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A Lesson from History: the California Grizzly

One of the special privileges of living in the Greater Yellowstone Region is seeing grizzly bears. In the fall, they are hungry preparing for hibernation. Rosehips, chokecherries and limber pine nuts lure them nearer to our homes, where they forage mainly at night to avoid people. In the early spring, when they emerge from their dens, young sprouts in the local pasture is roughage for their systems. 14238317_10207623170481489_6094538779973207194_n.jpg

The presence of grizzlies makes a difference when I am hiking. I see their large tracks or fresh scat and remember to stay alert, awake, and aware. I carry my bear spray ‘weapon’, which I’ve never used on a bear, but have used on a bison, and it saved my life.

Grizzly Bear Print

Print looks even larger because its in mud, but you can see his claws

Yet this rarity of wildness in our modern world carries with it great responsibility. If I want to live, work, and enjoy this last remaining wild place in our country (and also one of the last intact temperate ecosystems in the entire world), then I, like my cousin the grizzly, must make sacrifices and accommodations–small yet important and life saving for the bear. Special garbage cans; no bird feeders; Bar-B-Qing precautions; and most importantly, a tolerance for wildness. The Great Bear himself has been accommodating us humans for centuries, and mostly paying for it with his life.grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Probably our best lesson in grizzly history comes from California, where the bear adorns their state flag. And the very best historical account of the Great State’s grizzlies is California Grizzly by Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis Jr.  Storer painstakingly poured through every historical documented account of grizzly bears back to the Spanish Missions. He collects them together into an easily readable book first published in the 1950s. My paperback edition has a wonderful foreword by Rick Bass. I would say the only section not fully accurate is ‘Habits of California Grizzlies’, which includes erroneous data such as grizzlies being able to give birth at two or three years of age. Bringing grizzlies back from the brink here in Yellowstone has yielded much new data.

It’s unknown how many grizzlies were in California before the Spanish arrived and brought their cattle in the early 1700s. But Storer estimates California may have had as many as 10,000 bears in the early to mid-1800’s. California during Spanish rule was a different place than when American settlers came out during the gold rush.

During the Spanish period, not more than thirty such [land] grants were made; but after Mexico threw off her allegiance to the crown, the lavish generosity of the new provincial government brought some eight million acres into the possession of about eight hundred grantees. Each rancho, an empire unto itself, grazed thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses; supported hundreds of Indian servants, and was an economically independent, self-sustaining community.

In addition to cattle, wild horses brought in by the Spanish were so numerous that there were recorded herds twenty miles long. This overpopulation of horses depleted the range for livestock so thousands were killed, sometimes driven over cliffs or lanced by vaqueros. There were frequent slaughters of livestock during severe droughts, as well as natural deaths in these enormous herds. Missions and ranches had private butchering grounds, where only the choice meats were taken and the rest thrown in large piles. Grizzlies came at night to the ravines near the slaughter-corrals. Storer reports that in 1834 the missionaries, who anticipated secularization, disposed of 100,000 cattle just for their tallow and hides, leaving the rest for wild animals.

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Rancho Cahuenga, near the location of the present Hollywood Bowl, as it appeared in January, 1847, at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.

This abundant new and easy source of protein is what fueled an accelerated bear population growth, so by the time early Americans began arriving, grizzly bears were commonly seen in large numbers foraging together.

In January, 1827, Duhaut-Cilly wrote that ‘bears are very common in the environs; and without going farther than five or six leagues [a league is about 3.5 miles] from San Francisco, they are often seen in herds”

George C. Yount, among the first American pioneers in California, arriving in February 1831 [of Yountville fame in Northern California] …said “they are every where–upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains…so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see fifty or sixty within the twenty-four hours.”

John Bidwell, in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, saw sixteen in one drove and said that “grizzly bear were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of the streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day”

While bears were a problem for the Spanish in the 1700s when trying to grow their herds, by the early 1800s cattle, sheep and horses were sculpturing every hill in the coastal region. The Spanish now viewed these lands as a playground, and grizzlies as part of a new sport.They roped grizzlies for bear-bull fights (another chapter in the book which is fascinating yet hard to read). These animal fights were even commonly conducted right after church in stoutly built arenas. 1393_photoBut although the Spanish engaged in this cruel entertainment, California was underpopulated and grizzlies benefited from the increased food supply. When gold was discovered in 1849, a spectacular invasion of Americans came, and grizzlies were now doomed. In the span of just 25 years after California became a state in 1850, most all the grizzlies were gone. A few stragglers remained until early 1900s.

