Grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem currently stand about a one in ten chance of perishing from natural causes. In other words, approximately nine out of ten grizzlies in and around the nation’s first national park die as a result of humans.
According to data compiled and released by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST – overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey), of the 111 known and probable grizzly deaths in the area during 2018 and 2019, 99 were caused by humans.
Jim Robbins’ recent article in the New York Times, Grizzly Bear Deaths are Climbing, digs into what’s behind the record-breaking number of bears killed further north in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. “The death rate of grizzlies in this region has been rising, attributed not only to trains, but to poaching, cars and the removal of troublesome bears. In 2018, a record number — 51 — were killed in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, millions of acres in and around Glacier Park,” writes Robbins.
“But if the increase in deaths continues, it could affect the bear’s long-term future,” he continues. Growing numbers of dead bears means they’re decreasingly likely to achieve connectivity – the overlap of grizzly populations from the Glacier area and the Yellowstone region. Connectivity is a goal acknowledged by experts as critical for ultimate grizzly recovery, largely because it would ensure sufficient genetic diversity among bears to continue thriving. Simply put – each dead bear makes the gene pool smaller, which undeniably jeopardizes the species’ survival in decades to come.
Unfortunately, the trend that Robbins observes in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem isn’t unique. A troubling number of bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are dying, too. And not from natural causes.
68% of grizzly deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the past two years are confirmed as caused by humans. Another 21% are listed as “Under Investigation” – a designation that means the grizzly may have been illegally poached, killed in self-defense, mistaken for a black bear or met some other unnatural fate. The IGBST, however, can list a bear’s death as “Under Investigation” indefinitely; as long as a fatality has this designation, no further information is available to the public.
While grizzlies in and around Yellowstone don’t face the hazards of navigating as many train tracks, the number of grizzlies dying is equally troubling. What’s more, the overwhelming majority of them are not only dying at human hands – they’re being killed by wildlife management agencies.
Of 86 grizzlies killed by humans during 2018 and 2019, 63 of them were killed by wildlife management agencies. In other words, a grizzly was more than five times more likely to be intentionally killed than to die a natural death.
We applaud Robbins for his reporting, and his willingness to engage the topic of grizzly bears in a thoughtful and nuanced manner. The conversation around grizzlies needs more contributions like that of Robbins; stories that step beyond sensationalism and meaningfully engage how grizzlies are managed in the West.
Grizzlies are an integral part of our culture, communities and ecosystems. It’s time we demand more transparency in the decision-making around grizzly management, and ensure that policies are guided by facts, not politics.