• BOOKS ABOUT WILDLIFE AND HEALTH

  • New Children’s book reader grades 3rd thru adult

    Koda watches 06 swim the Lamar River

  • Available from Amazon paperback or Kindle

  • Updated w/double blind study results. Ebook or paperback

  • New updated edition available NOW!

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

The Fragility of Grizzlies

For those of us who care about the fate of the grizzly bear, for those who love to see grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park and its outer ecosystem, Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith is an important chronicle of the bear’s recent history and how we almost lost him.

Many do not know that it was Yellowstone Park Superintendent Jack Anderson and Yellowstone’s chief biologist Glen Cole who almost brought Yellowstone grizzlies to extinction following the 1967 maulings in Glacier National Park known as The Night of the Grizzlies. The reaction to the night of August 13th, when two women were mauled to death in two separate incidents by grizzly bears, led to the quick closing of Yellowstone dump sites. The closings were over the objections of Frank and John Craighead.

The Craighead brothers had been conducting the first in-depth grizzly study in the Park. In an 11 year continuous study beginning in 1959, the brothers invented the first radio collars, collaring and ear-tagging 256 bears in the Park during that time. Their study shed light on where grizzlies denned, the size of their home ranges, and how bears homed back to where they were captured. From the results of their research, the Craigheads proposed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—linking Yellowstone, Grand Teton, five national forests, and two national wildlife refuges into a single landscape. It was apparent to them that the boundaries of the Park itself were not sufficient to protect nor contain the food sources and wanderings of grizzlies.

Craighead Brothers move a grizzly (NPS photo)

While Anderson and Cole wanted to immediately close all the Yellowstone dumps, the Craigheads, knowing these bears had grown up adapted to receiving food rewards and understanding the bears better than anyone, advocated for a slow change-over, dropping road killed carcasses at the Trout Creek dump site. In other words, a slow wean rather than cold turkey. In the end, the Craigheads were right. Without the additional food sources of the dumps, the bears began heading into campgrounds, rummaging for food. At that time campers were not protecting their food, nor were there bear-proof cans provided. Everything happened too fast. Rangers were employed to kill problem bears and the bear population crashed to below 150 bears. Since bear reproduction is extremely slow, even after the bears had been on the Endangered Species list for ten years in the mid-1980s, most scientists thought the Yellowstone grizzly would soon be extinct. By 1990, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population had dipped to 99 bears. Slowly, it began to creep back up to present day estimates of about 750 bears.

Engineering Eden uses as its focal a lawsuit trial centered around the death of a young man named Harry Walker. Walker was passing through Yellowstone in 1972 with a friend. They camped about a mile outside the designated campgrounds in Old Faithful, left their food out, set up a tent, then went back to the lodge for the evenings entertainment. Trying to find their way back to camp after midnight on a moonless night, Walker was mauled and killed by a grizzly who’d found their food. The family sued the United States government, and in a high profile case, Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, testified as an expert witness for the government while Frank Craighead testified for the family. Smith uses the trial, going forward and backward in time, to bring to light all the events surrounding the case, even discussing black bears in Yosemite that were also garbage bears.

If you don’t know about The Night of the Grizzlies, there’s a Montana PBS special worth watching, or a short but excellent book by Jack Olsen. Yet it is worth recapping that night since this was the spark that ignited what followed in Yellowstone.

The two fatal incidents occurred on the night of August 12, 1967, two different bears, separated by eight miles and a formidable mountain named Heavens Peak. Since the Park’s creation in 1910 there had not been a single fatal encounter with a grizzly bar. So these two attacks on the same night raised a lot of controversy.  But they were actually a long time in the making which included other non-fatal maulings that had occurred in Glacier. Food dumps and trash from the growing number of visitors attracted bears, black and grizzly, for years. Granite Park Chalet, the site of one of the maulings, had been dumping garbage just 200 yards from the building. The year before, the Park Service provided an incinerator, but the sheer volume of visitors created more trash than could be burned nightly. Plus, the nightly arrival of grizzlies was a tourist attraction that was coveted. The dumping continued.

