Rebounding Grizzlies Still Face, and Pose, Risks
Yellowstone's rebounding grizzly bear population is an undeniable success. But figuring out how to manage the threatened omnivores--in light of potential food shortages and deadly human-grizzly interactions--isn't so easy.
The search for protein can also lead to grizzly mortalities. During hunting season, bears can be drawn outside the park onto national forests lands, where elk hunters leave tons of gut piles and carcasses every fall. Unfortunately, encounters with hunters are one of the leading causes of death for bears. Whatever foods replace cutthroat trout and pine nuts have to pack equivalent nutritional value without significantly elevating the cost of securing those calories, Jesse Logan argues. He acknowledges that large male grizzlies can take over wolf-killed elk carcasses but notes that those same males will kill females and cubs that try to sneak a bite. "Meat is a very dangerous, very high-cost food source to exploit. And even more dangerous than a boar grizzly is a hunter armed with a 30.06."
Indeed, one study found that grizzlies are twice as likely to die at the hands of hunters during poor pine seed years.
Back in the Lamar Valley, the sun slipping even lower, the sow and cubs that had thrilled the Vessels suddenly reappeared. Despite the uncertainties and disagreements, nobody can deny that this population has turned around from the days when its numbers plunged. These bears--and two other grizzlies the Vessels had seen that evening--are prime examples of what thorough management can do to recover a species teetering on the brink.
As the bears crossed the green bench, the bison had enough--they gathered and trotted away. One cub stood on its hind legs, watching them, then dropped and scrambled to catch up to its mother. The sow continued downslope. About a mile to the east, in the direction she now traveled, a boar grizzly, dark and massive, grazed on vegetation. Although she could not possibly see the big male, the sow angled sharply north, toward the river bottom, working her way around him. Like most of Yellowstone's grizzlies, she knows how to traverse the landscape between banquets and threats, and how to make the most of her world. Within a few moments, she and the cubs had disappeared behind a fold in the landscape, into the wildness of Yellowstone.
Even if these cubs never leave the park, a place we once dreamed would protect wildlife in a semi-Edenic state, their future remains inextricably intertwined with ours. If grizzlies can continue to react and adapt to a rapidly changing world, there's hope for these young bears and their offspring. But if we continue feverishly feeding climate change and altering the land too quickly, the remarkable success of Servheen and others involved in the recovery effort could suffer--and the bears we see roaming the Yellowstone ecosystem today may represent the high tide of healthy grizzly populations in modern America.
This story originally ran in the March-April 2012 issue as "Grizzly Encounters."
Scientific name: Ursus arctos horribilis
Identification: Males stand seven feet tall and weigh 400 to 600 pounds; females can reach 350 pounds. Color ranges from light brown to nearly black. Besides their greater size, the grizzly's concave face, high-humped shoulders, and long, curved claws differentiate it from black bears.
Range: Occurs from Alaska, south through western Canada, and into Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Behavior: Grizzlies spend much of their lives alone, except when mating and rearing young. Their diet is largely green vegetation and insects; meat comes primarily from carcasses, though a grizzly will occasionally take down elk or moose calves. Hibernates for five or six months a year, starting in October or November.
Conservation status: Federally listed as threatened since 1975. In the early 1800s an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Plains. Today roughly 1,700 of the bears live in the Lower 48 states, although, thanks to conservation efforts, population numbers are on the rise.