Storer includes so many fascinating facts about the bear in California. One would suspect that grizzlies rarely hibernated in that warm climate. Although no one was keeping scientific records, grizzlies were seen year-round except in the high Sierras, as evidenced from that above quote in January by Duhaut-Cilly. Probably females denned for part of the winter in order to give birth to their helpless newborns. Before white men cleared the land, grizzlies inhabited dense growths of trees, vines, and cattails that bordered lowland rivers and creeks. They pastured in tall grasses and clovers in the spring and ate acorns in the fall. Along the entire coast, grizzlies foraged on the continuous supply of marine animals that washed ashore, supplementing with berries from manzanita bushes that grew nearby. Tall manzanita thickets were common places for grizzlies to shelter, while place names remain as ghostly evidence such as Bear Valley, Big Bear, or Oso Rio.

What is to be learned from California–a land so rich and blessed with near perfect climate, where once grizzlies freely roamed? It demonstrates how quickly a large population of top predators can be extirpated; or how a dense, rapid growth in human population spells demise for the great bear; how abundant human food waste leads to habituated bears. And reading through the entire account in this book reminds me that Europeans have a very dark history when it comes to wildlife. The wanton slaughter and intolerance for grizzlies is still evident today when we see signs such as this one which seem to have one purpose in mind, without any appreciation nor feeling for the animal itself:

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With a bit of mindfulness, we can enter fully into a new legacy, one that values wildness and wilderness, preserves vast lands for top predators like the Great Bear, sees the worth of connectivity between public and private lands, and makes good choices as to how we live with grizzlies in our midst. This is the future I envision for our country and it’s wonderful heritage of wildlife.

Muddy Creek, the Beartooths, and Grizzly lore

Muddy Creek is an access trail to Granite Lake in the Beartooth Mountains on the Wyoming side. Although I have done a lot of hiking and backpacking in the Beartooths, I have to admit I haven’t been to Granite Lake, a 228-acre subalpine lake, among the largest in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Most people approach the lake through Clay Butte, which is also a trail into Martin Lake Basin and the Beartooth backcountry. Yet since I heard that Granite Lake is a popular horse, fishing, and camping area, I’ve avoided it. Maybe this summer I’ll do the 9 mile roundtrip hike there.

Muddy Creek is one means of entry, and mostly because of its apt name, I haven’t been on that trail either. This being a drier year, I thought I’d try it for a day hike. This is not a trail description entry, but some observations along the stretch I did. But for those interested, the trail is flat, skirting an extensive meadow, until it reaches the mouth of the canyon to Granite Lake. At that point it begins to gently climb into the narrow drainage. I turned around at the incline point and end of the meadows.

This is a beautiful hike that enters the wilderness boundary in about .08 miles from the trailhead and stays in the trees and shade.

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Wilderness boundary. Muddy Creek

Muddy Creek used to be a popular trail in the day. You can see old logging cuts throughout, before the area became Wilderness. I’ve read old records where some old-timers considered Ghost Creek (just south of the highway) and east Muddy Creek (north of the highway where the trail is), their private hunting grounds. In fact, I was going around some downed timber when I discovered, about 2 miles up and on the trail, an old trapping snare.

The meadows, in reality, are a wetland full of willows. Fresh moose tracks are everywhere–prime summer habitat for them. But the real surprise is the amount of grizzly bear scat. I’m used to hiking in bear country, but I’ve never seen so much bear evidence as there is on this trail. In the first mile through forest, I’d safely guess that there was a large pile of bear scat every 20 feet and most of it fairly fresh. In fact I saw the freshest pile I’ve ever seen on a hike, one that was still wet and steaming.

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Front foot with claw marks

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Bear scat still wet and steaming

I started looking for bear rubs along the trail and found many. Called rub trees, it’s unclear why they use them. Probably as a way of scenting and getting a good back scratch at the same time. Once you’ve seen a rub tree, you’ll know how to look for them. Most I’ve found are on or near human trails. Bears use human trails too. I’ve found several where a trail blaze is in the tree and a bear scratches or rubs that tree. You know who is The Boss then.

