To save grizzlies, Yellowstone bear biologists want more beds for tourists

A grizzly bear and its two cubs approach the carcass of a bison in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo)

Millions of tourists overflow the greater Yellowstone area every year, posing a risk to grizzly bears. Managers think the answer might be a little more development.

Federal agencies still want to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear after already trying to do so in July 2017. But in the rush to finalize the conservation plan for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, managers ran out of time to properly document the effect of developed sites, such as Mammoth or Canyon Village, within Yellowstone National Park, said Tricia O’Connor, GYE subcommittee chair.

“It was more complicated than we thought,” O’Connor said. “So the Conservation Strategy left the door open to have the subcommittee look at the issue of overnight visitors in developed sites within the primary conservation area.”

Old Faithful

O’Connor told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee on Wednesday that the hastily prepared habitat map in the conservation plan depicted Yellowstone National Park’s tourist centers as mere points, not the fairly large clusters of hotels, restaurants, stores and parking lots such as Old Faithful has. The map makes it look like the park has more uninterrupted habitat than it does.

“Some of these sites have fairly large footprints that are not secure (grizzly bear) habitat. But we never mapped them,” O’Connor said. “We want to be more realistic about how much habitat is not secure. But we’re not talking about that much land.” 

However, with Yellowstone Park hosting more than 4 million tourists annually since 2015 – although visitation has slowly dropped since the peak in 2016 – some think more accommodation is needed.

When the park’s hotels and camping areas are full weeks in advance, visitors seek accommodations outside the park. But those hotels and lodges are also often full, so tourists are camping on national forest land outside the park. That can be problematic in an area that’s home to an estimated 728 grizzly bears.

“We have people dispersed camping out there, and we think it’s probably better to put them in a place where there’s less risk to grizzly bears,” O’Connor said.

However, the GYE grizzly bear conservation strategy requires managers to keep overnight stays at the current level within the primary conservation area for the bear, which includes the park and some area surrounding the park. So increasing the capacity of existing sites in the primary conservation area would require an amendment to the conservation plan, which would require public input. It’s also why the plan should document the footprint of each tourist center.

“The change won’t be wide open to allowing unfettered increase over visitation or beds within those sites,” O’Connor said. “It has to be within a footprint that’s already disturbed, that’s not secure habitat, and we’re looking at no more than a 10% increase over the five-year period of the conservation strategy. We think that’s probably more than anyone would propose.”

Because the GYE subcommittee wants to make a decision by spring, public comment could occur sometime this winter.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.