Between the 1920’s and 1930’s, the grizzly bear lost 98% of its habitat in the contiguous United States. By 1975, of the 37 known populations to exist in 1922, only six known populations of bears remained. These are startling statistics. Although no one knows what the population of bears was in 1872, by 1975 the population of bears in Greater Yellowstone is estimated to have been between 136 and 312 individuals. It was that year that the bear was listed as endangered.
The history of bear and man is similar to that of most large predators. People move in and remove or displace the native animal population; the same habitat that is good for bears is frequently good for rural homesites, agriculture, grazing, and timber production. Sheep and cattle ranchers accounted for many bear deaths through the 1930s. Unlike wolves, there may not have been an all out war on the bear but the prevailing attitude was a dead bear was better than a live one. Most literature referencing the decline of the bear cites habitat loss to ranching, logging, and development as the most important factor in diminished bear populations.
The history of the bear’s decline and eventual recovery in the Yellowstone region has received considerable attention in books, articles in the popular press, and in film. The most salient points are these: prior to the 1960s Yellowstone maintained open pit garbage dumps that attracted wild bears who lived in or near the park. The dumps were sources of entertainment for visitors and a significant food source for the bears.
Beginning in 1959, two brothers – Frank and John Craighead, began a long-term study of the bears. As visitation increased so did the amount of garbage. Security measures that separated bears from visitors were nonexistent and the inevitable human/bear conflicts began to rise. Breeding boars as well as mothers with cubs were observed in campgrounds and eventually, a decision was made by the National Park Service to close the dumps.
In 1973 a study by the National Academy of Sciences said there was no convincing evidence that the population was at risk of extinction but that a conservative policy of removals (killing) should be pursued. The policy of killing and relocating bears continued but at a lower rate.
In 1973, in reaction to the closure of the dumps, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) was formed as an interdisciplinary group of scientists and biologists responsible for long-term monitoring and research efforts on grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region. The IGBST would later become the model for the other ecosystem level study groups concerned with bear management and recovery. The core science focus of the IGBST is to study bear population trends as well as bear mortality and other survival issues. The best available science would be used to recover the bear in the whole of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 States. Under the guidelines of the act, the Service developed a grizzly bear recovery plan and hired a Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator. In 1983, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) was formed. The IGBC was created to coordinate management efforts and research actions across multiple Federal lands and States within the various recovery zones and change land management practices to more effectively provide security and maintain or improve habitat conditions for the bear. Members of this committee include representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Parks Canada, the states of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming, and the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The first Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was released in 1982 the last in 1993. The recovery process has been slow but steady.
According to Barbee, "policy is never forever" but, it is often guarded vociferously by the organization. This is especially true of long established time honored procedures such as putting out all wildfires or predator eradication. Major changes generally come from outside an organization, at least initially, and Grizzly bear politics was no exception. Both policies died hard in the national parks and the shift in policy came about from academia and members of the public.
The establishment of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team follows a common bureaucratic strategy where the appointment of a "blue ribbon" committee that will bless a shift in policy sometimes expedites change. It is often in the manager’s interest to cultivate bedfellows from outside the organization to help carry the water.
Grizzly bears are slow to mature and so conservation is a long term endeavor. At around 4-7 years of age, female bears begin to give birth to one to two cubs; cubs mortality in the first year is around 40-60%. Once they reach adulthood, mortality in the wild is around 5%. Females can produce a litter about every three years until age 28. In the GYE, the bear population has grown by 4-7% for the last two decades and they have increased their range by 11-34%. Thanks in part to the efforts of the IGBST and others, the bear population has recovered to a regional population of about 800 bears and is probably at the carrying capacity of the system. Delisting the bears from the ESA is anticipated in the near future.
Misunderstood Bears. Large predators of every stripe have a rich history of myth and legend built around them and bears are no exception. These myths are often used by opponents to frame the issue of bear management against the bear:
Once they taste human blood, predators crave it. Predators are opportunistic feeders and will often eat what is available. That said, humans in some locations are easy prey and are sometimes the target of big cats in India and crocodiles in parts of Africa and Australia. In Yellowstone there is no evidence of large predators acquiring a taste for humans. There is no evidence that grizzly bears hunt humans or acquire a taste for them. Very few attacks result in human mortality and in only a handful of cases has the bear fed on the remains.
Bears are carnivorous. Research by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee found that in the GYE, the pattern of food sources vary in availability from year to year, and from season to season. Grizzlies move throughout their habitat looking for foods available at that time of year based on their experience. In spring they depend heavily on the use of ungulates, both scavenged and newborn, summer forbs, and root crops, fall they will seek out whitebark pine nuts, berries and army cutworm moths supplemented with some fish. Bears in the Yellowstone region eat meat if it is an easy meal but for the most part they rely on vegetation.