Rub trees will have a smooth side to them and will not have lichen there. Look from the side and you will see the bear’s fur. Cattle especially also rub trees so learn to distinguish the fur. Ungulates, especially elk, will sometimes rub and horses as well. But once you’ve seen bear fur, you’ll know it.

Ungulates have hollow hairs. When bent they are stiff and form a sharp bend. Bear’s have finer fur. Try to distinguish which side of a hair is the root. Then look at the opposite end. Most grizzly hairs will have a light tip to them–thus the ‘grizzled’ look. Here is a good photo from USF&W.

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It’s more likely that your rub tree fur will look like this:

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Some of the fur I pulled off the tree

View from about halfway up the vast meadowsDSC01325

A few blooming flowers:

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New flower for me. Wood Nymph Moneses uniflora

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One of my favorites. Thalictrum occidentalis. There are many beautiful Thalictrums in the landscape market.

A real plus for the bears is that I can see this will be a super berry year. Last year all their fall foods were lean and so people were seeing more bears on the edges of the ecosystem. This year my Chokecherries will have a bounty year, and all the flower evidence for Raspberries and Strawberries indicates a boom cycle. In addition, I have not seen any Buffalo berries on plants for many years. But this year the beginning of the fruit is evident.

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Shepherdia canadensis. The berries are tiny green now. Red in the fall and I like the taste

And finally, my plea once again for the Great Bear. We are in the midst of a USF&W delisting process for Grizzly Bears which means the states will be managing and hunting them. Walking on the Muddy Creek trail, seeing so much bear sign, is not an indication, as some people have expressed, to be scared and hunt bears so they will avoid people.

Instead, the Great Bear is a mnemonic, a reminder to stay alert and awake. His presence signals I need to hike as a ‘walking meditation’, being fully Present in the moment. Thus, the grizzly is a Spiritual Bear. Let us all honor the Grizzly bear in that manner.

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Grizzly Bears are sacred to the tribes. We need to all think about them in this manner.

 

Charlie Russell, the Grizzly Whisperer

I am listening to a wonderful interview podcast, in two parts, of Charlie Russell on the Grizzly Beat, a blog by Louisa Wilcox. If you haven’t heard of Russell, this is your chance. Russell tells stories of raising cubs in Kamchatka Russia along with sitting on a log in a Canadian forest with a well-viewed female grizzly. I learned more about how to behave around bears by watching Russell’s body language than any book.

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Charlie Russell in Kamchatka

Russell candidly talks about how North American wildlife bear management long ago decided the best way to have bears around was to teach people to be afraid of them, and likewise to instill fear in bears of people. But Russell was interested in what bears were really like, and knowing that bears have personalities, he wanted to understand them. Russell spent ten summers in Kamchatka raising bear cubs and living with over 500 bears in the area. He is the only person to have successfully re-introduced cubs into the wild.

Russell’s story is told on these podcasts as well as his video East of Eden. Bears are highly intelligent. If they are treated peacefully, in general they act peacefully towards humans. They know, Russell says, that humans control the habitat that they need. Living with bears is something people can choose to do. It’s not a bear problem, but a people problem Russell say. If a person decides to live in bear country peacefully, the bears will respond in kind. Given that, Russell advices when hiking in bear country to carry bear spray, especially where bears have been taught to fear people. If and when hunting begins in the Northern Rockies, Russell says, this will only exacerbate bears distrust and dislike of people.

Sleeping grizzly

Grizzly minding his own business

Russell’s comment on how bear management today is about fear is something I’ve long thought about. All the available literature on bears, especially grizzly bears, is about bear attacks. The Park requires every backcountry overnight camper to watch a 45 minute video on bears (which is good). The video is all about protecting oneself from bears and what to do in a bear encounter. People management is a good thing (bear spray, food storage, posturing around bears, hiking in groups, making noise, etc), but none of this is about bears, but about fearing bears. We don’t really try to ‘know’ bears. Our present culture is just about separating ourselves from the natural world and fearing bears.

My own closest encounter with a bear took place in 1972. Not a grizzly, but a very large black bear. I was in high school, during summer break, hiking in Waterton-Glacier International Park from the Canadian side. I tell that story here in detail and why I wasn’t afraid. It’s a good lesson in how people and bears can read each other.

