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EDITORIAL: Grizzlies, pine nuts and conflicts

Consider the high number of bear conflicts in 2010.

Over three weeks in October, two hunters killed two attacking grizzly bears near Cody. In the past six months, two grizzlies have fatally mauled two humans and injured others in the Greater Yellowstone region.

Wyoming has tallied a record 251 conflicts between bears and humans this year, from a bear eating corn on a Heart Mountain farm earlier this fall to the recent maulings of hunters, according to the Associated Press.

Including the latest hunter-shoots-bear incident last week, at least 45 grizzlies have been killed or removed from the wild this year in the Greater Yellowstone region.

Last fall, grizzlies were re-listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the federal government is considering whether to also place whitebark pine on the endangered species list. The declining tree species provides protein-rich pine nuts, a favorite for grizzlies prior to hibernation.

Though the grizzly re-listing points to bears' dependency on whitebark pine nuts, some research suggests grizzlies are actually fine without them.

“We have not detected an impact of the loss of mature whitebark pine on the grizzly bear population. Rates of reproduction and survival remain high, and the population is still growing,” said the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in an August statement.

Still growing indeed. The grizzly population in and around Yellowstone is at its highest level in decades, according to a report released last week. At least 603 grizzly bears roam the Greater Yellowstone region — more than three times the number in 1975, when the bear was first placed on the endangered list.

More grizzles mean more conflicts.

But fewer pine nuts don't necessarily mean more bear-human conflicts.

“In fact, grizzly/human encounters and bear mortalities are primarily determined by grizzly and human population densities rather than whitebark pine cone production,” wrote Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, earlier this year.

Given the high number of conflicts between humans and bears this year — and the many grizzly relocations — it is time to reconsider how the increased bear population is managed by the federal government. Numbers show the bears are thriving in the Yellowstone region, indicating a growing grizzly population that no longer needs endangered species status.

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