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Yellowstone Grizzlies Losing Ground

A grizzly mother and cub. Credit: Sierra Club
A grizzly mother and cub. Credit: Sierra Club
November 18, 2015

HELENA, Mont. - The grizzly bear population in the greater Yellowstone region is dropping quickly, going from an estimate of 747 last year to 714 this year, a six percent drop. The numbers came out in a recent meeting of the Yellowstone subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

Dr. David Mattson, a retired scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says the number doesn't even count the ones who've been killed, mostly in conflicts with hunters and ranchers.

"They still haven't factored in this year's mortalities, which are probably going to number around 90," says Mattson. "So, we could see a drop down into the 600s in terms of the estimate of population. It's probably going to be a record."

The bears have turned to preying on livestock and eating hunters' elk carcasses in recent years because they've lost most of their main food sources, white-bark pine and cutthroat trout.

Mattson says that can be blamed partially on global warming, which allows bark beetles to flourish and has reduced stream flows in spring.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under pressure from the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to take the bears off the endangered species list, now that they number more than 500. That would give control over the bears' fate back to the states and they want to reduce conflict by killing off the bears in a sport hunt.

Mattson disagrees with that approach.

"It makes no sense to increase levels of mortality for a population like Yellowstone's grizzly bears, that is dealing with deteriorating habitat conditions pretty much everywhere," says Mattson. "Their habitat is essentially unraveling."

If you want to learn more about the grizzlies of Yellowstone nature photographer Tom Mangelsen and author Todd Wilkinson will be appearing at an event tonight in Helena, and tomorrow night in Great Falls to talk about their new book, the Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.

Information about the talks is on the Sierra Club of Montana website.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - MT