Personally, I feel that Russell is one of the few people today that truly understands bears. He is not a scientist, but more of an old fashioned naturalist. Russell owns a ranch next to Waterton Park in Canada that was homesteaded by his grandfather. Long ago he pioneered putting out dead cattle on his side of the Park border in the spring to give hungry bears emerging from dens some much needed protein. Neighboring ranchers feared that the bears would adapt to eating cattle. But instead of this happening, the fed bears moved on and cattle depredation decreased. Soon the wildlife managers were putting road-killed deer and elk carcasses instead.

Please listen to this amazing Bear Whisperer. Enjoy.

 

 

A Heartfelt Response to Grizzly Delisting

This past Monday night I attended a Wyoming Game and Fish (WG&F) informational meeting on my state’s proposed management plan once grizzly bears are delisted from the Endangered Species Act. I’ve also read a few of the comments on the USF&W site (you can comment here on the Feds proposed rule).

Although hunting was not discussed by the WG&F (that’s for the Wyoming Game Commission to decide), hunting will definitely be allowed once bears are delisted and, according to the Feds rule, over 100 bears can be killed right away! Some of the comments in favor of delisting at the meeting went like this:

  1. Hunt them so they will become afraid of people. I’m afraid to walk in the woods now.
  2. Hunt them so we can have a trophy hunt. These funds from hunting tags ($600 instate; $6000 out of state) support wildlife.
  3. Bears have become a nuisance on my ranch. There are too many bears.
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The Proposed Rule would allow a hunt on Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bears

The meeting was presented as a science-based plan. The comments were based on emotion. What was missing was the Spirit of the Bear, the living sentient being.

Grizzly Bears were once revered by the tribes. Some tribes hunted them, others never did. But they all respected the bear, told stories about them, dressed up like bears, and even had secret bear societies. To dream about bears was sacred and special. Bears represented renewal, death and rebirth and transformation. Bears were numinous beings, powerful, respected, honored, imitated. This is what I did not hear in the meeting. I heard fear, and I heard annoyance, but our modern-day stories have no room for the sacredness of these animals.

Grizzly Bear

In the lower forty-eight, 99% of the U.S. has no grizzly bears. If you like to recreate without ‘fear’, there are plenty of beautiful places to do so. Yet here in the Greater Yellowstone, one has an opportunity to experience the pressures a top predator calls you to: ‘Be awake’, ‘use all your senses’. Hiking and recreating in Grizzly Bear country is a privilege, even a type of spiritual retreat. All your senses are heightened–not in fear– but awake and conscious. As I’ve said in my book The Wild Excellence:

To walk with the Great Bear one must be alert, fully awake and aware. With the Great Bear around, you cannot walk lost in thought, or conversation. You must be Present. This alone is a gift that only another top predator can bring to man. The grizzly bear’s gift to man is the Power of the Present Moment. The Present is his present to us. He presses it upon us by circumstance. Men do not give themselves that gift by choice. That is the gift of the grizzly.

One thing I’ve learned about bears hiking in these mountains, and living with bears, is that Grizzlies are minders of their own business. In general they are solitary animals (except for moms and cubs. That is why a dead bear will not teach other bears to fear people), mostly vegetarian, and want nothing to do with humans. They are highly intelligent and never forget.

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Grizzlies will not be tolerated outside the DMA (the dark black line)

One fall I came upon an illegal outfitter’s hunting camp. The camp had a lot of burnt food trash in the fire pit. I cleaned it all up and packed it out. The next fall I hiked there again. I wanted to see if they had re-set up their camp. Although the camp was clean and no one had used it since I’d been there, I found piles of steaming fresh grizzly scat. The bears had found it the year before too and never forgot.

trashed campsite

Trashy fire pit

I moved to my cabin, smack in the middle of grizzly country, where problem bears were relocated to, ten years ago. At that time I knew nothing about grizzlies. I too thought a hunt season (bears were delisted for a short time in 2007) would make the forest safer for myself. But I’ve changed my mind after living around bears. These are magnificent animals. So intelligent that a hunt on them would be like killing my brother. I honor and respect the Bear and although delisting may be warranted at this time, hunting should never be allowed.

We need new stories about Grizzlies, stories that tell of their intelligence, magnificence, and personality. Maybe instead of a PowerPoint show, the WG&F biologists should have dressed up like the Bear, did some dancing, and shared food. I think we all might have learned a lot more about bears.

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Grizzly Bear minding his own business

Grizzly Bears in the Crosshairs

I’ve written a lot about the upcoming delisting proposal and now it has been officially filed and released by USF&W (put docket #fws–r6–es–2016–0042 in the search box to read and comment).

