BILLINGS (AP) – Grizzly bears, the West’s largest and most fearsome predators, are back in a big way in the Northern Rockies – rising in numbers, pushing into new territories and mauling hunters who stumble across them in the wild.
While state and federal officials laud the bear’s remarkable comeback from near-extinction last century, others say it’s time to lift the remaining protections that helped them recover and point to the recent grizzly encounters as evidence.
“We’ve got grizzly bears eating people who come here to hunt,” said Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Vic Workman, who fended off a grizzly during a Nov. 25 hunting trip near Whitefish. “It’s getting out of whack. We’ve got too many bears.”
The grizzly charged after Workman stumbled upon it guarding a fresh deer carcass. Workman fired a shot from his rifle and was not injured. It was not known what happened to the bear, which ran off.
Workman said, if hunters could kill some bears, the rest of the population would learn to steer clear of humans.
The biologist in charge of restoring grizzlies acknowledges they appear to be on track toward recovery in some areas. For example, in central and western Montana they’ve expanded their range by more than 2,300 square miles over the last two decades.
But Christopher Servheen, grizzly recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it will take at least five more years of research to show the bear’s progress is not fleeting.
He added that recovery is not just measured by the number of bears. Also important is how widely they are distributed, whether females breed at an adequate rate and that not too many are killed crossing highways or in other human-related accidents.
Workman’s close-call was the latest in a string of bear attacks and near-misses this year in Montana and portions of Idaho and Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park. While there is no comprehensive data on grizzly-human conflicts, an Associated Press tally shows at least a dozen grizzly bear attacks reported since April.
Seven victims were injured, including several severely. No one was killed but at least five grizzlies were, either during the attacks or later by wildlife agents.
Servheen said it would be a mistake to tie those run-ins to whether protections should be lifted.
“That wouldn’t have changed what happened to Mr. Workman in any way shape or form,” he said. “If you walk close to a bear that’s over a carcass, it doesn’t care if it’s a delisted bear or not. It’s going to charge.”
One bear population is already moving toward possible hunting. An estimated 600 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone this spring became the first of their species in the lower 48 states to lose their threatened species status.
Yet, even there, a hunt is at least a year away, said Chris Smith, chief of staff for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Smith said wildlife managers are moving cautiously, to ensure bears remain a part of the Northern Rockies landscape for generations to come.
If a hunt occurs, he said, it would likely be capped at just a few animals.
“Society has a broader view and has ascribed more values to species like the grizzly than 75 or 100 years ago,” he said. “At that time, bears, like wolves, were viewed exclusively as a threat to livestock and economic development and human safety. Bears and wolves are no longer viewed exclusively as a threat.”
Conservation groups say more could be done to prevent bear-human conflicts without simply culling their population. Craig Kenworthy, conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, noted that spikes in bear attacks generally coincide with a shortage of food or other unfavorable environmental conditions.
This year, for example, drought in the Yellowstone area forced bears to roam farther and stay out longer in search of berries, insects and other foods they use to fatten up before winter.
“What we don’t want to do is have a hunt and knock the numbers down and then find out we’re still having the same number of conflicts,” Kenworthy said.
His group recently filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the delisting of Yellowstone-area grizzlies.
Smith said his agency would await the outcome of that litigation before drafting any plans for a grizzly hunt.
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