One of the coolest things about visiting Yellowstone is that it is one of the few remaining places in the Lower 48 United States to see a grizzly bear.
Before our visit to Yellowstone National Park, we had lots of questions. Are grizzly bears endangered? How many grizzly bears are in the park? How are they being managed?
Fortunately, while staying in Cody, Wyoming prior to visiting Yellowstone from the East Entrance in 2016, we had the opportunity to attend a free Public Talk at the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum.
The talk was given by Dan Tyers, the Forest Service GYE Grizzly Bear Management Coordinator for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. It was all about the Grizzly Bear Management Program in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Before I explain what that means and what the study team does, we have to go back in time a bit.
In 1872, Yellowstone National Park became the first National Park. With regard to grizzly bears, they had a naïve start.
Yellowstone’s bears were seen as a spectacle, and as such they were fed regularly by people visiting the park. As was bound to happen, injuries started to occur as the bears associated people with food. At the time, rangers didn’t know what to do about this, and probably encouraged it to bring more city slickers out to the National Park.
Bears were eating from the dumpsters, taking food right off of picnic tables, out of car windows, and more.
This problem spurred a research project by Frank and John Craighead now called the Craighead Grizzly Bear study that went on from 1959-1971. They marked the bears, put radio collars on them for monitoring, and collected quantitative data about the bears. They pioneered advances in wildlife ecology and conservation including the development and use of radiotelemetry, anesthetization and handling, and population dynamics modeling.
However, the research wasn’t fast enough.
In 1967 in Glacier National Park, 2 different bears killed 2 different people in 2 different locations in the same night. It was the worst bear incident the area had ever had, and the park authorities had to do something about it.
Based on the research they HAD acquired, the Craighead scientists knew that the open garbage dumps were a crucial food source for the bears. They cautioned that too drastic of measures may severely impact the grizzlies’ ability to survive.
But the Federal Agencies couldn’t have people dying in the National Parks. They implemented very strict bear regulations in the parks – no feeding, mandatory bear-resistant food storage, and a quick severance of garbage dumps. They were replaced by the steel, bear-proof ones which cut them off as a food supply.
In 1967 there were 245 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. By 1974 — not even 10 years later — there were only 136.
Many bears couldn’t adapt to the loss of their primary food source, and many others were deemed too dangerous to be among people and so were destroyed.
Due to the severe decline of the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, in 1975 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Grizzly Bear as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List.
“On July 28, 1975, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, as amended, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed four distinct populations of grizzly bear in the lower 48 states as “threatened,” in part, because the species was reduced to only about 2% of its former range south of Canada. Five or six small populations were thought to remain, totaling 800 to 1,000 bears. The southernmost—and most isolated—of those populations was in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), where 136 grizzly bears were thought to live in the mid-1970s.”
The goal of an Endangered Species Act listing is to recover a species to self-sustaining, viable populations that no longer need protection. To do this the federal and state agencies set up the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is an interdisciplinary group of scientists and biologists responsible for long-term monitoring and research efforts on grizzly bears in the Greater Yellostone Ecosystem (GYE).
In 1975 there was an estimated 136 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. When we spoke to Dan Tyers after his talk, he told us that while they don’t have a definite number, the population is now up to around 700 bears.
Their territory is expanding out of Yellowstone National Park and into Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding National Forests on all sides.
In 2007, the grizzly bears in Yellowstone were attempted to be delisted from the threatened species list, but that decision was overturned for a couple of reasons. The Interagency Committee continues to work toward their delisting, as well as ensure that a sustainable conservation plan is in place to reduce human-bear conflicts, preserve their habitat, and eventually connect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems with other populations for further restoration.
Photo credit: www.livescience.com
Now, there are more bears, and more visitors who want to see bears.
The Park Service and other agencies are expanding their campaigns of spreading bear awareness to keep humans and bear conflicts down. These efforts include making sure people have bear spray with them, know the proper food storage methods, and never hike alone.
Because of the bears’ expanding territory, many of the National Forest Campgrounds just outside the park have been designated “Hard-Sided Campers Only” meaning no tents allowed. More than $1MM has been invested in the 164 campground in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for campsite bear boxes, locking dumpsters, locking trash cans, and gate closures.
Another challenge is a new threat to one of the Grizzly Bear’s top food sources. This threat is one of the reasons that delisting was overturned.
Whitebark pine seeds are a high-calorie food resource available to grizzly bears during late summer and fall. Whitebark pine seeds are high in fats and proteins and, when available, allow grizzly bears to build up fat reserves during fall in preparation for hibernation. Grizzly bears harvest these cones by raiding seed caches of red squirrels.
Since 1980, whitebark pine cone production throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been annually monitored. The data show that mature, cone-producing whitebark pine trees in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have experienced substantial mortality, primarily due to a mountain pine beetle outbreak that started in the early 2000s, but also from white pine blister rust, and fire.
Luckily, the grizzly bear is an opportunistic omnivore, which means that in that timeframe they have been able to shift their diets. The Forest Service is trying to combat the mountain pine beetle outbreak, which will hopefully help keep this food source for the the grizzly bears in Yellowstone.
As we were about to enter Yellowstone National Park and this awesome animal’s territory, it was so amazing that we had the opportunity to learn about this program from the man who leads it.
IF we saw a grizzly, it would be more than just seeing a huge, majestic, and extremely dangerous wild animal, we’d be seeing 30 years of restoration success.
And we would most definitely be carrying bear spray!
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