By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor
LIVINGSTON – As December snow fell to the ground at the close of 2018, 63 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bedded down with radio collars that quietly stored away their locations. Used by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, this data provides essential information about life history, reproduction and mortality, which biologists say is necessary for tracking the overall population.
“You do that with enough bears over time and you get some very valuable information,” said Frank van Manen, IGBST supervisory research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1975, the research team has radio-monitored over 830 individual grizzlies under what van Manen describes as an intensive capture program that entails baiting the bears into large culvert traps.
“That’s always an exhilarating moment and a moment when you have to be most careful,” van Manen said, describing the capture process. “Usually they are very calm in the trap, but occasionally they roar and that’s very impressive.”
An interdisciplinary group of researchers, the IBGST consists of personnel from eight federal, state and tribal agencies, while USGS coordinates the operations. Created in 1973 and sustained as the research team for Yellowstone grizzlies, IBGST is tasked with monitoring the bear population.
In 2018, there were what van Manen calls a conservative estimate of 709 bears in the ecosystem. “It’s almost certainly more than that, so we can think of that [estimate] as the low end,” he said, adding that there are probably about 2,000 bears in the lower 48. This compares with an estimated number of 50,000 grizzlies that were here historically.
While the Yellowstone bears took to their dens for hibernation in December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, each filed for an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling in September that placed the Yellowstone bruins back on the list of endangered species.
While the exact course of action remains to be seen, as the appellants have until March 26 to file a formal appeal, the Wyoming and Montana legislature are considering joint resolutions in support of returning grizzlies to the control of the states.
On Feb. 13, the Wyoming Legislature passed a resolution to delist Greater Yellowstone grizzlies, which serves as a request to Congress to introduce federal legislation for the delisting. The bill will now go before Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon for signing, as will a second bill authorizing the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish to hold grizzly hunts in the future.
A joint resolution asking Congress to remove all Montana grizzlies from the Endangered Species List is also before the Legislature in the Treasure State. Sponsored by Sen. Mike Cuffe (R), the bill was sent to a public hearing on Feb. 14, just one day before EBS press time. A similar resolution passed the Montana Legislature in 2017, however Montana congressional members did not introduce a bill on the federal level.
A contentious issue, the argument over delisting has taken form as protracted litigation that began in 2007 when the Fish and Wildlife Service moved to delist the Greater Yellowstone grizzly for the first time after all bruins in the lower 48 were listed as threatened on the Endangered Species list in 1975. At that time, an estimated 136 to 312 bears roamed the GYE.
Yellowstone’s bears remain a hot-button issue both at the federal level and to environmental and tribal groups seeking prolonged protections. However regardless of federal classifications, representatives from the wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho say their commitments to monitoring and research would continue in a delisting scenario.
Brian Nesvik, the Wyoming Chief of Wildlife, said the state of Wyoming has spent nearly $50 million dollars between 1990 and 2018 on grizzly bear management. “We continue to be a player,” he said. “All of those things that we do now, we would continue to do after delisting.”
Greg Lemon, the head of communication and education for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, agreed with Nesvik, saying that monitoring is critical in order to estimate population numbers and would be very important if hunting were implemented as a management tool.
“It’s certainly easy for the public dialogue to focus on hunting. I understand that. I understand the sensitives that people have to hunting grizzly bears. At the same time, they are considered a game animal,” he said. “We wouldn’t prioritize a hunting season over a secure grizzly population.”
Despite the departments’ assurances, some conservation groups remain cautious.
“Our opinion is that right now there are too many bears dying every day [from traffic accidents and human conflict],” said Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife program coordinator Chris Colligan. Because of this concern, GYC has several programs in place to reduce human conflict, such as funding electric fences and installing bear-safe trash receptacles at campgrounds in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The coalition also supports bear education efforts.
“There are really very few conflicts in Yellowstone because of the great management there … Even though we have over 4 million visitors,” he said. “The goal would be to continue that outward into the ecosystem. Some conflict is inevitable. I think it’s how we respond to those conflicts and how we can adapt and improve.”