The survival of North Americas most fearsome predator depends on a fragile mix of seeds, berries, trout, moths, elkand being left alone.
By Joe Kane
Heres something to ponder next time you board the StairMaster: On a frigid spring morning in 2001, down in the southeastern corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, in a den tucked into the snowbound east flank of the 11,000-foot peak known as the Ramshorn, a deep-brown female grizzly called Number 128 awakens after a five-month nap. Though having stirred not even to pee, she has burned perhaps a hundred pounds of fat, or a quarter of her body weight. Shes also gained some muscle. Through an effort no more arduous than a long snooze, what entered the den lard-swathed in November emerges a lean, mean fighting machine.
Well, almost. It will be another week before shes fully alert. Shes had two cubs, which is impressive: On average, a grizzly sow produces offspring only once every three years. When the two little fuzzballs were born, weighing maybe a pound apiece, she roused herself just enough to lick them clean and plant them on her chest. Then
she went back to sleep for three months. Nursing happily, the cubs managed to avoid getting crushed when Mom rolled over. Theyll soon be hungry for solid food. So will she. She ambles into the sunlight, blinks, and sniffs the air. Its time for business: She must eat or die.
In its simplest and starkest terms, life for Yellowstones "charismatic megafauna"bears, wolves, moose, bison, elkis about winter, a race against starvation. Stockpile calories in spring, summer, and fall, then hold on and hope your body fat outlasts the winter. Get stampeded by a snowmobile in December and every step spent fleeing for your life is one less step youll have come April.
In her perfect world, 128 would commence feeding by ripping through the
deliquescent carrion of winter-killed ungulate. But wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-90s, and she must contend with the Washakie pack. While she slept they nailed the easy pickings among the elk and bison herds. If she were a male, she might chase them off a carcass, but the wolves would kill her cubs. So might a male grizzly.
Shes positioned nicely for live elk, though. Her home range is in the heart of a sagebrush-steppe corridor, rich in forage, that an enormous herd follows spring and fall between the low basin country near the Wind River Indian Reservation and the high range of the Yellowstone plateau. In a good year, she wont have far to travel for two of the remaining three foods that, with ungulates, constitute 80 percent of a typical grizzlys diet. Thick stands of whitebark pine grow all along treeline; come late summer, shell raid the massive caches of tiny pine seeds hidden by red squirrels. From the talus slopes nearby, shell dig out army cutworm moths, which are about 60 percent fat. Shell eat up to 40,000 of them a day, the energy equivalent of 70 Snickers bars.
Of the fourth major grizzly food, cutthroat trout, there have never been many in this corner of the Greater Yellowstone, but 128 is an omnivore by design, and adept at finding new food sources. A hungry grizzly will mosey 20 miles for a mere snack. Shell try almost anything that smells interesting, and stick with it if it proves out. Which is why Number 128 has developed a taste for dog food.
Thats what worries Mark Bruscino, chief bear-management officer for Wyomings Game and Fish Department. When theres a conflict between a human and a grizzly anywhere in Wyoming, its up to Bruscino and his two deputies to resolve it. They love bears, but it is a simple fact of the job that if they cant find a way to keep a bear away from people and their flotsamtheir pets, garbage, bird feeders, barbecue grills, pigs, chickens, you name itthey have only one option. In 2000, 22 Greater Yellowstone grizzlies died through human agency, the highest annual total since they were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. From where Mark Bruscino sits in the spring of 2001, the future does not bode well for 128 and her cubs.
A lot rides on 128s humpy brown back. In 1850, some hundred thousand grizzlies roamed the Lower 48, mainly in the western plains. Today, there might be 1,100, though no one really knows, for they are solitary and elusive animals. For the most part they are concentrated in two areasGlacier National Park, and the Greater Yellowstone, which is home to somewhere between 250 and 600 bears. While Glaciers grizzlies are free to wander deep into Canada, Yellowstones are an island population, with no geographic connection to other grizzlies; whether the existing gene pool is sufficiently diverse to keep the bears viable for the next century is anybodys guess. Because grizzlies reproduce so slowly, it can take years before a population crash or inbreeding problems become evident. For perspective, consider this: Of all the barometers of grizzly health, of all the hundreds of factors critical to maintaining a stable long-term population, the foremost is the number of females of reproductive age. In Yellowstone, the loss of even half a dozen adult sows could tip the population into a downward spiral.
