A lot of grizzly bears died in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem this year, so it might not hurt that they’ll be protected for longer than expected.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Cecily Costello knew what people attending the Interagency Grizzly Bear NCDE Committee meeting wanted to talk about so she got straight to the point: 51 dead bears.
“Yes, this has been a record year for the number of bear mortalities, and I just learned about another one yesterday,” Costello said.
Prior to this year, the next highest number of deaths was 34 in 2011 and 33 in 2013.
A notable detail was that 20 of this year’s dead were cubs, and 17 died within the core monitoring area, which is supposed to be a safer environment.
Automobiles were the biggest culprits, killing 17 bears this year alone. That’s about half the total number of bears that died on roads during the 13 previous years.
Costello said most of the bears probably died while trying to cross roads such as Highway 2 or Highway 89, and not while feeding on nearby roadkill.
The next highest number of deaths – almost a dozen – were due to management removals.
Area biologists said human-related attractants influenced where and how many bears got into trouble.
Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes biologist Stacy Courville said his team had been busy because more bears are moving west out of the NCDE across Highway 93 – he’s documented 102 crossings and unfortunately, six bears died on the road. But he didn’t have to deal with mcuh conflict.
Glacier National Park biologist John Waller said the park also didn’t have much human-bear conflict in spite of record numbers of visitors.
“You can imagine 2.9 million people running around the woods and 300 grizzly bears all running around mixing together. It’s pretty darned amazing that not that much happens. Bears are very good at avoiding conflicts given the opportunities and people are pretty good too,” Waller said. “So far, life is good.”
But life isn’t as good in Jamie Jonkel’s neck of the woods. The FWP Region 2 biologist said the number of conflicts he documented in the southern NCDE was the highest in 20 years.
“In a normal year, we’d have 15 or 20. This year, we had 80. Hard to figure out why,” Jonkel said.
The grizzly population has increased and the 2017 Rice Ridge Fire may play a part, Jonkel said, but bears also keyed on attractants like apples, agricultural crops, animal carcasses and other human food in the Clearwater and Blackfoot regions.
“Sadly, there’s a handful of individuals who train up a lot of bears (to food),” Jonkel said.
FWP biologist Tim Manley said he had been busy in the Flathead region overseeing 22 bear captures, which is higher than the yearly average of 17. But out of those, he was required to kill only five bears. Of those, three had become hooked on to human food.
But the biologists facing the newest challenge work on the east side of the Continental Divide, where bears are emerging into lands where they haven’t been for almost a century. And residents on the prairie are struggling with their presence.
Biologists Mike Madel and Wesley Sarmento together dealt with 90 conflicts but had to kill just one bear. That one bear had been the source of a number of conflict reports, Madel said.
“Removing just one bear can stop all depredations in an area,” Madel said.
To reduce the number of conflicts, Madel and Sarmento are offering farmers and ranchers preventative tools, such as electric fencing, and helping to remove attractants. Madel told of one rancher on the Front who wanted to use only guard dogs, but bears kept going after his sheep. Once he installed an electric fence, his predation problem went away.
Reducing conflict is essential to reducing bear deaths, which are greater than the 51 biologists know about.
“In general, for every documented mortality, there’s roughly another undocumented mortality,” Costello said.
For example, Courville doesn’t know what happened to the mother of three cubs that showed up outside St. Ignatius this year.
However, the NCDE population is probably still above the minimum of 800 bears, the number set for delisting, Costello said. The 14 female bears that died within the core monitoring area was still eight shy of the number biologists calculate would lead to a decrease in the population.
That could change if grizzly bears have enough bad years in a row. But with the recent court ruling relisting all grizzly bear populations as threatened until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reevaluates its delisting process, the bears probably have a few years’ grace period.
The USFWS has until Dec. 21 to decide whether to appeal the ruling. But an appeal could delay the delisting process even more.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.