MISSOULA -- Northern Continental Divide grizzly bears made it through 2014 without one dying at the hands of a game warden.
That’s significant, considering that “management removal” of problem bears was the No. 1 cause of death for those bears between 2000 and 2012, according to reports delivered at this week’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting. While 18 of the threatened bears died from encounters with hunters, landowners, cars and other incidents, none of them caused so much trouble they had to be destroyed.
“While the west side (of the Rocky Mountains) had lots of huckleberries and chokecherries, we had a moderate year and it was still our lowest conflict year on record,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 biologist Mike Madel said. “We're still trying to figure this all out.”
In 2014, much of Montana enjoyed a banner year for the wild foods grizzlies prefer. But state and federal biologists reported they also had a lot of challenges with bears on agricultural land -- especially farm vegetable plots and the ever-popular chicken coops. Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes biologist Stacy Courville said he was finding grizzly daybeds in corn fields until mid-November.
“We had between 65 and 70 conflicts, mostly on agricultural land,” FWP Region 2 biologist Jamie Jonkel said. “They’re getting into radishes, alfalfa -- it’s just ramping up.”
That activity, along with projections of how many grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, form the foundation for debate over removing the bears’ federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. Although IGBC had hoped to have proposed delisting rules for both areas ready by the end of 2014, that deadline has been moved back.
Several issues stand in the way of getting a delisting rule written. Each area would have to have its own rule, which would guide affected state governments on local management and potential hunting. The rules also would be linked to the management plans of surrounding national forests such as the Flathead, Gallatin and Kootenai -- all of which are in the process of being rewritten or amended.
Bear researchers in the Greater Yellowstone area are using a new counting system that estimates about 1,000 bears live in and around Yellowstone National Park. Previous estimates put the population around 757.
But IGBC population specialist Frank van Manen said the new method doesn’t indicate bear populations are growing rapidly. Indeed, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bear community appears to have stayed fairly flat since the early 2000s. Van Manen said more likely, the older method underestimated bears in earlier counts.
The methodology is important because population trends will be the main ingredient in any plan to move grizzlies to state management and possibly sport hunting. Critics like Livingston grizzly researcher David Mattson argue both counting systems are flawed and fail to give any accurate picture if bear numbers are going up or down.
And unlike the Northern Continental Divide, the Greater Yellowstone area has seen an increase in grizzly deaths from both management removals and other human causes. Many of those happen on the outer edges of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Two theories compete to explain those fringe deaths. One says the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bear population is expanding and pushing bears to the edges in search of new territory, where they’re more likely to get in conflicts with people and die. The other is that the collapse of once-important food sources such as cutthroat trout and whitebark pine seeds has driven bears out of the national park core as they explore farms, ranches and cabins for food.
A federal court challenge based on declining whitebark pine food supplies overturned a 2007 delisting rule. Answering the court’s questions about alternative food sources has been a major focus of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bear research since then.
A very different situation exists in the Northern Continental Divide. Populations there are pegged to a 2004 study that used DNA from grizzly hair collected from hundreds of scratching poles throughout the nearly 9,000-square-mile area. That genetic material allowed biologists to develop a family tree covering most of the estimated 1,059 Rocky Mountain grizzlies between Missoula and the Canadian border.
The northern population also appears to have stabilized. But grizzly deaths have moved from the interior areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex to more settled fringes like Arlee, Bigfork, Potomac and Swan Lake.
“We’ve got to accept the fact we're making agricultural bears,” said FWP research biologist Rick Mace. “These aren’t the old wild grizzly bears living on top of mountains. They're sitting on corn fields or mellon fields. We’ve got bears denning out on the prairie. We haven't seen that for 100 years.”