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A brief history of the grizzly

A grizzly makes it’s way across the Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone National Park on April 7. Hikers and outdoors enthusiasts are encouraged to be wary when in the park and other parts of grizzly country, as bears are waking from their winter slumber. A grizzly makes it’s way across the Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone National Park on April 7. Hikers and outdoors enthusiasts are encouraged to be wary when in the park and other parts of grizzly country, as bears are waking from their winter slumber. Photo courtesy National Park Service

Former Game & Fish supervisor lays out past, present and future of species

After a 30-year career with Wyoming Game and Fish spent working with large carnivores, Mark Bruscino maintains an interest in animal management — especially grizzly bears.

“I had a super career from my standpoint,” Bruscino told the audience at a recent presentation on grizzlies at Union Presbyterian Church of Powell. “I got my butt chewed on about a daily basis, but no, not by a bear.”

The former Game and Fish supervisor’s presentation covered a short history of the Yellowstone grizzlies, as well as the various theories of how grizzlies should be managed.

“They do cause some controversy, such as livestock depredation and occasionally human injuries as well,” Bruscino said. “But there’s also a lot of value to having these animals. They’re a valuable natural resource, just like an elk or anything else.”

Grizzly numbers show successful recovery

When placed on the endangered species list in 1975, there were only about 130 grizzlies left in the Yellowstone area. Bruscino estimates that number has risen to about 750.

“I know there is a lot of controversy about the estimate, and we know it’s biased low,” he said. “But we can’t fix it. We’ve had some of the most incredible population biologists from around the world look at the estimate.”

What can be said, according to Bruscino, is that there are at least 750 grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, “so recovery over the last 35 years has been pretty successful.”

Once dominant in large portions of the northern hemisphere, grizzlies can still be found in the north islands of Japan, Russia, Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, the northern part of India, parts of the Middle East and eastern Europe. There’s even a small population of grizzlies in central Italy, as well as the French and Spanish Pyrenees. And, of course, North America.

“They live across a wide variety of habitat types,” Bruscino said. “They’re very adaptable; these animals are not fragile at all. They live everywhere, from the Arctic to, historically, down into Mexico.”

By 1922, grizzlies had all but disappeared from California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Oregon. Mexico’s final bear was killed in 1955. In 1979, a hunter shot a grizzly in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the last of its kind there.

“People still hope there’s grizzlies in the San Juans, but there just aren’t,” Bruscino said. “You can’t hide a grizzly bear population, as you know living here.”

Locally, the grizzly population has expanded in recent decades, with bears showing up on Heart Mountain and east of Meeteetse, as well as down in Lander, Pinedale and around Big Piney.

“The population is doing well, and all indicators are that it continues to grow and expand,” Bruscino said. “In my opinion, the good quality habitat is full. We don’t have very many other good places to put them, so that will be a problem for the next generation of wildlife managers to figure out.”

Across the lower 48 states, there are believed to be upwards of 1,700 bears — less than 1 percent of their historical population; Bruscino estimates there were about 250,000 grizzlies in the western U.S. prior to settlers moving in. He cited a number of factors as contributing to the decline in population.

For one, “a real and perceived threat to human safety,” Bruscino said. “Bears are big; they damage property, injure and occasionally kill people. When there was no regulation, they were viewed as an undesirable critter for the most part and were killed.”

Habitat quality and quantity contributed to the decline to a lesser degree. Livestock depredation also became a factor when the livestock industry began to boom in the West.

“There were notorious bears that had names that were livestock killers,” Bruscino explained. “They went on rampages that went on for years and years. Some big adult males really figured out livestock-killing, and killed a lot of cattle and sheep.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the government led campaigns to eradicate bears, wolves and other predators that competed with the livestock industry. Most western states treated bears as varmints, with little or no restrictions on killing them. That didn’t change until the 1950s and 1960s, when sportsmen began to view black bears and grizzlies as a valuable game animal.

Some grizzlies are killed every year by elk hunters — most of them justified, self-defense situations, according to Bruscino. But elk hunting can also be good for bears. A study out of Montana estimates that elk hunters leave about 360 tons of meat on the ground in the Yellowstone ecosystem every year.

“Whatever doesn’t get packed out is a pretty substantial food source,” Bruscino said. “In fact, we’ve looked at radio-collared bears that move toward those heavily hunted areas. They’ve figured out, and in the fall they move to those areas because there will be an abundant food source.”

News flash: Bears are hungry

Grizzlies could be called the garbage disposal of the animal kingdom, as they will eat just about anything, according to Bruscino.

