Friday, May 15, 2009
Yellowstone’s Grizzlies are Disappearing
by Jean Henry Mead
Open season on grizzlies is reducing their numbers at an alarming rate in our nation’s first national park. Fifty-four of them died last year—37 shot by hunters—the highest mortality rate ever recorded.
Compounding the problem is the massive die-off of whitebark pine trees, whose nuts are the bears' principal source of food during autumn before they hibernate. The trees have been killed by invasive pine beetles.
The grizzly was placed on the engendered species list in 1975 after a similar massive die-off occurred following the closing of garbage dumps in the park and bears wandered into campgrounds and towns in search of food. During the fall of 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the grizzly from the engendered list. So the bears have been killed in record numbers because they present a challenge to hunters.
Bear management has been turned over to Fish and Game in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, whose agencies apparently accept any hunter's excuse of self defense in grizzly territory. No hunting restrictions apply.
“Known mortalities," according to naturalist and outdoorsman Doug Peacock, is about half the actual grizzly deaths. “A hundred dead per year, no matter if the total number in the ecosystem is 200 or 600, means the population is crashing downhill. This is especially true for the grizzly, one of the slowest reproducing mammals.“
According to Peacock, no whitebark pine in Yellowstone Park will gain maturity within our lifetime, which will severely stress the bears and soon cause their extinction, helped along by no hunting restrictions. Some 80 percent of the trees have died and those remaining are producing fewer than normal yields.
Fish and Game and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team met on April 15 of this year in Bozeman, Montana, to discuss the bears’ fate. They decided that the alarming number of deaths in Yellowstone was merely a “spike” and that better hunter education and use of bear spray as a deterrent would solve the problem along with a limited grizzly hunt in all three states.
Peacock, who attended the meeting, says, “The agencies believe it is the inalienable right of hunters to kill grizzlies whenever they feel the need or desire. The possibility of returning the Yellowstone grizzly to [endangered species protection] is unthinkable to this group. . . Nobody thought of asking the public, especially elk hunters, to take responsibility for causing these encounters with grizzlies or to give up anything in terms of hunting hours or access to reduce grizzly mortality. In my opinion, getting too close to a grizzly and precipitating a charge is always the fault of the human.”
The Defenders of Wildlife Organization enacted an "Adopt a Bear" program and asks for donations to "educate the public and purchase bear-resistant trash containers to reduce human conflicts with grizzlies." Unfortunately, it's not enough to save the bears. With an estimated 1,000 grizzlies remaining in the lower 48 states--down from 50,000--and dying off rapidly, drastic measures are needed soon to cure the problem, whether it means reenacting the ESA and/or relocating the animals to another area with adequate food, something needs to be done. Without the grizzlies, the elk and deer populations will increase, which eat the bark from trees and eventually destroy forests.
Peacock doubts that the current Interagency Team is up to the task. “They fought for delisting in the face of undeniable threats to the bear’s future as a species. Fresh, outside leadership is urgently needed.”
Photograph by John Eastcoff and Yva Momatiuk