Adapting to Grizzlies

Grizzly bears are a heck of a lot smarter and more adaptable than at least some of their human managers

By Dave Skinner

Bear (and possible hunter) mortalities for 2019 reached a seeming crescendo last week with five grizzlies (mostly cubs) killed by trains in just a couple of days, bringing the total from all causes to 46 so far compared to 51 in 2018. A crisis?

Nope … just another hint that grizzly bears are ready to come off federal threatened status and be placed back under state management, most appropriately as big game.

Back in 1975, when grizzlies were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (just in the lower 48; there are at least 55,000 Canadian and Alaskan grizzly, Kodiak and brown bears), it was estimated, very vaguely, that there were about 400 grizzly bears in the “lower 48” subpopulation.

Today, just in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), there are “approximately” 1,000 bears, up from the 765 estimated from Kate Kendall’s 2004 DNA trapping project. In the Yellowstone “ecosystem,” the number of known, actual bears increased from around 100 in the 1980s to 729 “sampled bears” in 2015, with, importantly, “no loss in genetic diversity.”

The proper takeaway from these ongoing bear mortalities: Montana’s grizzlies are overflowing “suitable habitat,” now spilling over far and wide into unexpected, yet acceptable habitats. On the east side, bears have killed cows in the Sweet Grass hills, been spotted west of Grass Range, are raising cubs near Valier, and the list goes on. Yeah, I know, grizzlies are really plains animals, but that’s not the issue here.

Closer to home, there’s the train kill along BNSF’s Twin Meadows siding southwest of Trego. According to “science,” policy and the courts, the Salish Mountains between U.S. 93 and the Kootenai River shouldn’t work for bears: No wilderness, beaucoup open roads, routine logging, and there’s busy BNSF. But our sow and unlucky cubs obviously found it “suitable” enough.

What many don’t understand about the early ‘90s studies that drove the courts to order the Flathead National Forest to implement Amendment 19 is this: While it was the “best available,” in hindsight it was pretty weak work.

A small group of 19 studied bears were radio-collared, then manually radio-located mainly from a light plane, with coordinates later punched into what today seems like pretty primitive computer mapping.

But here’s the hook: The twice-weekly flights occurred under “optimal flying conditions […] between 0700 and 1100 hours,” and were “limited by inclement weather.” And by “1994, we had amassed 2,248 useable [sic] aerial telemetry locations on 20” bears, “an average of two locations per bear, per year.”

Gee whiz … what happened during the 180 days a year each bear wasn’t pinged? Or during the 20 hours of each day not between 7 and 11? Or when the weather blocked flights? Nobody really knows, period.

But with this tiny, weak dataset, the authors set the narrative for subsequent science by concluding that female bears “significantly” avoided roads most in the fall season, defined as Sept. 15 until denning. Well, what happens during fall? Hunting season, first part being scouting (on nice fall mornings, right?), then archery, and finally, general rifle season — times of pretty high human use.

What about subsequent efforts? Well, in 2003, I attended an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting. Then-Plum Creek had collaborated with, and funded, the collaring of select Swan bears. These collars had satellite GPS links that uploaded over 200,000 precisely-located and time-stamped location data points, 365/24/7 (not twice a year), all of which could be dumped into much-fancier computer mapping software.

The results were fascinating. Basically, in the afternoon, bears lay stationary, taking a siesta in cover away from roads. But in the wee hours, grizzlies zoom everywhere, even using open roads to make time. Pretty smart, eh? Yep.

When I asked if copies of this new data, showing significant adaptation of grizzlies to human activity, would be released publicly, I was told no because “poachers” might abuse it. I dropped the issue then, which today I regret deeply.

Still, from that day on, I’ve strongly believed that grizzly bears are a heck of a lot smarter and more adaptable than at least some of their human managers.

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