Experts look for ways to reduce grizzly bear deaths in Northern Rockies

A grizzly bear and her two cubs approach the carcass of a bison in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, United States, July 6, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

Wildlife lovers get worried when a sizable number of grizzly bears die, so federal agencies are trying to identify ways to reduce problematic deaths.

On Tuesday, the executive committee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee heard representatives of three grizzly recovery subcommittees discuss how bears in their areas have died and ways some those deaths might be avoided in the future.

All three recovery areas – the Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide and Selkirk-Cabinet Yaak – identified poaching/malicious deaths as a leading problem over the past decade, while the latter two also had problems with automobiles or trains killing several bears.

Rodney Smolden of the Selkirk-Cabinet-Yaak subcommittee said the Cabinet-Yaak suffered an average loss of about 1.7 bears each year between 2000 and 2018, while the U.S. side of the Selkirks lost one bear every two years.

A total of 32 bears have died during that time in the Cabinet-Yaak region and 9 total on the U.S. side of the Selkirks. Both populations have very few bears to begin with. The last estimate for the Cabinet-Yaak was 50 to 60 bears.

Smolden said a large portion of the deaths in both areas were listed as under investigation, although poaching was responsible for most. Of the 20 deaths being investigated, 15 were in the Cabinet-Yaak. Another 10 bears died of mistaken identity at the hands of hunters.

Meanwhile, seven bears died of car or train collisions.

Based on that information, Smolden said the subcommittee had a few recommendations, including more education and highway crossing structures.

“Malicious kills and poaching can be reduced by education and increased enforcement as a deterrent to the crime. But approaches that are more effective need to be investigated to address the motivation for this activity,” Smolden said. “Train and highway related kills maybe is a product of attractants along those routes. Removal of those and crossing structures may reduce those.”

NCDE representative Randy Arnold of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks said automobile and train accidents accounted for most of the dead bears in his region.

“We did have a good discussion around the fact that a lot of our mortalities may be related to expanding grizzly bear populations and higher densities of bears, but at the same time recognizing that, with high mortalities under certain topic areas, maybe it was time to renew our interest in some of those areas to reduce that mortality,” Arnold said.

Arnold said his subcommittee agreed on more education, particularly targeted at hunters, as a way to reduce malicious kills and mistaken identity. Montana requires bear hunters to get training on bear identification, but they’re only required to take the class once.

To reduce road accidents, maybe more signs were needed and road crews needed to do a better job picking up roadkill to reduce attracting bears to the roads.

Because the Yellowstone subcommittee had already published an analysis of mortality several years ago, Tricia O’Conner of the Bridger Teton National Forest said the subcommittee looked at the 11 recommendations from the 2009 study to see what might have changed.

“Where are the gaps? What are those user groups and where can we better focus our energy?” O’Conner said.

The subcommittee chose five areas that still need focus, with a big one being backcountry users, including hunters and backpackers. Yellowstone National Park surveys show a lot of people still don’t carry bear spray, maybe as high as 60 percent, O’Conner said.

Other conflict occurs between agricultural producers and bears, especially in areas where bears are expanding outside the recovery zone. Conflict with livestock producers is still a significant source of mortality, O’Conner said.

For that reason, the committee recommended more education and outreach, especially in areas outside the recovery zone that bears are just now entering.

O’Connor said her group really didn’t have any hard suggestions yet.

“We’re in this situation with an expanding population. But how far do we go, where is our energy best spent? And with some of the issues of connectivity, what’s our role as a subcommittee and what are the other ecosystems doing and what about in between?” O’Conner said.

Because the subcommittees didn’t have specific recommendations, IGBC chair Matt Hogan told them to develop some for the IGBC meeting in December.

During the public comment period that followed, it was clear that questions of running or riding mountain bikes in grizzly bear habitat elicited strong opinions on both sides.

Flathead National Forest supervisor Chip Weber read statements supporting running from both him and Summer Treat, widow of Brad Treat who died when his bike ran into a bear on a trail.

“There’s much more that’s going to be said about this. I personally don’t believe that walling off people from wildlife is the way to encourage conservation success,” Weber said.

Other people said fast activities in the forest just invited human-grizzly conflict and maybe more dead bears.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com