Bears that wander into inhabited areas such as campsites, rural towns or cottage communities are dangerous. Most of the time they are simply moving through an area looking for an easy meal. They are not hunting humans and in fact, avoid them whenever possible. Bears are attracted to our garbage, bird feeders, BBQs, or any other food source and may feed opportunistically.
Hiking in bear country is inherently dangerous. Most bear encounters are accidental. Many occur during hunting season when bears are moving about looking for food and humans move quietly in prime habitat. Making noise, moving in small groups, and generally avoiding bear habitat is the best way to minimize encounters. Most encounters end with the bear and human quickly departing in opposite directions, without harm to either party. Camping in bear country can be an entirely different matter and every precaution should be taken to ensure food is kept away from bears.
Bears are seasonal animals and so is their diet. They are not particularly efficient predators compared to the wolf. In Yellowstone they feed opportunistically on winter-killed carrion in the spring, young elk and bison in early June, fish, grass, roots, ants, and most anything else they find during the summer months. They seek out high fat foods like pine nuts and cutworm moths in the months before hibernation in late November when they enter a physiologic phase of excessive hunger called hyperphagia.
One of the most interesting grizzly feeding behaviors was described in 1994. Bears both black and grizzly will climb into high alpine talus slopes to feed on the common Miller moth. A single moth has a high enough fat content that it accounts for as much as a half a calorie. That means that 20,000 calories of just moths per day can be consumed by a rock-turning grizzly bear.
Grizzly bears are largely solitary animals, except for females with cubs. Their range varies along elevational gradients and may run to many square kilometers as they roam the landscape foraging for enough calories to sustain their considerable bulk; a large male bear in Yellowstone may weigh up to 700 pounds. Bears inside the national parks generally do very well, those outside less so.
Researchers know what bears eat, when they eat it, how much food they need, and how far they travel to find it. They know many bears by sight and, have developed sophisticated population models that allow them to account for bear mortality within the population. They investigate each mortality and maintain a database on causes of mortality. Twice each year the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the IGBC meets with grizzly bear experts, representatives of advocacy groups, agency representatives, and others to discuss the current science and policy directions for the bear’s recovery. They have an institutional culture that encourages discretion. They conduct their meetings and their work inconspicuously away from the public view. They publish in academic journals and do not actively seek media coverage. This helps explain, in part, why recovery efforts have gone well. The bears have effectively been non politicized by the agency charged with their recovery through their institutional culture.
Life with grizzlies as neighbors is not without complications. Bears prey on domestic livestock, although they do so at very low numbers compared to other threats such as spring snowstorms and competing predators like coyotes. Nevertheless, state and federal agents kill several bears every year when they become habituated to feeding on livestock. In the last decade, more than 80% of all documented grizzly bear mortality is human caused. The most common cause is simply getting crosswise with agricultural producers and “repeated nuisance activities” (i.e. in campgrounds, dude ranches, and rural subdivisions). This may not be a bad thing. By showing a willingness to remove a few bears from the population land managers reduce conflict between landowners, bears and, bear managers.
Bears do pose a threat, however remote, to humans. The best predictors of negative human/bear encounters are proximity to rural development, roads, and recreation. Most human/bear encounters are benign but dangerous encounters can and do occur. Many encounters with “nuisance bears” are usually the result of improper food management by campers or rural residents. These typically result in no management intervention other than a warning to keep a clean camp in bear country or to put the BBQ grill away. Hunters sometimes surprise bears and both often suffer the consequences because the bear reacts quickly and instinctively. The typical scenario is during elk hunting in the fall. Hunters move quietly and may startle a sleeping bear or leave gut piles that act as an attractant. In some regions of the ecosystem bears have keyed in on shots and will sometimes investigate in anticipation of an easy meal. Others have had encounters when recovering a carcass that was left overnight only to find a bear has claimed it. Most of these encounters are entirely avoidable with some common sense about bear behavior. In any case, mortality rates for humans if they encounter a bear are incredibly small - something like 1 in 2.5 million. There are dozens of ways to get hurt or killed in the outdoors - death by grizzly ranks near the bottom of the list.
Bear Spray or Gun? If you are starved for conversation while on holiday in Yellowstone, go to the local hangout and ask a local about using bear spray or a gun during a grizzly encounter. Be prepared to draw a crowd. The debate could rage on until closing time.