With a long term drought depressing the berry crop, critical food for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide, bears had grown particularly dependent on these dumps. At Trout Lake, on the other side of the Livingston Range, one bear in particular had been trouble throughout the summer. She was old, underweight, and unafraid of humans. That summer there were reports of this old female marauding campers and campsites, even confronting them while on horseback. She had been hanging around a private outfit called Kelly’s Camp at the head of McDonald Lake getting into their garbage. Yet no action was taken by the Park Service. Things were different in those days and with no grizzly bear major incidents since the Park’s opening, policies were lax.

Michele Koons had hiked into Trout Lake earlier in the day with a few friends. This bear had come into their campsite earlier and they drove her off. The group then moved their site closer to the lake and built a large bonfire. At 4 a.m. the bear returned, sniffing out their sleeping bags. Although her companions escaped up trees, Michele, unable to slip out of her bag, was carried into the woods. With first light, Koons’ companions hiked out to the McDonald Ranger Station to report the mauling.  When the rangers found her body, it was mauled beyond recognition.

“Trout Lake was typical of all the other campgrounds at that time in Glacier National Park,” said Bert Gildart, the ranger who responded to the grizzly attack at Trout Lake in an interview with the Great Falls Tribune in 2017.  “I think all the campgrounds in Glacier National Park were a mess. When the chief ranger and I flew back in there a few weeks later, we picked up an immense number, probably 17 burlap sacks we loaded into a Huey helicopter and it was all full of garbage that people had left behind.”

Meanwhile, since the Granite Park Chalet was over-flowing with visitors the evening of August 11, Julie Helgeson and her boyfriend Roy Ducat decided to camp at the campground 500 yards down the trail. A similar scenario played out, with the grizzly first mauling Ducat in his sleeping bag. When he played dead, the bear turned to Helgeson. Ducat climbed out of the bag he was sharing with Julie, and ran for help as the bear dragged Helgeson down the ravine. A search party found her alive, although she died soon thereafter from excessive loss of blood and shock.

Rangers were dispatched to kill the offending bears. Bert Gildart and Leonard Landa shot the old female at Trout Lake. “It was determined on the spot that this bear had glass embedded in its teeth,” Gildart told the Tribune. “So here you had a bear with difficulty chewing and eating in the first place and as well a bear that was horribly emaciated or run down. It couldn’t eat. It weighed slightly over 200 pounds. It wasn’t a big bear at all. It was about 20 years old, an emaciated sow. That’s the reason why it probably fed on the girl.”

Up at Granite Park Chalet, following the mauling, Ranger David Shea was told to kill any bear that came to their dumpsite. The result was three dead bears, including a sow with two cubs. One cub was shot in the jaw by a second ranger, survived the winter, then killed in the spring when he returned to feed on garbage.

From these two incidents, immediate changes in Glacier policies were initiated. “Pack it in, Pack it out”, backcountry campgrounds were concentrated, cables for hanging food were set up, education programs began. But of course all the cleanup of the backcountry along with de-habituating bears took time.


For years I could not make sense of what happened to my friends and I in Glacier National Park in the summer of 1972. My friends Karen and Sarajo and I had spent our high school free time backpacking with other teenagers and a parent chaperone in the Sierras and high mountains of the San Bernadino forest. We thought of ourselves as pretty experienced. We understood cleaning up our cooking site and hanging our food high in trees. In those days, there wasn’t any freeze-dried backpacking food sold. We brought rice, lentils, and other grains that needed cooking for an hour. Smells wafted through the air. But still, a clean camp could be kept.

That summer my friends and I were on a journey typical of teenagers who had just graduated high school. It was the beginning of the rest of our lives and we were excited. We’d hitchhiked to Waterton Lakes National Park with the intention of a through-hike. We stopped at the visitor center for maps and information. Two Canadian rangers stared at us from behind the counter. When we told them our plans, they both looked genuinely alarmed.

“There’s a 10 mile hike that follows a lake. A ranger station is at the lake’s end. From there you can continue on into the United States. You  know there are bears out there, grizzlies and black?”