But 128 isnt thinking about that; 128 is thinking about dog food. So is Mark Bruscino.
By 1975, the bears in Yellowstone National Park had so habituated themselves to raiding food from human sources, and the National Park Service was killing so many, that the population was careening toward extinction. When Number 128 was born in 1985, at least 130 bears had been destroyed over the previous two decades and fewer than 200 remained. Biologists dubbed portions of the park grizzly "black holes," killing fields the bears entered but could not survive.
By 1986, Bear 128 was already in trouble with the law. The Park Service caught her rummaging for garbage near the town of West Yellowstone, the parks western entrance. But what might once have been a sentence to face a firing squad of armed rangers was now a ticket to paradise: Rangers relocated 128 deeper inside Yellowstone. The Park Service was reversing course. It cleaned up its garbage dumps. It passed new sanitation laws and enforced them vigorously. It launched an aggressive education campaign for its 3 million annual visitors and reduced bear-caused human injuries from an average of 45 per year to less than one. In 1982, meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife had designated a 9,200-square-mile grizzly "recovery zone" within what is now known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, seven adjoining national forests, and various smaller public and private tracts. The recovery zone dictated maximum levels of protection not only for the bears themselves but for their habitat, and it included all the bears then believed to exist.
The population began to grow, slowly, at a rate of perhaps 2 percent a year, and to expand its territory. But grizzlies require enormous amounts of undisturbed wild space, more than any other animal in North America (in Yellowstone, the home range of a typical adult female encompasses some 450 square miles, that of an adult male up to 900). As the population increased, Bear 128 and a lot of her neighbors found themselves drawn or pushed from the core of the recovery zone to its edges and then, inevitably, beyond, into places grizzlies hadnt been seen in decadesand where many Endangered Species Act protections for "threatened" animals do not apply. Today, up to a third of the grizzlies spend most of their time outside the zone, and because males control the core habitat, a disproportionate number of the bears that have been forced to the peripheriesto the very areas where they are most likely to run afoul of humansare females.
By 1994, Bear 128 had migrated down across the southeastern boundary of the recovery zone into a region of Shoshone National Forest known as Horse Creek. It was there that she came across Billy Snodgrass, who raised sled dogs on a small ranch he and his wife were caretaking for a wealthy absentee owner. More accurately, she came across Snodgrasss dog food, gobs of it, a pungent, fish-based concoction that was irresistible. Snodgrass bred dogs to race the Iditarod, to sell, and for his outfitting business; at times he had more than 80, and food for all of them. What he didnt have, according to Mark Bruscino and his crew, was much interest in protecting his detritus from bears, nor any legal compulsion to do so.
"It wasnt like he hated bears," one of Bruscinos deputies, Brian DeBolt, told me. "His attitude was, theyre not bothering me that much, its not a big deal. And our position was, yes, it is a big deal. Youre teaching this animal bad behavior that its going to pass on to future generations of bears, and youre habituating other bears, and the problems just escalate from there. But he didnt get the big picture."
That September, with denning season rapidly approaching and 128s body screaming for calories, she hit Snodgrasss place yet again. This time, though, Game and Fish was waiting for her. They moved her 80 miles north, deep into the Washakie Wilderness, some of the best bear habitat in the Lower 48. That didnt seem to matter. By spring, she was back in Horse Creek.
"That blows my mind," Mark Bruscino told me one day last fall. We were on the north side of the Washakie, along the North Fork of the Shoshone River. Bruscino was driving me through a settlement called Wapiti, a widely scattered agglomeration of perhaps 500 tract homes, ranchettes, dude ranches, and vanity palaces erected by the likes of new-money pizza magnates and medical-device inventors. That morning, someone had reported a mama grizzly and two cubs strolling out of the mountains in search of a meal. Bruscino was gesturing toward yet another spanking new McMansion set high on a wind-blasted bluff half a mile off the river. "You build like that," he said, "youre asking for a grizzly bear on the front porch."