The use of “bear spray” as a deterrent goes back to research carried out at the University of Montana in 1977. Zoologist Gary Miller discovered that certain chemicals, when sprayed in the face of a charging bear, turned the charge into a retreat. The industry standard today uses capsaicin oil derived from hot peppers and delivered via a high pressure fog. Does it work? Here is a thought experiment:
A grizzly can run in short bursts at 60 feet/second. You are out for a hike on a warm spring day and have just spooked a bear on a winter killed elk carcass. You have about two seconds to swing your gun up and hit a target the size of a cigar box bobbing around and running at you at the speed of a race horse. If you have the caliber to stop it could you hit it? How much practice would it take?
The short answer is that almost no one has that kind of skill with a gun. Pepper spray has been shown to turn charging bears and there is plenty of data to back that up. Here is a short video from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
Carrying and knowing how to use a can of bear spray is a last resort but at the end of the day chances are both the bear and human will come out of an extremely rare encounter alive.
The grey wolf is a very different animal from the grizzly bear and our relationship with it is much more complex and nuanced. As a result, management of the wolf in Yellowstone is more problematic and highly charged politically. Like the bear, the grey wolf was widespread across the whole of North America and, like the bear; the wolf was all but eradicated in most of the contiguous U.S. by the 1930’s. In 1926 park rangers killed two wolf pups near Soda Butte in the Lamar Valley; these are the last known wolves in the Park. In the Greater Yellowstone, it is generally accepted that the last verified wolf was killed in 1943 by Leo Cottenoir on the Wind River Reservation south of Jackson, Wyoming.
The wolf population in the region is poorly documented before 1914. Habitat loss, government and private control measures, and shifting elk populations in the Yellowstone region made sightings of the wolf rare. Wolves were seen as direct competitors to humans for food production and for game species. As in other cases of westward expansion, those who produced tangible products dictated policy - often with government subsidy. After 1914 there was a focused effort to “exterminate” wolves in the park for the good of herds of elk, deer, mountain sheep, and antelope and that effort seems to have been a success when Cottenoir shot that large male in the Owl Creek Mountains of Wyoming. Two decades later, in 1963, a single wolf was seen near Porcupine Hills in the central region of Yellowstone.
In 1975, a rigorous campaign of fieldwork was conducted to determine the status of the wolf in the park. During 1,800 hours of aerial survey flights between 1964 and 1975, one wolf-like animal was reported. No wolves were photographed using time-lapse cameras mounted near bait in the winter of 1977 and no animals were observed in field visits or during 30 hours of flight surveys. It was concluded that there was no evidence that the Greater Yellowstone region supported any sort of wolf population. The war on the wolf had been won and it was successfully eradicated from most of its historic range in the lower 48. Today, it exists on less than 5% of its historic range.
Unlike bears, wolves hunt all year around and do so efficiently and violently. They hunt in well-organized packs of between 3-16 members. Elk represent over 90% of their diet with moose and bison being important sources of meat protein in localized parts of the park at specific times of the year. Wolves adapt readily to changing food conditions and will take livestock as easily as elk. When food is abundant, the alpha male and female will produce large healthy litters of up to seven pups. Wolves are easily noticed on the landscape - especially in winter when their kills are frequent and easily found. When the wolves were reintroduced to the region in 1995, elk herds in the northern range of the park were near an all time high – around 17,000 animals. The wolves thrived.
Like bears, the grey wolf is an incredibly charismatic animal. Their obvious intelligence expresses itself in complex social behaviors and their care for the pups. The numerous vocalizations of the pack establish a clear vocabulary but it is the howl that most of identify as it as "WOLF!".
Misunderstood Wolves. Like bears, there are myths surrounding wolves and in particular the wolves captured in Canada for the reintroduction. Here are some common assertions:
The introduced wolves were a “superwolf” from Canada. The wolves introduced into YNP were significantly different physically and behaviorally from the wolves that were here before. The short answer is no. Forty-one wolves were introduced to YNP in 1995. There were 14 in 1995 from Alberta, and 17 in 1996 from British Columbia, and 10 in 1997 from near Choteau, Montana. The Canadian wolves were selected because they had experience hunting elk and bison. The wolves reintroduced are essentially identical to those throughout the Rocky Mountains. Variability in size is within the historical record of wolves in Yellowstone. The myth of the superwolf was the basis for an early lawsuit trying to block reintroduction.
There were already wolves in Yellowstone so they didn’t need to be introduced. There were no wolves Yellowstone prior to reintroduction. Some claim there were specially adapted wolves that did not run in packs, or use trails or roads, that didn't howl. There are no recorded wolves like that anywhere in the world. In three years of intensive looking no wolves were found to live in or around the park. Single males may have occasionally moved through the area but there is no evidence they established a pack.
Wolves are particularly troublesome because they often kill for the fun of it. Predators run a high risk of being hurt when they hunt large prey and so don’t do so for fun. Since 1995, elk, bison, deer and moose have killed at least 15 wolves. When hunting is easier in deep snow, they will kill more than they can immediately eat, but if left alone wolves always cycle back to finish the carcass.