“I’ve seen them eat Spam in a can, hydraulic hoses, snowmobile seats, glass, everything you can think of,” he said. “They’re eating machines. Of course, they have to obtain the calories to live all year and about the six months they are out in hibernation. Those species are what we call ‘opportunistic omnivores.’ Basically, they will eat anything and everything they can find.”

Key foods include grasses, ungulates, roots and berries, moths, white-bark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, to name just a few examples. When the grizzlies come out of hibernation, the first places they go to are winter ranges to forage what’s left of winter-killed animals.

“There really isn’t that much to eat that time of year,” Bruscino said. “As the summer progresses, and the spawn starts, especially around Yellowstone Lake, there can be as many as 100 different bears that fish those tributaries to the lake.”

Bruscino has also seen bears fishing in Swamp Lake up in Crandall in the fall, when the brook trout are spawning, as well as other creeks in the North Fork. Grizzlies also feed on elk and their calves.

“There is a very short time period, three to four weeks, when the elk calves are young enough to be caught,” Bruscino said. “Some grizzlies hunt them extensively. You can go into Lamar Valley any June and watch six or eight bears hunting elk calves.”

About mid-July, Bruscino said about 200 of the grizzlies move up in elevation to high-elevation “insect sites,” which are populated with enormous numbers of the army cutworm moth. The moths spend the summer nights feeding on the nectar of wild flowers in the mountains; during the day, they burrow into the rocky slopes of the mountains to escape the sun. The grizzlies have figured this out, and can eat up to 40,000 moths a day.

“The moths are really high in fat and really high in protein,” Bruscino said. “We have about 50 sites, all in the Absaroka Range. This doesn’t occur anywhere else but right here in our own backyard. One site in particular has about 35 grizzlies on it from about July 15 to Sept. 15, feeding almost exclusively on these moths.”

This treasure trove of food keeps the bears off the valley floors and away from people and livestock, but only about a fifth of the Yellowstone bear population takes advantage.

“It’s fascinating to watch, if you’re ever riding up a trail and glass up on a slope and see a couple of bears up there, stop and watch,” Bruscino said. “They dig humongous holes trying to get at these moths.”

Delisting on the horizon?

Currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies could be delisted as soon as the end of the summer, according to Bruscino. That likely would result in a trophy-hunting season for bears that venture outside of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

After his presentation, Bruscino answered questions about grizzlies, though discussion seemed to circle back repeatedly to the delisting of bears and wolves. The former management supervisor said the increase in population in both species has made it necessary for a change.

“Wolves and bears are a valuable natural resource, but we’re at the point with both of these populations where they need to be managed like game animals,” Bruscino said. “This is from a guy that doesn’t care to hunt either one of them, but was a manager of them. What my career and what my education taught me about how to manage these critters when they are as abundant as they are now, you manage them like game animals. That conserves them, as well as gives you the tools to deal with them.”

13 comments

  • posted by Dawn Adams

    April 22, 2017 2:15 pm

    Truth is the Grizzlies are suffering a record high mortality rate. Their habitat is being taken over by the ranchers that are allowed to let their livestock roam free and then blamed the Grizzlies when their cattle are targeted for food. Reproduction is very slow for Grizzlies and adulthood even harder to make it to. Traffic is a big factor and grizzlies are hit and killed. Once again I remind you that it took 40 long years after being hunted and murdered, for the Grizzlies to even begin to raise their numbers and those number are far from sustainable. 40 YEARS AND WE STILL HAVE NOT LEARNED OUR LESSONS. Ask almost anybody why the come to Yellowstone National Park and they will tell you that they want to see a Grizzly! Yellowstone's biggest draw from tourism is the hope of seeing and taking a picture of a Grizzly. These Grizzlies are worth so much more alive then dead. Grizzlies are not a trophy, to be hunted and have their heads, feet and skin cut off and hung on a wall or thrown on a floor!

  • posted by Roger Hayden

    April 19, 2017 11:46 pm

    It is extremely distressing to see retired and current WGFD folks insist grizzlies need to be hunted to keep the population in check, when no science supports that claim. The population has been flat since at least 2007, and there are signs that it could be entering a period of decline. Yet, current and retired WGFD folks say they need to be hunted? How messed up is that? Let's start managing according to real science and myths and folklore.

  • posted by Jim Staebler

    April 19, 2017 3:56 pm

    Whether grizzlies are reaching a "normal" carrying capacity or the carrying capacity of the land is being suddenly reduced is a difficult question to actually answer. Here is a link to a NPS article on grizzlies and this question.
    https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/demographic-changes-in-yellowstones-grizzly-bear-population.htm

    Here is one of the conclusions:
    "Multiple lines of evidence (IGBST 2013) support our hypothesis that the slowing of population growth of Yellowstone grizzly bears is associated with increasing density of grizzly bears rather than the decline of a calorie-rich fall food resource, whitebark pine (van Manen et al. 2015)."

