The last two years have been the deadliest on record for grizzlies in and around Glacier National Park. There have been at least 48 grizzly mortalities this year in the area, called the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). As grizzly mortalities mount, bear managers in northwest Montana are trying to tackle the sources of rising deaths.
At a year-end meeting of bear managers on Tuesday, state bear biologist Cecily Costello said those numbers are nothing to worry about — yet.
"Right now, I’m not willing to say that two years of increased mortality is a trend. But I also am not gonna say that it’s not a trend. So I’m just gonna have to say we wait and see what happens."
Costello says the population is still healthy and growing at over 1,000 bears. She says those 48 mortalities still fall below a state threshold for the ecosystem passed last year.
"At the same time that you can hear the number and be sad, you can also kind of celebrate in the fact that that many bears could die and we still have a viable population."
The grizzlies’ range is growing along with their population. Now, more private land is occupied by grizzly bears than public land. That leads to conflicts with property and livestock. So Costello says that high death rate, "may have a lot to do with the bear population, but it may have a lot do with us, as well."
Costello says human development and recreation have been on the rise. Citing a Headwaters Economics study from last year, she says between 1990 and 2016, nearly 300,000 acres of open space was converted to housing, and 30,000 new homes were built in the 9 counties that surround the Glacier region. She also says the number of cars entering the Park has nearly doubled since 2000.
Although Costello says heightened mortalities aren’t yet a risk to the grizzly population, bear managers are working to reduce the number of deaths. An interagency working group of federal, state, and tribal officials presented recommendations to address grizzly mortality at the meeting.
Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says she expects conflicts to continue to expand as human population and recreation continue to rise.
"These are tough issues, and it’s not gonna be enough to spend a few phone calls here working on these topics, and expect to have any change. We want to drop mortalities and drop conflicts," Cooley says.
Cooley identified hunters, roads, trains, chickens and trash as the primary drivers of conflict, based on trends over the last two decades. She presented recommendations to address each issue.
Trains killed eight grizzlies in Montana this year.
"This was a spike," Cooley says.
Train deaths have actually gone down since 1999, compared to the decade before it.
Cooley also says that cattle and sheep depredations, and conflicts over beehives have gone down over the same time period. However, other conflicts — especially over chickens — have skyrocketed.
Solutions ranged from education, outreach and collaboration, to intensive road projects that could help grizzlies safely pass through traffic, to formal regulations that could change human behavior. Across the board, funding was a key barrier to implementation. Cooley expects many of these recommendations to be implemented by 2021.
Grizzlies in the lower 48 were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. In the Glacier area, state and federal biologists say the bears have recovered. At the meeting, State Sen. Bruce Gillespie says those bears have been federally protected long enough.
"Let’s promote a model that gets the grizzly bear delisted, hopefully by next year, and on to a management plan."
In public comment, citizens addressed human safety issues, took issue with U.S. Forest Service projects that compromised bear habitat, and said grizzlies have a long way to go to reach meaningful recovery.
Josh Osher is the Montana Director for the conservation group, the Western Watersheds Project.
"Within a tiny little period of history they were shrunk to almost nothing," Osher said. "So I don’t see 44 years as all that long to think about in term of the time it takes to recover a species."
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Executive Committee will hold its year-end meeting, which will address mortality and other issues across all grizzly ecosystems, on December 16 at the Residence Inn in Missoula.