Wolves are dangerous to humans. Any animal is dangerous to humans. There are between 20 and 30 human deaths each year by our pet dogs. Contrary to popular belief there have been two documented cases of human death caused by wolves. One was by a habituated wolf pack in Canada and in one case a jogger was attacked and killed in Alaska. There have been none in the lower 48 states.
In 1987, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a recovery plan for the grey wolf to large and remote expanses of public land. After considerable political maneuvering by key senators, congressmen, the game management agencies in the GYE as well as conservation groups, a reluctant Congress funded an environmental impact assessment in 1991. When the Clinton administration took office in 1993, the science and more importantly – the people were in place to make reintroduction a reality. The process was as much a political event as ecological. Bruce Babbitt, the Clinton Administration Secretary of Interior, was a former governor of Arizona. He was a vocal proponent of environmental reform on issues such as mining; grazing; water and timber policies; land management and, endangered species. For him, the wolf represented his admiration for Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” in which Leopold writes of his epiphany as he realizes that killing off predators carries serious implications for the rest of the ecosystem. Babbitt referenced that lesson as he helped release the first wolves into the park. Mollie Beattie was the director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service under Babbitt. She led the agency that would navigate the regulatory maze of the ESA to ensure the wolf program would happen in spite of legal and political opposition from many quarters. Third, Renee Askins, a highly motivated articulate woman from northern Michigan, was the undisputed citizen champion of the wolf. Her nonprofit Wolf Fund, which was established solely to further wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone, was disbanded when the first wolves were released. She applied considerable outside pressure on government agencies to ensure the program would see completion. Finally, there was President Clinton. He made sure reintroduction was on the political agenda and expended political capital to make sure it happened.
President Clinton took a real interest in Yellowstone during his administration. In 1996 he took a calculated political risk and announced a deal to end the New World Mine - a proposed massive gold mining venture on the edge of the park. His first of two visits he would make to Yellowstone coincided with his announcement to kill the mine proposal; to many in the environmental community he became a local hero. In 2001 he signed an executive order that imposed a ban on snowmobiling in the park but, it was overturned during the first few days of the incoming Bush administration. Clinton's political appointment of Bruce Babbitt as Interior Secretary made sure the right combination of people, at the right time, in the right offices, would ensure the reintroduction effort would happen.
Bob Barbee also likes to point out that two unlikely conservative politicians played important roles in the reintroduction. Senator Jim McClure of Idaho was a supporter of the effort - after a fashion. He also points out that not everyone was on board. Through it all though, Bob is able to separate political differences from personal.
Bob also tells a story of then Congressman Dick Cheney from Wyoming and the early stages of the reintroduction effort. The public opposition Cheney expressed for his constituents back home was for public consumption. Via meetings, hearings and, using agricultural groups he pressured the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Secretary of the Interior, and the head of the National Park Service to quit the reintroduction effort. Politically, he told Barbee, he had to oppose the policy. Privately, he said the wolves were going to return to Yellowstone one way or another and that he knew that. Bob told him the reintroduction supporters would persist. Cheney replied simply “I know”. Cheney knew the politics were in favor of the wolf so while he would not do so publicly, he would not use his power and position as a western political leader to stand in the way of reintroduction process. Bob said that was the end of the discussion and still maintains that the most reasonable member of the western delegation in Congress was Dick Cheney.
The structure of the recovery was focused around establishing the wolf as a “nonessential experimental population” under a provision in the ESA – a designation that had been applied only six times in the history of the Act. The designation allows the FWS to relax the restrictions of the Act in order to encourage cooperation from those who might oppose the reintroduction program; in this case, the solution was proposed by Idaho Senator Jim McClure. The effect is that for nonessential species, critical habitat cannot be designated and, the full protections of the ESA are not applied outside of a National Wildlife Refuge or National Park. McClure's proposal was not purely altruistic. He knew that outside these protective zones, nonessential experimental populations are treated as “proposed species for listing” and are managed with fewer protections. For example, livestock predation would allow ranchers to shoot the offending wolf. It was a transparent piece of political maneuvering but it did make the reintroduction effort happen more quickly. Also included in the plan was a population threshold that when 10 packs and 100 individuals inhabited the park the wolves would be delisted as endangered and their management would pass from the federal to state governments.
The management effect of the nonessential experimental population decision was that the F&WS could move ahead with introduction and protection within the Park. The political effect was that advocates of reintroduction would have to build very strong communication bridges with other agencies and landowners outside the protected zones. In the case of the grey wolf, it was decided that reintroduction would move ahead faster if those bridges were constructed at a later time after wolves moved beyond park boundaries. This would have repercussions later.