“What about grizzlies,” I asked. We knew what to do about black bears, being an abundant nuisance in the California Sierras.

“You have three choices if you encounter one that charges you. You can climb a tree. Grizzlies can’t climb trees. You can drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, put your hands behind your neck.”

“What’s the third option,” Karen asked.

“Play chicken. Stand in place and stare him down. More than likely that bear will run and veer off at the last minute. But not a guarantee.”

I didn’t give his advice much second thought, but playing chicken isn’t in my nature. Climbing a tree sounded doable.

We camped at the visitor center campground that night and set out in the morning. Much of the hike paralleled the lakeshore. The day was overcast, drizzling on and off. By early afternoon we found a suitable campsite by the lake, built a small fire in a clearing adjacent to the lake and began to prepare dinner.

Our pot, blackened on the bottom from being set over the open flames, wafted aromas throughout the forest. Although the rain abated during our dinner hour, a dark overcast sky signaled a possible storm, so we set up our tents. Gear in the 1970s was heavy and expensive, and as teenagers we had no extra cash for backpacking tents anyways. Instead we’d brought “tube tents”, $2 tubes of orange plastic that hung on a rope between two trees. A clip held the ends loosely together to keep rain out. It was a lousy system. If you really needed it, condensation might be just as bad as the pouring rain outside. But it held in a light rain.

The clouds were closing in as we finished dinner around the fire. We cleaned up and dutifully hung our food high in a tree. Dusk settled and conversation about our trip and the long day began to flow. In the dimming light, Sarajo spotted something moving in the trees at the clearing’s edge.

“Bear.” 

I looked up to see an enormous black bear lumbering towards our hung food.  He stopped directly under the food sacks, spent some time pondering them, then obviously decided it wasn’t worth the effort to climb the tree and shimmy the branch. Bears don’t see well, I knew this, but he looked like this wasn’t his first food rodeo as he began beelining towards our fire.

In all my backpacking days up till then, I’d never had a bear encounter, but we instinctively knew what to do next. We yelled and grabbed our pots, banging like our life depended on that noise. It was a tin chorus but the bear wasn’t fazed. The pots were battered but the bear kept coming. Something seemed off with this bruin.

These were our two tried and true methods—hang your food, make a lot of noise—and they were not working. Our packs leaned nearby against a tree. Although there was no food in it, I was sure the packs smelled from our dinner’s cooking. The bear began rummaging around the packs, sniffing and exploring all the openings. Meanwhile we were building up the fire until it was a roaring blaze.  I contemplated jumping in the lake. It was close by, and maybe the bear would be discouraged and gone soon. It didn’t take me long to nix that idea—a glacial lake with darkness descending—it was clearly a terrible idea.  I glanced around at the trees, remembering what the ranger had told us. Of course, this was a large black bear, not a grizzly. But at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. Yet this forest was not like those in the southern Sierras, full of trees that were stout with lower branches. This Canadian forest had trees that were mere sticks with slender narrow trunks. They required shimming up and I wasn’t sure I could do that. So I threw more wood on the fire.

Meanwhile, the bear now seemed quite comfortable exploring our campsite. He finished with our packs and turned towards us. We sat perfectly still, breathless. I was wedged between Karen and Sarajo. Keeping one eye on the bear, the other on the fire, we’d all run out of ideas what to do next. Banging pots hadn’t worked. A clean camp failed. So we sat still as statues in front of a blazing hot fire.

The bear first approached Karen. I could feel his hot breath. He paused behind her jacket, sniffing the fabric.  The jacket must have absorbed our lentil dinner aromas. He then switched to her pants. He slowly opened his mouth and began placing it around her leg. Before he had a chance to test her leg any further, Karen let out a loud yelp. The bear jumped back.

Still not startled enough to retreat by Karen’s reaction, he turned his attention to the fire itself. Lurching his entire head between me and Karen, he leaned in towards the flames, his muzzle touching my arm. To our amazement, he was fascinated with the fire and wanted to explore it further. His huge face settled next to my shoulder, his eyes fixated on the fire. I stared at him, yet felt no fear. That surprised me. He leaned in towards the flames. As he felt the heat, he quickly pulled his head back beyond my arm, swiping his nose several times with his paw. He almost looked cute. 

