iOS app Android app More

Yellowstone Grizzly Bears: Are They Still Endangered, Or A Danger? (PHOTOS)

Posted:

From Douglas H. Chadwick:

On a midsummer tundra day in Alaska, I hiked to a hillside overlooking a cascade. The waters thrummed and thundered, somersaulted and sprayed rainbow mist. Throngs of arm-length salmon leapt the opposite direction, fighting to reach spawning grounds closer to the mountains. Amid that tumult, nearly sixty grizzly bears muscled along parting the currents like boulders, plunged open-mouthed into eddies, swiped at flying fish, mock-wrestled in the shallows, and napped on the shores next to watchful bald eagles and gulls. The place was as alive as it is possible to be, and it made me feel the same way.

I dropped down to the base of a rock ledge for a fresh view. Shortly after noon, a bear suddenly appeared around the corner. It was coming my direction fast-- too fast for me to do anything but press back against the stone and keep still. Closer, closer. I stopped breathing. I felt the fur of the grizzly’s shoulder brush my chest, and then…

The animal hurried by, looking the other way. Its sole interest lay in steering clear of a huge male that had arrived at the river’s edge. Though left gasping, I wasn’t completely surprised to have been ignored. Here in wild sushi heaven, the bears routinely tolerated humans at close range. Sometimes, they fished side-by-side with wolves, their arch-enemies under different conditions.

Later that day, one mother grizzly laid down to nurse two little cubs only ten feet from me. I know of salmon streams where females with young not only act comfortable around people but even make a point of staying near them. This is likely because they’re aware that grown males, which can be dangerous to cubs, tend to keep away from the humans. Before going fishing among other adults, females have been known to drop off their cubs by viewing stations, turning the bear observers into bear babysitters. [Text continues after images.]

Photos and captions courtesy of Dave Showalter and David Burke.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Grizzly Bear Feeding On Rose Hips

    Grizzly bear eating nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) hips in hyperphagic state. (a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation)

  • Carter Mountain

    A lenticular cloud forms over Carter Mountain's eastern flank, a sure sign of high winds. Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • Grizzly Bear Area

    These signs are found throughout the Shoshone National Forest, a grizzly bear stronghold in the wild areas east of Yellowstone National Park. The location here is near the area where Jacks Creek meets the Greybull River. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • Absaroka Mountain Range

    Justin Hawkins enjoys a commanding view of the snow-capped Absaroka Mountain Range. Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • Grizzly Bear Feeding

    Grizzly Bear Boar with Elk carcass along a riverbank in the Absaroka Range, Wyoming.

  • Absaroka Sunrise

    Sunrise on high peaks of the Absaroka Mountain west of Cody, Wyoming. Washakie Wilderness Area, Wyoming. The Absaroka Range is a stronghold for the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including endangered grizzly bears. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • Grizzly Track

    My size 11 boot adds scale to a large back print of a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos). I was hiking the Pahaska Trail with photographer Matt Riebel when this fresh print stopped me in my tracks. We followed the tracks for over a mile before they vanished. The Shoshone National Forest on the Absaroka Front is critical habitat for grizzly bears. Shoshone NF, Wyoming. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • Tundra Flowers

    Redstem cinquefoil wildflowers (Potentilla rubricaulis) color the alpine tundra bright yellow on Beartooth Pass. Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • Greybull River

    The Greybull River travels below soaring peaks near its headwaters on Greybull Pass. Washakie Wilderness Area, Wyoming. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and International League of Conservation Photographers "Tripods In The Mud" campaign to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Front in the Greater Yellowstone Region of Wyoming.

  • The author in Glacier National Park, where he has volunteered for years on a groundbreaking wolverine research project. "OK, it's not a grizzly. It's a wolverine, another carnivore that requires large stretches of wild country to roam. And wolverines happen to be one of the very few animals -- possibly the only one -- able to sometimes force a grizzly bear to back off from a carcass. Pretty impressive when you only weigh 30 pounds."

Nineteenth century taxonomists labeled North America’s grizzly/brown bears Ursus arctos horribilis. Today, Canada and the United States hold roughly 50,000 of those and 350 million Homo sapiens. During an average year, the bears kill two people. Smoking-related illnesses claim the lives of 400,000 annually in the U.S. alone, suicide takes 49,000-plus, auto collisions with deer 130, fatal maulings by dogs 32, and 22 from being crushed by a crowd. By comparison, demise by slavering bruin is not a public safety issue. It is a psychological problem.

We can’t seem to help monsterizing grizzlies in tales told around campfires, in sporting magazines, and on TV and movie screens. Yet these bears also happen to be among the most playful, inquisitive, and keenly intelligent life forms keeping us company on the planet. Built to learn, they keep learning over a lifespan of 30 years or more. Dr. Charles Robbins, who studies bear physiology and behavior at Washington State University, considers grizzlies smarter than dogs and perhaps as bright as young children.

This isn’t to say being clever makes grizzlies less formidable. Still, between our mental abilities and those of the bears, we ought to be able to figure out ways to co-exist better than we have in the past. We’ve been trying for several decades now with a promising degree of success. And that, I think, is the most sensational grizzly story of all.

By 1975, when grizzlies were listed as a threatened species south of Canada, they had lost 98 percent of their range and numbers there. Barely a thousand remained. The decline continued into the mid-1980’s. Across the roughly 20 million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) with 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park at the core, the population shrank to perhaps 150 or fewer. The all-important count of females with cubs fell below 20.

Grizzlies survived in four other Lower 48 ecosystems: Montana’s Northern Continental Divide, anchored by Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex; westernmost Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak area; northern Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains; and Washington’s North Cascades. Each enclave was struggling, but the collapse in the GYE received the most attention. After all, this was America’s best known big bruin country. Its grizzlies, now the southernmost left on the continent, were entirely cut off from other populations and fading fast.

The GYE sprawls across 21 different mountain ranges in parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Two national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton – six federal forests, and various state forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management properties, and other publicly owned lands make up two thirds of the area. Traditionally, each agency focused solely on the natural resources within its particular borders. Restoring mega-bruins whose individual home ranges sprawl across hundreds of square miles called for a whole new era of cooperation.

Scientists and managers teamed up to do a better job of defining critical bear habitat and limiting development within it. Where many a bear had been terminated for causing problems with livestock pastured on public lands, the grazing leases were relocated. Officials worked harder to control other attractants as well, fencing off garbage dumps in rural communities, replacing standard trash bins with bear-proof versions, and installing hanging poles to keep supplies up out of paw’s reach at backcountry campsites.

Carnivores by anatomy, grizzlies are highly adaptable omnivores in practice. They sniff opportunity in anything from the celery sticks in a tourist’s cooler to the flavored lip balm in a hiker’s pack; and from the freshly skinned elk a hunter holds overnight in the woods to the fruit trees, horse pellets, dog chow, or seeds in a birdfeeder at a country home.

Where rewarded with food, the bears make a habit of returning. They quickly grasp the connection. The problem, as every bear manager knows, is that too many people don’t. They keep leaving out open invitations to big, hairy company. Somebody might end up killed-- and 99.9 percent of the time, it’s the grizzly. Progress in driving home the message that “a fed bear is a dead bear” was slow. Nevertheless, as the agencies and non-profit conservation groups expanded public bear awareness programs, that effort, too, began to make a difference.

The current count of grizzlies in the GYE is at least 500, possibly 600. It has been rising 4 to 7 percent annually, and the number of females with cubs has held above 50 for the past six years. As for the total population south of Canada, experts say it has reached 1,500 or more.


FOLLOW GREEN

Filed by Jessica Leader  |