But who wouldnt build here, if they could? The North Fork valley runs west out of Cody and climbs into Yellowstone National Park, and though its only a couple of miles wide, its surrounded on three sides by some of the most inspiring scenery in the country. The tree-studded flanks of the Washakie rise immediately south, the dun-colored bluffs of the North Absaroka Wilderness to the north, and the snow-capped peaks of the Absarokas to the west. Under a blazing sun, the landscape looks like the setting of every cowboy movie ever made.
The high country is federal land, the low country is not, but all of it is prime bear habitat. When Bruscino began coming here in college 20 years ago, the valley was all ranches, and a bear could slip through in the night almost unnoticed. Today, however, most of the good bottomland has been subdivided, a scenario that is playing out on all sides of the Greater Yellowstone, whose human population grew at nearly twice the national rate in the 1990s. The effect has been to wall in the wildlife, and to make the homes, schools, stores, churches, and personal riding arenas of Jackson, Dubois, Big Sky, Cody, and other Greater Yellowstone communities the new grizzly killing fields.
Initially, the bears come prowling in search of roots, forbs, and berries in the moist riverine bottoms. They are being driven down from the mountains by their expanding population, by drought (2000 was an unusually dry year, 2001 a record), and by an alarming decline in their usual food sources. An invasive disease called blister rust has decimated whitebark pines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and may well cause the trees to disappear altogether. Lake trout, introduced illegally in 1994, have now supplanted many native cutthroat populations but spawn in areas too deep for grizzlies to reach. Army cutworm moths, though little studied, appear to be susceptible to pesticides used in the alfalfa and wheat fields where they winter, and to global warming, which is altering the alpine zones where bears feed on them.
Whatever the cause, the results are the same: Sooner or later, a hungry bear will "hang up" on an unprotected dumpster, a bag of pet food, or a carpet of fallen orchard fruit. "And then," Bruscino says, "her fate is sealed. She will forever associate human settlement with a food reward." Once she has made that connection, she wont forget it. Shell lose her fear of humans, and, emboldened, will ultimately have to be removed. Even if she is relocated, in all likelihood she will continue to forage in places inhabited by people, because she has learned that it pays. And thats why, as they say, "a fed bear is a dead bear."
Every mile, it seemed, Bruscino had a story of a bear encounter, or we saw evidence of bear activitybranches torn from fruit trees, seed-larded scat. He stopped often to jawbone with ranchers, homeowners, hunting outfitters. Basically, when it comes to bears and private property, Wyoming has no laws that keep people from behaving like idiots. Persuasion is the best tool Bruscino has, prevention the only way the bears can win. These days, in fact, he tries to identify bearssuch as the sow and her cubs were looking forthat might get hooked and move them well before they do.
For Bruscino, the hours are long and often frustrating. From April to October, he says, "my wife and I just agree that we wont see each other very much." Already, 2001 had been a bad year for Wyoming grizzlies, on a pace with the bloody record of 2000; in the past month alone, here in Wapiti, Bruscino had put down two garbage-rustling females, a week apart. Hes been at his job for 13 years. "At one point in my career," he said, "I thought we could manage the problems of human sprawl. But now I think the problem isnt just the one in twenty people who are lazy and stupid. Its also the sheer numbers of people moving into prime bear habitat. We cant bear-proof everything." The grizzlies have filled virtually all of the protected habitat within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and development is closing in on all sides. "There is nowhere left for the bear to go," he says.
Such protections as the grizzly enjoys come mainly through the Endangered Species Act. In 1993, however, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, the consortium of federal and state wildlife managers responsible for overseeing the bears recovery, looked at the apparent increase in the Yellowstone grizzly population and proposed that it be removed from threatened status. The decision is likely to be made within the next two or three years, and would put management of the bears in the hands of the three states surrounding the park: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, whose governors make no secret of their belief that Ursus arctos horribilis is Latin for "bad for business."
Many people stand to gain from "delisting," as its known. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have an Endangered Species Act success story to trumpet. The U.S. Forest Service would have one less set of rules to satisfy when it wants to open its lands for multiple use. State wildlife agenciessuch as Mark Bruscinos, in factwould escape the yoke of federal officials. Penalties for illegal kills by hunters and poachers would surely become more lenient. But the biggest winners would be the oil, gas, and timber companies that have seen their access to resources on federal lands blocked by Endangered Species Act restrictions that protect grizzlies.
