CASPER, Wyo. — Grizzly bear deaths have declined more than 50 percent this year in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a vast area centered on the national park but also including neighboring areas of northwestern Wyoming, eastern Idaho and southern Montana.
Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said 24 grizzly bears have died so far in 2013 in the area. He said 56 bears died in the area last year. He said the rate of female bears with cubs also is high this year.
The numbers are particularly notable because whitebark pine trees produced fewer cones than usual, an important food for the bears. The bears’ reaction to declines in cone production will help determine if the bear is removed from the endangered species list.
The study team will address how grizzly bears respond to changes in food supplies at a Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Bozeman, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
Van Manen warns it’s risky to draw long-term conclusions from this year’s numbers.
“These systems are complex, and there are a lot of interrelations we can’t predict,” he said. “This isn’t a trend, but it is a noteworthy observation.”
The Yellowstone ecosystem did have a large crop of berries, which helped provide additional food, he said.
Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said conflicts between grizzly bears and humans are also down this year in Wyoming. He credits that in part to continued public education on how to store food properly in the backcountry.
Van Manen said hunters generally are responsible for the largest number of bear deaths. He said hunters were second behind livestock conflicts this year. Grizzlies injured two people in Wyoming and two people in Yellowstone National Park in 2013.
Bear deaths from 2013 are not final since grizzlies are still active. They should begin hibernating soon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzlies from the endangered species list in 2007. A federal judge put them back on the list in 2009 because of several concerns, including the future of whitebark pine. The tree is dying in many areas because of insects and disease.
An appeals court in 2011 told the Fish and Wildlife Service it needed to know more about bears’ reaction to the tree’s decline before grizzlies could be removed from federal protections. If the interagency study team reports that plentiful whitebark pine is not critical to grizzly bears’ survival, the Fish and Wildlife Service could move toward a delisting proposal.
Chris Servheen, grizzly bear coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency likely will not make a decision on a delisting proposal until late December or early January.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.