Wildlife managers will talk this week about preventing run-ins between grizzly bears and humans, a discussion that comes after environmental groups pushed officials to reconsider a decade-old report that lined out measures meant to reduce those conflicts.
The Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, meeting in Bozeman on Wednesday and Thursday, will consider grizzly bear death trends and the effectiveness of efforts to avoid people-grizzly conflicts that often end with bears being killed by government officials.
It will be the first time the panel of state and federal government officials from Idaho, Wyoming and Montana has met since a coalition of six environmental groups urged it to reconsider a 2009 report that included a few dozen recommendations to prevent those encounters.
The letter, sent in January, cited significant growth in the number of grizzlies found dead each year, which has surpassed 60 annually in the past few years. In 2018 there were a record 65 known or probable grizzly deaths, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
Mike Volesky, chair of the YES subcommittee and chief of operations for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, promised “substantive discussions” at this week’s meetings in a February response to the groups’ letter.
“The subcommittee views this as an important undertaking,” Volesky wrote. “The choices about where to focus collective efforts will be informed by data on mortalities and trends, and an assessment of where new or expanded efforts are most likely to make a meaningful difference.”
Concern over dying grizzlies goes beyond the Yellowstone region, too. Late last week, Matt Hogan, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official and chair of the IGBC, told leaders of regional grizzly subcommittees in a letter that a group of biologists recommended a review of conflict and death reduction in five other grizzly bear recovery areas.
Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1975, when the number of bears in Yellowstone was estimated at fewer than 150. The species has made a comeback in the Yellowstone region, now estimated at roughly 700 bears.
Federal protections were briefly removed from the Yellowstone grizzlies in 2017. A judge restored those protections last fall, siding with environmental groups that argued the bears still faced threats and that one subpopulation couldn’t be delisted while the others aren’t yet recovered. The federal government appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals but briefing on that case has been delayed.
Many environmental groups have been concerned for years about the growing number of grizzly deaths in the Yellowstone region, and the groups behind the letter say there hasn’t been enough action on a suite of recommendations in the 2009 Yellowstone Mortality and Conflicts Reduction Report. An assessment by a federal biologist from February found some progress on a handful of suggestions from that report.
Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, was one of the signatories to the letter. She said she hopes state and federal officials will seriously consider what has and hasn’t worked from their 2009 report and address grizzly run-ins with both hunters and livestock.
“Conflicts with hunters and conflict with livestock are by far every year the highest cause for mortality for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Santarsiere said. “I would really like to see them work on ways to improve those numbers and lower mortality.”
She added that she wants them to consider reducing deaths in corridors the bears might use to connect the Yellowstone population to the bears that live in and around Glacier National Park, known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Connecting the two populations is considered by many to be crucial to the long-term survival of grizzlies.
Michael Wright can be reached at [email protected] or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.