A taste of what delisting augurs for the likes of Bear 128 is suggested by the surveyors stake with its bright orange ribbon that was planted in a short two-track road in the middle of Wyomings Brent Creek basin last summer. Its hardly far-fetched to imagine that Bear 128 might have spotted the stake on her perambulations; Brent Creek was an easy stroll from her denning site, and prime foraging habitat. The stake marks the site of a proposed exploratory oil well that the Forest Service expected to see in operation by this summer. A Casper-based oil company, Hudson Oil, holds the lease. As soon as the Bush administration took office and proposed to open more federal lands for resource extraction, Hudson asked the agency for a drilling permit.
Mark Hinschberger, the Shoshone National Forest biologist who did the environmental analysis for Hudsons permit, told me that some 25 different bears have used the 126,000-acre area around the proposed well over the last 13 years. The area is so important for denning and spring forage that the Forest Service closes its access road from April 1 through July 30. He said that wouldnt change if the exploratory well goes in. He said, too, that the well site would occupy only two acres, and that further analysis would be done before the well could begin commercial production. And thats mainly why he concluded that granting the exploratory permit would have no significant impact on grizzlies.
Of course, theres a catch.
If the exploratory well were to reveal commercial quantities of oil, then bears be damned. Should the Forest Service try to limit development, Hinschberger said, "then were into some potentially very big problems." Given the Bush administrations stand on resource extraction, "there wouldnt be support. Theyd say, were going to drill." By granting the exploratory permit, in other words, the Forest Service would be granting a de facto commercial permit. Technically, it could impose certain limits on just how that oil was developed; in all likelihood, however, Hudson and the other companies that hold leases nearby would be free to bulldoze as many roads and sink as many wells and work as many days and nights as they might want to.
What are the odds of 128 and her cubs surviving such an onslaught?
"Exactly our point," says Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm. "There isnt a single example that anybody in the agency or the industry can point to where grizzly bears have persisted in an area that was developed for oil and gas."
Last November, representing the Sierra Club and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Earthjustice sued the Forest Service to block it from granting oil-well permits in Brent Creek. It was the second time in as many years that the law firm has done so. Both times, it has used the Endangered Species Act as its legal hammer, and thus far has forced the Forest Service to delay the permit. But with the delisting process grinding inexorably toward completion, it may be only a matter of timeand not much of itbefore the most powerful tool for protecting grizzlies is taken away.
Bear proponents are alarmed. Mike Finley, for example, was superintendent of Yellowstone National Park from 1994 through the spring of 2001 and now heads the Turner Foundation; his aggressive enforcement of the grizzlys Endangered Species Act protections was fundamental to their recovery inside the park. "The American public has made a huge investment in preserving this bear," he says. "You shouldnt rush to delisting until you are assured that the investment you made in that asset is well protected. The grizzly bear is not. Until it is, the public should not accept a desire on the part of extractive industries or politicians to delist."
"That we have bears at all today is a success story in itself," says Louisa Willcox, director of the Sierra Clubs Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project. "Twenty-five years ago, we thought they might well be extinct by now. But we cant say with certainty that theyll be around for our grandkids." In fact, she points out, the major risks the grizzly faces todaysuburban sprawl, climate change, harassment from all-terrain vehicles, loss of roadless areas to resource development, the deterioration of basic food sourceswerent even issues when the bear was first listed. "Grizzlies are fighting a losing battle against all of these threats," she says, "and thats with Endangered Species Act protections in place. If thats life under listing, what will it be like when the states take over?"
Chuck Schwartz, the wildlife biologist who heads the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committeeand who is well regarded in the environmental communitycautions that "there is a whole series of steps that must be taken before delisting comes to a conclusion." Once the states develop management plans, Schwartz says, the committee will combine them into a single unified plan that addresses both the recovery zone and the area beyond it, and how the states and feds will interact. "Were a long way from that," Schwartz says. "This thing is not on a fast track for any political agenda or anything else."