Having enough of the fire, he moved behind and around me to explore Sarajo, who was squeezed to my right. Still fascinated with the smell on our down jackets, he started nipping at her jacket’s fabric, but when she pulled quickly away, the bear decided we just weren’t that interesting nor edible.

At that point our bear moved to explore the tube tents. With our sleeping bags already laid out inside, he went back and forth, inside and out, while we tried to formulate a plan on how to get rid of this bear. By now it had been over an hour and I’d had enough.

I picked up some pebbles without moving from my log by the fire, and began throwing them into the woods. To my surprise, the ploy worked. The bear perked up his ears, looked towards the noise, and moseyed off to investigate. That bear got so curious he forgot all about us, continuing his exploration into the forest.

After a restless sleep, the next morning we quickly packed our gear and headed the remaining miles to the lake’s end for the ranger station. Karen said she was sure she saw that bear come around in the morning. Something seemed “off” about this bear. He had no fear of humans. None of the usual techniques worked to deter him.

The ranger station was plush. It had a bathroom with electric lights. We all went to wash up. Sarajo told us she started her period. Karen was complaining about a sore leg. Pulling her pants away exposed a huge black and blue mark in the shape of an upper and a lower jaw. The size of the bruise was shocking, it wrapped her entire thigh like a tattoo. Luckily the skin wasn’t broken. The bear barely clamped down, but that bruise was a mark of how powerful he was.

The ranger met us and we reported what occurred and how we handled it.

“You girls know there were two women killed by grizzles just a few years ago in Glacier. Pretty close to here too.”

What? Why would I know that?  I’m seventeen, not from around here, and certainly don’t read the news on bear maulings.

He was descriptive and detailed in his story. ”They were killed on the same night, in different parts of the Park, by two different bears. One mauling was on a mountain, the other by a lake. Pulled them right out of their sleeping bags. The Park Service said both of these women were menstruating at the time. They say the smell of the blood drew the grizzlies in. The bears were thinking another bear was in their territory, so they killed them.”

If we weren’t scared by that black bear, we now were terrified with this new information. And Sarajo had just told us her menstrual cycle had started. Our plans to continue our backpack needed to change. We decided, for now, we needed to spend the next several days camped right next to the ranger station. The ranger said if we took day hikes and made lots of noise while we hiked, we’d probably be fine.

Every day it drizzled a fine mist. The skies were overcast. The enormous mountains surrounding the lake were shrouded in clouds. The dense forest cast off its wetness as we day hiked to pass the time, yelling as we hiked. It was awful. The whole reason we enjoyed the back country was the solitude, the quiet, the wildlife. Now all we could think about were grizzlies coming for Sarajo, probably around every corner. After five days, her menstrual cycle over, the three of us hiked the ten miles back to the Waterton Lakes Visitor Center. We surveyed the crowds of eager tourists, felt the pressure of the relentless rain and ominous clouds that enveloped the viewscape, and stuck out our thumbs to head south to Grand Teton National Park, a sunny country far from grizzly bears in 1972.

Only years later did I watch the Montana PBS special and realize we were dealing with a highly conditioned bear. We were just lucky that he wasn’t aggressive. During the feeding of black bears in Yosemite, there were many cases of injuries from frustrated bears.

As far as the myth of menstruation motivating the Glacier bear attacks, Smith writes this about it:

The August 1968 report concluded that, indeed, Michele Koons had been menstruating. Menstrual pads had been found in her personal effects. And it stated that Julie Helgeson, whose pack contained menstrual supplies, might also have been expecting the onset of menstruation. The document postulated that menstrual odor…may have attracted the bears that killed them.* [*It is worth mentioning that the Park Service’s report on the grizzly attacks of August 13, 1967, was written by men, who may not have known that many women have menstrual supplies in their personal effects whether they are menstruating or not.]