Grizzly Bear

You can re-read many of my posts and the reasons why I oppose delisting, but here is a bullet summary.

  • Diminished important food sources – cutthroat trout and especially Whitebark Pine nuts
  • No genetic connectivity linkage at this time between Yellowstone bears (GYE) and those north (Northern Continental Divide).
  • Questionable science whether the “ecosystem is full” or if bears are moving out to find new food sources as their primary sources diminish.
  • Climate change makes all unknowable
  • Grizzly bears are the slowest reproducing mammals in North America. A female bears will, at best, duplicate herself in a 10 year period.
  • We just spent 40 years and millions of dollars to increase the bear population from 125 to 725 (see how slow reproduction is!). With the climate changing so fast(this is the warmest winter on record) ,and food sources changing for bears, why are we rushing into delisting. Why not wait another 5-10 years for the science to reveal more data?

OK, now for the delisting proposal by USF&W. To understand it, first you have to understand some terms. Primary Conservation Area (PCA) was the initial conservation recovery zone proposed when the bear was listed in 1975. Habitat rules apply in this area, such as no additional roads, or food storage.

Fairly recently, the Management Team mapped out a larger area they called the Demographic Recovery Area (DMA). Habitat rules do not apply in these areas, but the area is considered suitable habitat for bears. There is much more suitable habitat as far as a grizzly would be concerned, but in the eyes of the USF&W those other areas have either too many people, or too much livestock. The lower western side of the Wind Rivers would be an example which has plenty of living Whitebark Pines but a lot of hikers and climbers.

To easily illustrate this, here is a map:

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Map from the USF&W 

Grizzly bears that move outside the DMA (heavy black line on map) will not be counted towards the total population to be managed. Some more glaring problems with the delisting proposal:

  • Population could be reduced to 600 bears (500 bears in Wyoming) before “discretionary” (hunting, management “removals” etc.) mortality would be curtailed
  • Population will no longer be allowed to grow – population is now being managed for stability, not growth
  • Leaves hunting of grizzly bears in the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway between GTNP and YNP up to state of Wyoming’s discretion
  • Mortality threshold for independent females and dependent young would be higher than what it is currently set at (2015 Chao2 estimate = 717; current threshold is 7.6%; under proposed rule would be 9%) i.e. population would be immediately reduced upon delisting
  • Population will not be allowed to expand southward in Wyoming (at least under the state’s current management plan) i.e. Wyoming Range, southern Winds, Salt River Range
  • Bears ranging north outside the DMA will not be counted and those are the bears that would enlarge the GYE gene pool.

Grizzly mom and cubs

 

For the record, I strongly oppose delisting, but it appears delisting and hunting is right around the corner. So what can we realistically demand from USF&W:

  • Look at the map again. The Primary Conservation Area could be regarded as a population sink for preserving the bear population and be a NO hunt zone. In that case, the PCA area would need to be expanded to include Grand Teton NP and surrounding area.
  • The DMA must be enlarged to include what they are calling the GYA distinct population segment. This would then include areas such as the southern Wind Rivers, Wyoming Range, and the Bighorns–all suitable habitat. Problem bears could then be relocated to some of these habitat rich areas rather than just moved around the existing PCA.
  • Livestock owners in the present plan are not required to do anything to protect their animals. One of the biggest problem areas in the DMA is the Upper Green–a linkage between the southern Absarokas and the Wind Rivers. Thousands of cattle and sheep graze in the summer on Forest Service lands and bears encounter them when they move south. These are our public lands bears are on and there should be additional rules in these areas that livestock owners must follow before lethal removal of grizzly bears takes place.

Ideally, the USF&W would have established grizzly bears in the linkage zones between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, as well as bears north (Yellowstone to Yukon vision). Since this has not happened, the proposal is to fly bears in if genetic diversity falters. Bad and stupid idea!

The Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide are unique. They harbor some of the last large wildlife in the U.S. With top predators and large herds of prey, we have a complete ecosystem, one of the only in the entire temperate world. Surely we can manage these areas differently, allowing room for wildlife instead of managing for people and livestock. We can decide to set aside lands where these top predators, such as wolves and grizzly bears, can live and not be hunted. Let us create a new paradigm of wildlife management that doesn’t have to include a trophy hunt and ensures the Great Bear’s future.

