Mr. Hance and the Three Bears: Grizzlies in the Crosshairs

Over the last 90-days, I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot a polar bear, black bear, and grizzly bear — with a camera.

This week, a federal judge in Wyoming will determine if grizzlies can be hunted for sport.  I’ll add a series of posts about bear-related conservation issues this fall, and with an important federal ruling expected this week, I thought this one would be best to post first…

Grizzly bears once roamed from the northern edge of Alaska down to Mexico, but the land-management strategies that came with the European settlers across the Americas chipped into their numbers.  By 1920, the once broad distribution of the species had been substantially diminished, and in 1923, the last California Grizzly was shot and killed in Horse Corral Meadow, just between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  By the 1930s, there were still small areas in the southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado) they could be found, but unregulated hunting continued through the 1950s, further decreasing their numbers.  By the early 1970s, these mostly solitary apex predators had been removed from the lower 48-states, and, with a population of only about 135, the grizzly population in Wyoming was the last sustainable population in the lower 48 states.


Legal History and Species Success

In the early 1970s, a series of federal environmental laws were signed by Richard Nixon, including the Endangered Species Act (1973) and in 1975,  the grizzly bear was granted federal protection.  Over the past 40 years, through substantial human investment and protection, the species has gained a foothold, and now there are approximately 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

(yes, that’s a bison in Yellowstone)

In June 2017, the grizzly was removed (“delisted”) from “threatened” status, and management of grizzly bear populations outside of the borders of the National Parks (including John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway that connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks) was returned to the states.  Wyoming and Idaho adopted management strategies that include hunting, with Idaho’s plan calling for one male to be hunted, and Wyoming for a total of 22 grizzly bears to be hunted this year (note: Montana did not adopt a plan to hunt grizzlies).

Hunting and fishing have always played a role in human survival, however, as described in Garrett Hardin’s 1968 piece, The Tragedy of the Commons, in an unregulated market, greed and waste can result in the destruction and collapse of a system and extinction of a species.  The North American Wildlife Conservation Model calls for “sound science” and a series of ethics-based principles to determine when wildlife should be hunted.  The issues surrounding the proposed hunts this winter challenge opinions on how sound the science is that decided to “de-list” the grizzly, and the ethics of killing one of the most iconic species in the world for “sport” (note:  I say “sport” because the hunt that will occur this winter does not require the edible parts of a grizzly that is killed be taken from field, only the skull and skin, or, what one New York Times Op-Ed contributor called “the rug.”)


The Science of Grizzlies

Grizzlies are the largest omnivores in the lower 48 states, and many people who have never encountered any type of bear think of grizzlies only as “man eaters,” however, as much as 90% of their diets come from green vegetation and insects.  Whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout have historically made up a large part of the Yellowstone grizzlies’ diets, but those species were in decline in the mid-2000s, resulting in grizzlies turning to alternative calorie sources, including more meat, for sustenance.  The decline of nuts and trout required grizzlies to expand their range, and some scientists to suggest a flattening of the population, with others suggesting that requiring the species to find alternative food sources is a viable population management strategy.

Aside from fluctuations in the dietary ecosystem, reproductive cycles and presence of humans in the bears’ normal habitat (including through climate impact) are factors that play a role in the long-term success of grizzlies.

Female grizzlies do not start reproducing until they are between ages 4 and 8, and they typically keep their cubs for a number of years, resulting in a very slow reproductive rate (a new cub every 3 years, roughly).  Additionally, their territory requires a fairly large geographic area (up to 300-500 square miles).  The Yellowstone population remains independent of the brown bear populations farther north, up through Canada and Alaska, which limits potential partners and biodiversity within the species and risks hereditary defects (see, e.g. Florida panthers required a last-ditch “shuffling of the deck” to help the species survive after numbers dwindled).

