Far fewer Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears were captured, killed or confirmed dead by wildlife managers in 2019 than the previous year, according to recently released state and federal reports.
In 2019, Wyoming Game and Fish captured 33 grizzlies in 34 incidents, down from 59 captures the year before, according to an annual state report. The 42% decline mirrors a drop in grizzly bear mortalities across the Yellowstone Ecosystem — a 34,375-square-mile territory that encompasses two national parks and sprawling swaths of national forest and other lands in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
There are about 700 grizzlies officially tallied in the ecosystem, but most observers agree that number is conservative. It’s enough for the federal government to propose removal from the threatened species list, a move so far stymied in court after a judge ruled federal agencies have not justified their proposal.
In the 2019 federal tally of grizzly deaths, officials counted 22 known and probable grizzly deaths in the demographic monitoring area — the core zone within the broader ecosystem where grizzly numbers count toward ecosystem population goals under Endangered Species Act rules.
Another 18 ecosystem grizzlies died outside the DMA, according to the annual federal report.
The 40 confirmed system-wide mortalities in 2019 are a 42% drop compared to the 69 confirmed mortalities in 2018. In most years wildlife managers also find a handful of bears they figure died earlier than the year in question, and those are tallied separately.
A key statistic — the number of dead females — dropped by two-thirds year-to-year according to the federal figures. In 2019 five female grizzlies died in the entire ecosystem compared to 15 in 2018. Managers couldn’t determine the sex of numerous dead bears in both years, however.
One conservationist suggested a reason for the decline in grizzly conflicts and deaths. “Maybe we’re seeing fewer bears because there were so many killed in 2018,” said Kristin Combs, program director at Wyoming Wildlife Advocates.
A federal biologist said that theory holds water.
“Often after high conflict and mortality years we have less to deal with because some of those incorrigible bears are removed,” Mark Haroldson, supervisory wildlife biologist with the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said. But there are likely other reasons.
“By a lot of accounts, anecdotally, bears were in really good shape this year,” he said. Natural food like whitebark pine nuts and talus-dwelling moths appeared adequate or abundant, reducing the motivation for bears to stray into human occupied conflict areas.
Observers disagree over whether grizzlies are occupying new territory or wandering outside the Yellowstone-Grand Teton parks core because of a gradual, overall decline in food often attributed to climate change and the loss of spawning cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake. There’s also ongoing debate over whether someone, and if so who, should take more action.
“Wyoming has nothing going on with livestock producers using non-lethal deterrents,” Combs said.
A rancher who drives stock into the grizzly-rich Upper Green River grazing areas on the Bridger-Teton National Forest disagreed. Albert Sommers said he tried for two years to herd cattle up at night to protect them from predators, but saw no significant differences.
Other tactics, such as avoiding poison larkspur — which can leave tempting cattle carcasses to attract bears — did have success, he said. Cattle now go to the larkspur areas when the poisonous plant has withered.
Sommers said grizzly recovery is a success. “We’ve got dead cows, dead bears, but we still got both going,” he said. “We haven’t run either one out of the country.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.