Following the Glacier report’s release the menstruation story took on a life of its own, as it was recited by rangers throughout the national parks. In some cases female Park Service employees were forbidden to work in areas where they might encounter bears during that time of the month. Later, an exhaustive study of bear attacks by Stephen Herrero…failed to find any correlation between menstruation and bear incidents.

Why is it worth reading and revisiting the details of this? Haven’t we learned the lessons of food storage? Although there are still plenty of incidents with grizzlies outside the National Parks getting into chicken coops, grain bins, or just unprotected trash, in general the Park Service, surrounding National Forests and Game Agencies have done a good job getting the information out and providing proper storage cans to protect food. Yosemite, that once had hundreds of bear incidents in the 1970s, (i.e. 979 in 1975 alone) now has less than 40 a year.

Besides the historical value of how we almost lost Yellowstone grizzlies due to mismanagement and political pressures, I think we are again at a crucial moment. Yellowstone grizzlies are back on the endangered species list, along with Montana’s bears, but that will not be for long. Montana is right now having discussions about delisting protocols. The lawsuit that put the bear back on the ESA will be challenged and eventually the bear will be off again, for better or worse. Acknowledging that we’ve succeeded in saving the bear from extinction in Yellowstone and the lower 48 is cause for celebration. But how we move forward is the question of the moment.

Bears need movement, corridors for genetic meet and greet. They need habitat preserved. And we need to do all we can, more than we even have, to protect them into the future. Montana growth bulges, how will we respect and give space to grizzlies?

I think one of the things this history shows us is how fragile grizzlies actually are. In my mind, our task now is to continue not to hunt grizzlies once they are delisted, to protect and acquire corridors which includes conservation easements on private lands, to educate newcomers and old timers alike in food protections (including livestock small and large), to appropriate funds and education for ranchers for non-lethal methods of livestock protections, and to support these efforts through general funds for game agencies so as not to rely on hunting licenses. Many groups have been working on all these points. Gaining public support and dollars, especially once the bear is delisted, is probably key.

Climate change along with population growth are growing new threats to the bear. We have seen in the past how quickly we almost lost him. It is possible to happen again.

You can also read this post on my website https://lesliepattenbooks.com/blogs/

If you liked this post, try subscribing to my newsletter at lesliepattenbooks.com

Grizzlies and other wild news

The second edition of The Wild Excellence is out.  With ten new photos and updated information on grizzly bears, I’ve included below a piece from the new preface. Order direct from Amazon and tell your local bookstore to please order from their distributor for in-stock local availability.

In October 2018, my new book on mountain lions, Ghostwalker, will be available.  Ghostwalker: Tracking a mountain lion’s soul through science and story is an account of my personal journey to understand as much as possible about this elusive, secretive animal. To that end, I conducted dozens of interviews–with cougar researchers, conservation organizations, wildlife managers, houndsmen and trackers. You’ll find the latest, cutting-edge research explored in the book. More info to come later.

GhLrg2lines

Below is an excerpt from the new preface of The Wild Excellence.

“His cowboy boots are probably still sitting there.”

 

Jim was relating the story of J. K. Rollinson, the first Forest Service Ranger in the valley where I live. Rollison helped build a government cabin in the Beartooth Mountains in 1908. My new friend Jim, a slight man in his mid-80s yet still in excellent shape, had guided me the week before to another historic Beartooth site—a crumbling stockade from the 1860s hidden within a copse of spruce. Jim grew up in the Big Horn basin where he worked in an array of outdoor jobs throughout his life, including with the Forest Service. The cabin, he said, if it’s still there, was at Sparhawk Lake.

 

I knew the Beartooth Range pretty well, but hadn’t heard of Sparhawk. Jim said the lake was named after Ranger Frank Sparhawk. Sparhawk, along with Rollinson, used the cabin as a summer refuge while overseeing livestock operations in this high alpine environment. The small cabin saved the rangers a ten-mile rugged horseback trip from the Crandall Ranger Station. I was curious if any remnants were left. Pouring over a map, I found the tarn not far from Sawtooth Lake, a large body of water wrapped at the base of a mountain bearing the same name. A rough dirt road off the main highway leads to Sawtooth’s lakefront. The road is in good shape for the first mile and a half, then turns into a rocky, rutted mess. I pulled off where the road loses its shape and walked the final two and a half miles to the lake.