The bear-management plan Wyoming approved in March, however, is a sobering illustration of what Willcox fears. Last year, the states Game and Fish commission, hand-picked by the governor, appointed a committee of 21 citizens to develop recommendations. "They set us up to fail," a rancher who served on it told me. "They chose delegates they thought couldnt possibly reach a consensus." But the committee concluded that the grizzly should be allowed to expand beyond the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem into any part of the state where it could find suitable habitat, such as the Wind River, Wyoming, and Big Horn mountain ranges. The commissioners immediately rewrote those recommendations to restrict the bears range to the Greater Yellowstone. That power play drew a record 8,000 written responses from the public, only 10 of which supported it. Charging that the outpouring had been orchestrated by the Sierra Club and others, the commissioners then ordered a telephone poll of Wyoming residents. Again the results were stunning: By huge margins, Wyoming residents said they favored expansion of the bear population; 75 percent said grizzlies benefited the state. Red-faced, the commissioners then directed the state game agency to rewrite the plan to better reflect public opinionbut warned that they were under no legal obligation to accept it. As one commissioner said, "We can do anything we damn well want." The final plan, though somewhat more generous, will restrict the bears to the Greater Yellowstone and classify them as trophy game animalswhich means they can be hunted.
Similarly, in Idaho, a citizens committee developed a management plan that would have expanded grizzly habitat. The legislature gutted it and replaced it with a plan that basically restricts the bears to the recovery zone andin a state whose governor, Dirk Kempthorne, has condemned the grizzly as a "flesh-eating, antisocial" menaceturned everything beyond it into a "free-fire zone," says Louisa Willcox.
In some ways, Bear 128 never really had a chance. Mark Bruscino and Brian DeBolt worked on Billy Snodgrass for years, to little avail. Bears were in Snodgrasss garage so often that the door had at least a hundred muddy bear prints on it. The windows were so weak that the bears were simply pushing them in. DeBolt bought grates and installed them himself, but it was like shoveling sand against the tide. Snodgrass was throwing his garbage into an open trailer, DeBolt says, "and hed try to get it out of there by spring, when the bears came, but of course he never did. And wed keep telling him, close your garage door. And sometimes hed use a bucket to feed his dogs and leave it out on his four-wheeler. Stuff like that. We tried and tried and tried."
Billy Snodgrass was unavailable for comment, but his wife, Jacki, said, "We have tried hard to keep things cleaned up. Whether or not 128 learned her bad habits at our place, well, thats questionable."
By the summer of 2001 it didnt matter how secure the Snodgrass place was. Bear 128 had been identified as the culprit in 10 raids in the Horse Creek area and was a suspect in 32 more. "As much as I hate to put it this way, she was water under the bridge," Bruscino says. The end came on September 14, when her appetite would have been nearly at its most insatiable. DeBolt trapped her and her cubsthere was no saving them; theyd already learned their mothers behavioron Snodgrasss property, sedated them, then injected them with a drug that stopped their hearts. Their deaths were just 3 of the 21 confirmed in 2001 in the Greater Yellowstone. Six of those deaths would be adult females.
Mark Bruscino consoles himself by looking at the big picture. He believes that the overall Yellowstone grizzly population is healthy enough to sustain the loss, and that any reference to "record mortality figures" has to be tempered with the understanding that the bear population is increasing. Brian DeBolt feels that at the least, as people come to believe that his agency is serious about controlling conflicts, "theyll be more tolerant of bears in the long run and wont take matters into their own hands." He takes as a good sign the fact that the percentage of grizzlies killed by hunters (accidentally or illegally, since there is currently no legal grizzly hunt) fell dramatically, from 12 to 1, between 2000 and 2001.
As for the situation at the ranch where 128 was killed, Bruscino has contacted the absentee owner"a great guy"and he has vowed to clean up the place. Snodgrass has moved out and the dogs are gone. "So hopefully weve fixed that problem," Bruscino says, "and another bear will be recruited into that niche most likely, and hopefully it will be a bear that acts wild and doesnt break into buildings about every third night." That optimism sustains him, one bear at a time.
Joe Kane is author of Savages (1996) and Running the Amazon (1990), both from Vintage. He wrote "One Mans Wilderness," a profile of backpacking guide and wilderness activist Howie Wolke, in the March/April 2000 issue of Sierra.
Photograph of Grizzly by Erwin and Peggy Bauer
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