    I do not despise or hate grizzlies. I think they are incredible creatures and enjoy watching them provided sufficient distance or barrier is between us. I want a healthy sustainable population in the GYA. Too many grizzlies in the end will result in dropping populations as detailed in the NPS article linked.

    Kudos to the Tribune, good read. Keep up the reporting on natural items in NW Wyoming.

  • posted by J. Westegaard

    April 19, 2017 10:00 am

    K. Yurenka, grizzlies are not trophy hunted here in the lower states and will never be hunted in the G.Y.E. . They need to be delisted and managed according to their available range. With a current population of more than 1,700 , the grizzly have made a successful comeback. These bears require space and a lot of it, something we don't have any more. Time to be fare to the bear - delist.

  • posted by Steven Neill

    April 18, 2017 11:08 pm

    I wonder if he was part of the US "Wildlife Service," you know, the government department responsible for killing over 2.7 million wild animals last year with barbaric traps, cyanide bombs and other monstrous methods no civilized people would use. The truth is that the government controls predators to increase elk and deer populations so hunters can pay to hunt them, not to balance the environment.

  • posted by Will

    April 18, 2017 9:34 pm

    My father said it best, "Who spends enough time in their territory that isn't connected to a special interest group to make a de-listing decision? Pretty much no one- that's who!? Grizzlies are only problematic to those who venture into a place where they shouldn't be. And, most of those who experience Grizzlies either admit they made a mistake or came unprepared with wisdom or the right equipment (bear spray or defensive [not hunting] firearms). The people in knowledge are not the one's with the power to make decisions on this and it's quite obvious."

  • posted by Kate VrMeer

    April 18, 2017 9:11 pm

    I hardly think the Grizzlies numbers are sustainable, they are diminishing rather than increasing! And lets not forget the loss of dollars from tourism this short sighted scheme will create! Protect and respect the Grizzlie for the greater good of all. http://billingsgazette.com/news/opinion/mailbag/grizzly-resolution-will-cost-montana-tourism/article_0adc590d-47d3-59c1-94ff-41ffb5a2a35f.html

  • posted by Brandon Holley

    April 18, 2017 8:13 pm

    Who spends enough time in their territory that isn't connected to a special interest group to make a de-listing decision? Pretty much no one- that's who!? Grizzlies are only problematic to those who venture into a place where they shouldn't be. And, most of those who experience Grizzlies either admit they made a mistake or came unprepared with wisdom or the right equipment (bear spray or defensive [not hunting] firearms). The people in knowledge are not the one's with the power to make decisions on this and it's quite obvious. Booo!

  • posted by Gail Clark

    April 18, 2017 8:02 pm

    "Across the lower 48 states, there are believed to be upwards of 1,700 bears — less than 1 percent of their historical population;..."

    The article also mentions there are only 750 bears living within the Yellowstone ecosystem. And yet delisting is still a consideration?! Sounds very premature to me.

  • posted by Rebecca Holley

    April 18, 2017 5:58 pm

    "They’re a valuable natural resource, just like an elk or anything else.” Well, at least Bruscino go that part right but he should have added "and should not be delisted and shot for trophy." Contemporary scientists and conservationists will argue that it's way too soon to delist this valuable umbrella species. With one of the slowest recovery, birth, and survival rates on record, delisting would be a huge mistake. Grizzlies already face enormous odds with climate change (loss of white bark pines) and a limited home range. It's time human egos live and let (other species) live without interference led by money hungry special interest groups. Speak up and save the grizzly!

  • posted by Glenn Graham

    April 18, 2017 5:51 pm

    According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, there were 757 grizzly’s in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2014, 717 in 2015 and the latest population estimate for 2016 is 690 bears. That's not an increase in population. They are searching further afield for food, which is well understood to be more scarce. Please explain again why the declining population of bears need to be delisted and hunted? The science doesn't support delisting.

  • posted by Katrina Yurenka

    April 18, 2017 5:12 pm

    The truth is that grizzlies are suffering record high mortality, stagnant population growth and grizzlies being forced to range farther for food due to climate change impacting their habitat. they need to be saved, not trophy hunted for fun.

  • posted by Barbara Walklate

    April 18, 2017 4:07 pm

    Grizzlies are being forced to travel further afield to hunt for food , food for the Grizzlies is getting less as the land is used for other purposes, due to loss if there natural habitat was left untouched life for the Grizzlies would be so different
    Ranchers are encroaching on the land that is for the wildlife
    Grizzlies are very slow to reproduce and reaching adulthood is a major achievement for Grizzlies
    Death rate from cars is a major factor
    To even consider delisting the Grizzlies is unbelievable

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