyoFile.
Livestock grazing, mostly in Wyoming and on public land, has been the leading cause of grizzlies dying this year. Fourteen of the 46 bears that have died were killed in response to slain sheep or cattle, although one of these bears died accidentally while it was being handled.
It’s unclear how many bears have been shot and killed this fall by hunters. Hunter gunfire usually kills about 10 grizzlies per year in the ecosystem.
The mortality data relating to hunting, van Manen said, will be available by the time the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee meets Nov. 3 and 4 at Hotel Terra in Teton Village.
One Jackson Hole big game outfitter said that in his experiences grizzlies this fall have been steering clear of trouble with hunters and camps.
“I haven’t had any problems at Pacific Creek, zero,” Swift Creek Outfitters owner B.J. Hill said. “Even in the backcountry, all them Gros Ventre camps, we just haven’t had any problems. And that’s really God dang rare for us.
“People need to understand that this is still a God dang mess,” Hill said. “They’ve eaten themselves out of house and home. There are just too many bears on the land.”
There are 10 entries in the study team’s mortality database that state “under investigation” but that show few other details. While some could be from malicious killings, it’s likely many are hunting-related.
Longtime grizzly bear activist Louisa Willcox said that the high number of grizzly deaths being investigated caught her eye.
“I have never seen so many ‘under investigations’ ever, and they’re all in Wyoming,” Willcox said. “What is going on?”
Eight of the 10 cases being investigated occurred in Wyoming, one happened in Montana, and the database lists no location for the remaining case.
“It’s not ranchers doing this,” Willcox said. “And it’s not some recreating Joe Blow, I’m pretty sure.
“It’s claims of self-defense,” she said.
Willcox said it would be a boon to grizzly bear conservation to be able to review the outcomes of the self-defense killing investigations. Ordinarily, the cases wrap up months or years later without prosecution, and the results are never made public.
“What is the point, not to learn from these dead bear experiences?” Willcox said. “It’s outrageous. It undermines the public interest in every sense — in terms of saving grizzly bears, in terms of preserving a functioning ecosystem and in terms of ensuring the safety of visitors.”