While hunting grizzlies has been strictly regulated for the past 40 years, humans continue to populate the grizzly’s natural range.  Increased bear/human interaction can result in loss of bear life, and there were 56 grizzlies killed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017 (i.e. – car accidents, unsecured garbage, livestock, unauthorized hunting, mistaking a grizzly for a black bear, etc.).


Tribal Nations and the Grizzly Bear

Since September 2016, over 125 tribal nations have signed the Grizzly Treaty, noting the connection between the protections of the grizzly and its relation to the history and traditions of their tribes, which consider the bear sacred.  Specifically, the tribes are challenging the science behind the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision and the potential bias of those in charge of the science, noting connections to oil and gas, and other extraction industries.  They also say that the government did not do enough to consult with them in a meaningful way during the decision making process (note: according to one news report, the government says they contacted over 50 tribes).

The native tribes and conservation groups are leading the legal challenge set for hearing this week, and hundreds of thousands of people provided comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist the grizzly.

Over 7,000 people applied for a hunting license lottery to “shoot” one of the bears, and at least one lottery winner is a nature photographer who has pledged that his “shot” will be with his camera (note:  a flurry of applications were made by other opponents to the hunt, including conservation icon Jane Goodall).


How I See It

In early August, I led a team of 10 teachers to two of the world’s most revered national parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, for a week-long professional development experience.  We deepened connections to place, built a stronger community, affirmed our commitment to tomorrow, and witnessed striking sunrises among mountains, rivers, geysers, and bears.

Murie Ranch

While in the Tetons, we stayed at the Murie Ranch.  If you are unfamiliar with Mardi and Olaus Murie, read their story of adventure and passion for each other and the world around them that they felt was important to save and share for the rest of us (hint:  ANWR, National Elk Refuge, 1964 Wilderness Act). I was the only one of our group who had (to that point) seen a grizzly in the wild and was hopeful we would see one on our visit to Yellowstone.

One of my favorite things to do is to have a cup of coffee and my binoculars at sunrise in Hayden Valley in Yellowstone, and my team was up with me each day during our visit.  I like to be in the Valley around 5:45, and at around 6:45 on the second morning we decided to have a short visit to Hayden Valley, and head over to see some geysers before the crowds filtered in.  In our short visit that morning we saw an incredible amount of biodiversity and beauty in the sunrise and fog that revealed elk, trumpeter swan, Canada geese, bison, and a bald eagle as it lifted.

We headed north past Artist Point, and took a left at Canyon Junction towards Norris Geyser Basin. Less than a mile after the turn towards the Basin, we came upon a small meadow on the left side of the road and slowed as we approached a car parked in the middle of the road with two people inside, motionless, looking out of the driver’s window and into the meadow.

Looking at the landscape, I announced to my team that we were likely about to see “a moose or a bear” and told them to get their cameras ready. We parked and slowly and quietly exited the car into the cold air of a Wyoming morning, and standing next to the vehicle on the side of the road, watched a large grizzly about 200 yards away with its head down, munching on grasses and grubs as it slowly walked towards us.

For several minutes, all we could see was the large hump on its back, a “giveaway” that the bear in front of us was a grizzly.  Finally, it came to a log, stepped forward and perched there on its front legs, scanning left to right and noticing each of us across the meadow.  The bear paused just long enough for a flurry of photographs before it apparently decided we’d require more energy spent than energy returned…

The grizzly ambled over the log, put its head back down and returned to the grasses and grubs for another minute or two before disappearing into the pines that surrounded the meadow.

I won the lottery (without ever applying) and got my shot…

And, while I would like to know more about the math associated with carrying capacity (i.e. – is the “science settled” that a population of about 700 bears for about 20 years is sufficiently biologically diverse and stable to actively/intentionally take more animals from the population?) and potential/alleged economic interests of those associated with the decision to delist the grizzly (i.e. – if carrying capacity is settled science, how do those decision makers feel about other settled science?), I look forward to the judge’s decision, and I’m hopeful we see cameras carried out of the forests this fall instead of rugs…

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