Montana Public Radio

Wildlife Managers Downplay Concerns Over Grizzly Bear Deaths

Dec 18, 2019

Bear managers pushed back on recent concerns over grizzly bear deaths during a meeting of state and federal wildlife officials in Missoula Tuesday.

Frank Van Manen, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, recognizes high-mortality years grab headlines. But at the winter meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, his message is clear.

"We are not in a crisis mode here. There's things that we should be paying attention to, but we’re not dealing with a crisis."

Grizzly mortality reached record highs in northwest Montana for the last two years. But after a high-mortality 2018 in the Greater Yellowstone — at 65 bears — the latest USGS data shows about 40 deaths this year.

While six ecosystems in the lower 48 are federally designated as grizzly bear habitat, only two — the areas in and around Glacier and Yellowstone national parks — have sizable populations of the bears.

Van Manen says bear mortality is increasing because of rising grizzly populations, growing human numbers, and the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation. But he says what matters isn’t just the death toll, but rather the proportion of the overall grizzly population that’s dying.

"Of course the issues are real, especially if you’re a landowner and having to deal with it. And so it is a balancing act," he says.

The data show that humans cause the majority of grizzly deaths through misidentification, poaching, self-defense while hunting, conflicts with property and livestock and on roads and railways.

Government grizzly managers are tracking these deaths while hoping the growing bear populations in Yellowstone and Glacier will eventually connect between the regions. That will fuel genetic exchange and make both populations healthier. Bears have been closing that gap for years, and Van Manen says they only have about 50 miles to go.

"Connectivity is kind of happening, we just don't’ have any genetic evidence of that yet. But it is bound to happen," Van Manen says.

But this expansion means bears are moving beyond public lands. In the Glacier area, more than half of the land occupied by grizzlies is private. Around Yellowstone, they inhabit a swath of private land larger than Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks combined. That trend brings a host of issues related to human uses of the land alongside grizzlies.

Earlier this year, the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming authorized continued livestock grazing in the controversial Upper Green River Range, which is also prime grizzly habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the move wouldn’t have an effect on grizzlies as long as not more than 72 bears were killed over the next 10 years.

Across ecosystems, attempts to reduce grizzly conflicts and mortalities include outreach and education to hunters and recreationists, communities living with bears and areas through which grizzlies are likely to expand.