Note: Please comment on the USF&W comment site listed above. USF&W will give more weight to science cited comments.

Also View the Wyoming Game & Fish Proposed mgmt. draft link

Grizzly cub

 

Delisting just around the Corner

I’ve been writing a lot of blog posts on grizzly bears for a good reason–to raise awareness that these magnificent animals are headed for delisting, and hunting, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide will be next on the chopping block, but that’s for another round with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.Grizzly Bear

Despite pleas from environmentalists and Native American Tribes across the West, who maintain the Great Bear is sacred in their histories, the Feds are moving forward fast at the behest of the state politicians.

Arguments on the delisting side say bears are at full capacity in the ecosystem and that is why you see them more frequently in areas near human populations. But according to David Mattson, a leading authority on bear food sources, our bears are just responding to diminishing food sources and moving out beyond the PCA boundaries.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead whitebark pines

Feds are putting a relisting trigger at 600 or less bears. Their goal is to maintain around 674 bears. At the Spring Interagency Grizzly Bear Management Team, the report was 757 for 2014 as bears are counted when they emerge from their dens. Recently, the official count for 2015 was 714 bears, down 6% from last year. Yet so far in 2015, 59 bears have been killed by mostly human-caused mortalities–either directly or indirectly where the management team has euthanized a bear for food rewards. You can see each bear mortality here and the reasons.  That would bring our 2015 count down to 655 for 2015, already below their goal.

One might say rightly that this 2015 spring count minus this year’s mortalities does not account for new births. Yet grizzlies are notoriously slow to expand their population, as I’ve stated in other posts. Since we are most interested in females in the population, grizzlies are not ready to conceive until at least 5 years of age. Their young stay with them for 2.5 years, with a typical litter of 2-3 cubs. And with the high cub mortality, a female grizzly will, at best, only replace herself in 10 years. Grizzly front foot

If one does the math, it’s easy to see that between hunting (which will be legal but is not now; yet even now with hunter mistakes, several grizzlies are killed every year) and bears killed due to food rewards (either livestock or garbage), it will be very difficult to maintain the Feds goals that would include an official hunt.

In addition, add to this math the food pressures facing grizzlies–loss of Whitebark pines, cutthroat trout, poor berry years–plus the unknowns of climate change and one has a disaster in the making for the Great Bear.

What irks me the most is this statement:

Bears living outside the 19,300-square-mile Yellowstone “monitoring area” would not be counted toward the population goal. Similarly, bears killed outside the monitoring area would not count toward annual bear mortality caps.

This statement delivers the certainty of death for any genetic diversity in the GYE–signaling a slow decline over decades of the bears that are isolated in this ecosystem.

I’ve been interested in what happened to the California Grizzly Bear that made them go extinct so quickly. Interestingly enough, when the Spaniards arrived, they brought their cattle with them. Slowly these herds expanded into the thousands. Because the human population in California was low, few of these cows were used for meat. Mostly they were killed for their hides for leather goods. Monthly, or even weekly, they herded the cattle into killing yards, where they slaughtered and skinned them, leaving the meat to rot. Grizzlies soon learned of these cattle heaps and flocked to them. Grizzly numbers soared during the time when the Spaniards owned California because of easy increased food for bears. But of course the Spaniards had their own forms of cruelty. They roped bears for sport, pitting them against bulls after starving them for days while chained up.Grizzly mom and cubs

When the United States won the Mexican American war and gold was discovered in California, miners rushed by the thousands into the state. These men were ruthless. They killed anything that got in their way, which included Indians and Grizzlies. Within a short time, twenty years, both of these native populations had almost disappeared completely. Grizzlies became hard to find, until the last lone bear was killed in Southern California in 1908, lured into a beehive trap. It’s a terribly sad story, yet shows how fast this population can decline, from probably over 100,000 bears to almost 0 in twenty to thirty years.

Grizzly bear population in the GYE before delisting had declined to around 125 bears. After over forty years, millions of dollars, herculean efforts by many wildlife biologists and agencies, there are a little over 650-715 bears. Why is the USF&W bowing to political pressures from conservative states and rushing towards a hunt?

white bark pine bear conflicts chart

Correlation between bear/livestock conflicts and Whitebark Pine loss in the ecosystem

An Incredible Bear Story–Addendum to Previous Post

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) of Cody sponsored a hike today in the Francs Peak area.  The Shoshone National Forest Bear Biologist, Andy Pils, led the hike.