 

Spruce and whitebark pine forest, interspersed with verdant meadows of high alpine wildflowers, make this scenic dirt access road a popular weekend ride for off-road vehicles. The course is along a ridgeline overlooking a U-shaped wetland of marsh and lakes. The adjacent eastern ridgeline, visible at times from the Sawtooth road, is also a popular route. Called the Morrison Jeep Road, it’s an historic trail used as a connector route from the 10,000 foot Beartooth Plateau down to the desert mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon. The local ATV club was anxious for a loop trail joining Sawtooth Lake with the jeep trail. To accomplish that, the Forest Service would have to build a new road into and through the marsh up to the opposite ridgeline. That was another reason I wanted to walk this road. I had to see what kind of habitat damage that would create.

 

A few hundred yards before the final approach to Sawtooth Lake, I encountered a parked Toyota 4-Runner with Montana plates. That last stretch is too rough and eroded for even the toughest vehicle. I also heard gunshots. It was early September, not yet hunting season, but these fellows were using trees for target practice on the far side of the lake. I couldn’t see them, but sure could hear their antics. No one else was around, and thankfully the route to Sparhawk was in the opposite direction.

 

A small jewel hidden within dense tree cover, I found the remains of Sparhawk’s cabin by the side of the lake, along with a Forest Service plaque commemorating his service. Only the log outline of a tiny cabin, but no cowboy boots, remained. I ate lunch, then returned the route I came.  Walking the road back up the steep hill, I found the 4-Runner still parked on the small knoll. From this point, the road opens into a meadow edged with dense tree cover on its far side. Breaking the forest’s silence, a deep sonorous barking suddenly roared through the trees. I stopped and listened. The mysterious low-pitched “honk” came again, then again. I looked across the meadow just in time to see a large grizzly bear running through the woods, followed by a tiny cub. The barking continued and another cub ran to catch up with her bear mother. These little cubs, born last winter, referred to as cubs of the year or COY for short, were incredibly cute. All this raucous was far enough away, with me downwind, that I wasn’t afraid. Mom was headed for the lake at a quick clip. The barking continued, like an old man with a wheezy cough and a megaphone, and after a few minutes a third cub appeared.

 

Mesmerized by this scene, I momentarily forgot about the men still down by the lake who were probably fishing by now. Instead I reflected on the increasing use by grizzlies of this alpine area. The Beartooths are good habitat with intact whitebark pines—now a rarity in the rest of the ecosystem due to widespread beetle kill. Females who eat whitebark pine nuts are known to have larger litters. Here was a successful grizzly mother utilizing these resources.

 

When the bears were out of sight, I remembered the men. No chance for me to let them know those bears were on their way towards them. The quartet of bears would be at lakeside before I could even turn around. Hopefully the men would not run into them, or at the very least keep their cool….

1643:092517:50F:0000:CAMERA1:2

Missing Mama Grizzly

Last October our game warden was hunting in my valley when he was bluff charged by a sow grizzly bear.  This bear had three cubs of the year (COY) by her side. She first gave a bluff charge, but then turned around, huffed, and came at the warden again. It was then that Chris Queen discharged his hunting rifle and killed her. After some deliberation about what to do with her young, small cubs, the Wyoming Game and Fish decided to let nature take its course, giving them a slim chance to make a den and survive the winter.

Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for about 2 1/2 years. Born blind and helpless in the winter den, cubs need to learn everything about bear survival from their mother. What foods to eat and where to find them. One fall I was in Tom Miner Basin. A pair of two year old grizzlies were roaming together. I was told they’d lost their mother the previous fall, but somehow managed to survive the winter and thrive through the summer. COY surviving without their mother is a rare event.

