Snow is falling, the river is crusted in ice and bears are snuggled in their dens. We often think of bears as sleeping soundly through the winter but this is also the time of year when baby grizzly bears are born. As these newly born grizzlies wander into the world in April or May, what will the future hold for them? It might depend on their mother’s past.
After more than 10 years working on grizzly bear conservation issues I am not surprised that the largest threat to grizzly bears remains human caused deaths. Human development comes along with numerous enticing “attractants,” often smack in the middle of what once was a bear’s home environment – everything from garbage and birdseed, to fruit trees, chickens and livestock. When mother bears eat garbage for example, they are inadvertently teaching their cubs that these items are a food resource. Unfortunately, this behavior usually ends badly for both the mother and her cubs – and the bears are frequently killed or relocated to zoos.
But the good news is that these deaths are often avoidable. Defenders works with communities, individuals and management agencies to keep attractants like chickens, livestock, fruit trees and garbage away from bears and prevent these unnecessary deaths. Our Electric Fencing Incentive Program, reimburses participants 50% of the cost of a bear-resistant electric fence, up to a maximum reimbursement of $500. Through this program, we also offer free technical assistance with design and occasionally hands-on help with fence installation. Last year alone, Defenders completed 44 electric fencing projects, mainly in Northwest Montana, and more than 100 electric fencing projects have been completed since 2010. These programs help reduce property damage for home owners, and also dramatically reduce killing of bears. Many of these sites had histories of grizzly bears killing chickens, or causing damage to property and fruit trees. Participants are extremely grateful to finally have a long term solution to a very concerning problem. In the words of one participant:
“There have been bears on the property but they have not gotten into the back yard to harass the chickens or partake of all the vegetables in the garden. The closest neighbor who did not have an electric fence was not so lucky.” – Ken Barber
While interactions with humans are the most frequent cause of death for bears on the ground, several other threats loom for the continued vitality of grizzly bears throughout the American West. In early 2013, Defenders fought diligently against some extreme anti-grizzly and anti-predator legislation, particularly in Montana. Luckily, many voices stood up for grizzlies and most of this extreme legislation was defeated. We also delved into proposed changes to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Southwestern Grizzly Bear State Management Plan asking for more protections for grizzly bears. And we commented on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed changes to its Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan Criteria for the Yellowstone Ecosystem.
As you likely know, grizzly bears are currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release delisting proposals for both the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) grizzly bear population and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) population. The Yellowstone population has increased from around 150-200 when bears were put on the ESA in 1975 to around 700-740 bears today. The NCDE population is estimated at close to 1,000 bears today. Both populations have made incredible comebacks, but are they ready for delisting? This question is one we are carefully researching. Defenders respects the years of dedicated work to remove threats and recover these grizzly populations, and the extensive research that has gone into understanding these two populations. We look forward to reviewing anticipated new research regarding the Yellowstone grizzly bear population and its adaptability to changing food resources. Defenders will closely evaluate and comment upon any delisting proposal, and we’ll provide updates on these items as they move forward this spring and summer. The future of those newly born cubs depends on people’s willingness to coexist with this iconic species.
Erin Edge, Rockies & Plains Representative