With grizzlies off of the endangered species list, many scientists view grizzlies as a success story. But the question is how does the bear successfully return to a heavily populated environment? Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska looks at the history of grizzly management to possibly learn some lessons for how to handle grizzlies in the future.
On a bright morning in the summer of 2013, Nic Patrick walked his familiar route along his hay fields to irrigate. Patrick was on the ranch that his great-grandparents homesteaded in the late 19th century, 22 miles west of Cody at the South Fork Valley. All of the sudden he heard his dog crying bloody murder, he rushed around a corner and his dog was being attacked.
“And there was that grizzly sow. She looked at me about 25 yards away and basically said your next,” recalled Patrick. “And she was on me in two and half seconds. She came in and I swung and I hit her on the side of the head and it just made her madder probably. Bit me full in the face.”
The grizzly continued to attack Patrick but he finally managed to escape. Patrick said grizzly bears were never seen on the property until 1993.
“We had grizzlies that had expanded their territory or their numbers enough to get down into these river valleys,” said Patrick. “And then we had to start learning how to start securing food resources.”
Back in the early 70s, conservationists and scientists came together realizing the population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had dangerously decreased down to a couple hundred bears.
By 1975, the bears were officially added to the endangered species list. Mark Bruscino used to oversee grizzlies for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He said one thing they tried to do was protect the bears through education.
“We worked with the public to make them aware of proper food storage practices,” said Bruscino. “The land management agencies put in some infrastructure. And all those things contributed to a reduced mortality level that ultimately allowed the population to grow.”
And it worked, throughout the years, the animal's population started creeping up again.
This led to the delisting of the bears in 2007. The rule was challenged by a number of conservation groups and a court reinstated protections in 2010. The conservation groups argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not demonstrated the potential impact of the loss of a main food source: Whitebark Pine.
Frank Van Manen is the lead scientist of the Interagency Grizzly Study Team who does independent research on grizzlies. He disputes the fact that Whitebark Pine had much of an impact on the population, in fact, he said it was something else.
“That was due more to an increase in bear density,” said Van Manen. “So the idea is that bears started reaching carrying capacity within portions of the ecosystem.”
What he means is there were too many bears in the area, which also led to increased human and bear conflicts throughout the ecosystem. But another grizzly bear expert David Mattson who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey said the bears were spreading out in search of food.
“A lot of those high-quality alternative foods are concentrated more towards the periphery of the ecosystem,” said Mattson.
Fast forwarding to 2018, the bears have been delisted and the state of Wyoming is back in charge of managing them. The chief game warden, Brian Nesvik said the state has more options for management than the federal government did.
“We have more ability to provide information to the public, ability to react to conflict situations and deal with them more proactively, I think,” he said.
Nesvik said they’ll be introducing a phone app and encourage the public to provide feedback on bear management.
The next challenge for management is to continue to reduce conflicts between bears and people. Since the bears are increasingly leaving the designated boundaries set aside for grizzlies. Nesvik said it has to come down to keeping bears in regions favorable to grizzlies.
“In a lot of those areas outside DMA (Demographic Monitoring Area) bears just can’t be successful,” said Nesvik. “There's too much human occupation. There's too many other human uses.”
Like always, not everyone agrees. And the matter has ended back in court. But Wyoming officials believe if they manage grizzlies, the long-term health of the bear will be sustained.