Grizzly Cubs 2 years old

Tom Miner basin. Two cubs that survived when their mother was killed the previous year

When I heard about the sow’s death, my heart ached. I knew that bear. In fact, I’d just observed her and the cubs the week before. She was ambling across a pasture while the cubs pranced and played behind her. A few years ago, I watched her with two two-year-old cubs cross a meadow on the opposite side of the road. Every spring I would drive up the nearby drainage across from these meadows and find her tracks with cubs in tow. Little Sunlight, where the warden killed her, was not far from the area I’d observed the family. These were her haunts.

1455:092617:59F:0000:CAMERA1:2

Mama grizzly with her three COY in September shortly before she was killed

I wondered if those cubs survived. The Game & Fish said they counted them in their tally as dead bears. How many bears died in a previous year would determine how many could be hunted in the following. I’m sure they ear-tagged them though. My plan was to drive up their mother’s favorite drainage and see if I could either spot the cubs, or at best, locate their tracks. Mom always walked down the dirt road, then veered off into the meadows at a predictable place. Since I saw her there (either by sight or by sign) early spring and late fall, I thought maybe she tended to den in that area so the cubs might too. At the very least, I felt this was an area the cubs knew. To my disappointment, after an extensive search, the only tracks I could see were the faint sign of an adult male. That doesn’t mean the cubs didn’t survive, but the odds are low.

Grizzly print

Male griz about 12″ long and 5″ wide. He’s traveling towards the left of the print.

Just last week a person shot and killed a female sow in what they said was self-defense. She had several cubs with her. There was no mention in the article of the hiker carrying bear spray. It also appeared he was hiking alone, so his story can never be verified.

Last week I attended the very important Wyoming Game and Fish commission meeting. After hours of public comment, running 5:1 against a hunt, the commissioners voted unanimously within a few minutes to let the first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 in over 40 years proceed. We all knew the outcome of that vote before we even attended. Regardless, it was important we be heard. A spokesman for the tribes read a comment. The tribes requested that instead of a hunt, those bears be transferred to various tribal lands. If the Wyoming Game & Fish along with residents who say “have a hunt to reduce bear numbers” really believe that meme, then why not transfer bears to other areas where they once lived instead of killing them for trophy.

I was in Silver City, New Mexico last month. One of the last grizzly bears was killed in that area in the 1930s. An extensive study was done in the 1970s to see if the Gila National Forest would still support a small population of grizzlies. The study concluded that although there had been fire suppression which hindered some of their food sources, grizzlies could survive there. Since that time fires have come to the Gila and opened up the habitat. With livestock protections, grizzlies could once again roam the Gila National Forest and surrounding areas. The tribes could be the catalyst who help expand grizzlies into areas where they once lived where habitat is still suitable.

Grizzly habitat SW 1860

Yellow indicates grizzly range in 1860 in northern Mexico and SW USA

Wyoming has it backwards. The state feels it has to hunt the bear to reduce conflicts and bear population. Instead, they should be ramping up their efforts to teach people how to live around grizzly country, like carrying bear spray and protecting food sources. Plus they should cooperate with the tribes, transferring the 2018 hunt quota of 23 bears to tribal lands.

As William Wright so succinctly put it over a hundred years ago:  “grizzly bears are minders of their own business.” We can honor that bear temperament by leaving them be.

1513:092617:56F:0000:CAMERA1:2

Tired COY leans on Mama. I still haven’t seen any signs of the COY this spring

1401:092517:50F:0000:CAMERA1:2

 

 

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.

hist_21

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:

IMG_1127.JPG

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.

DSC01322

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.

DSC01326

Front foot with claw marks

DSC01336 (1)

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.

40a

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

IMG_1206

Some of the fur I pulled off the tree

View from about halfway up the vast meadowsDSC01325

A few blooming flowers:

DSC01332

New flower for me. Wood Nymph Moneses uniflora

DSC01331

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.

DSC01334

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.

http-%2F%2Fa.amz.mshcdn.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2015%2F11%2Fcurtis4x5-3

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.

charlierussell-bear-4

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.

2011_bervik_brown_bear20on20ground

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.

Slide1

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.

grizzly in east painter

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:

Slide1

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