I had an opportunity to speak extensively with Andy about various bear subjects; but the most incredulous thing happened when I told Andy about my sighting last Sunday of a Grizzly mom and her three cubs of the year at Sawtooth lake.  Andy told me that those bears got a huge food reward, unfortunately, and this is what happened.

Grizzly mom and cubs

If you read that post, you’ll find that I walked the rocky road to Sawtooth Lake, approximately three miles.  At 1/4 mile from the lake, the road descends sharply and becomes even more treacherous to drive.  Parked on that rise was a Toyota 4-runner with Montana plates.  I wondered why they drove their vehicle on such a boulder-stricken road.

At the lake, I heard gunshots.  The Montana fellows were target shooting from a beach at the lake’s input, about 200 yards east around the lake front. I was traveling west to little Sparhawk Lake so I ignored them. Around 12:30 I began the hike back to my car.  I passed their 4-runner and entered a small meadow. That’s where I heard, then saw, the grizzly sow and her three cubs. The sow was running, heading directly to the lake.  I considered the fellows down there, thought maybe I might head back and let them know a grizzly was around, but then felt not only would the bear get there before me, but also they were way out on the east end at a beach, not near where the bear would enter.

Grizzly cub

This is where the story gets quite strange. Andy Pils tells me that just about the time the bear was approaching the lake, these guys were walking around the lake back to the road.  They’d just approached the road’s end at the lakefront when they saw the bear and her cubs, although they reported seeing only two cubs. When they saw the sow, they completely freaked out, dropped their packs, fishing tackle and rods, plus left their cooler full of food and ran back to their car.  Once at the car, they raced back to their home in Billings, MT.

By the next day I suppose they started to think about their encounter, and they had the “brilliant” thought that people finding their stuff strewn around might believe the bear ate them.  So they called the Forest Service to report they were still alive and told Andy what happened.

When Andy Pils heard they left their cooler there, he told them that was a huge mistake.  Their response “But it was a 1000 pound grizzly!” They of course had no bear spray.  Andy went to the lake to clean things up.  He found that the bears had demolished the cooler and ate all the food, throwing all the trash around. But the fishing tackle and backpacks were intact.  The Montana fellows told Andy they wanted their stuff back (“There’s about $1000 worth of stuff there”.  “No way” says Andy, just a cooler and some backpacks), but they said getting to Cody would take some time because they broke their car axle leaving Sawtooth Lake.

There are so many parts to this story that are incredulous, and downright full of stupidity.  Let me break it down:

  1. Not one of these guys had bear spray
  2. Greater Yellowstone Bears do not weigh 1000 pounds.  Being a sow she probably weighed about 300-400 pounds.
  3. They did everything wrong when they saw this bear, and who knows how far away she was when they even spotted her.  They should have talked to the bear and slowly walked to their car.  More than likely she would have taken her cubs away from the area.
  4. They ran.  Number one NO NO rule.
  5. They gave her an incredible food reward.  Now those cubs will never forget and will associate humans with food.  Maybe not this year or next, but at three years old when they are out on their own, they might become nuisance bears.  Fed bears are dead bears, period.
  6. That bear and her cubs were bothering no one.  I do not know for certain why she was running along the trees when I saw her.  I postulate that she smelled me and was taking her cubs away.  Therefore, she would have done the same with these guys if given a chance.

This story made me so angry.  The only thing they did right was not shoot those bears.  (As an aside, I was pretty shaken up when I got to the lake and heard gunshots.  I only hoped they had enough sense not to shoot across the lake. Having hiked into a beautiful pristine area, the last thing I wanted to hear was gunshots going off when it was not hunting season.)

If people are going to recreate in bear country, they need to know at least the most basic simple rules and take precautions.  I asked Andy about those young twin grizzlies that were moved which I wrote about here.  He said lots of cars stopped on the Beartooth Highway to watch them and he was certain a motorist had given them a food reward. Once that happened, they became nuisance bears and were moved to a remote section of the south Shoshone.

Bears are having a difficult season, with a poor berry crop, few nuts and a bad moth year, bears are being seen more than ever in the low country because they are very hungry. I worry how hunting season will go this year.

On a lighter note, here are some photos of our hike today:

Wood River Peaks

Wood River

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

 

Lunch at the summit

Lunch at the summit