As snow buries the mountains, grizzlies are slowing down and heading into dens. This comes in the nick of time as deaths mount, threatening to reverse progress toward recovery of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, but giving us time to examine why grizzly bears are dying and to redouble our coexistence efforts.
We are poised to reach or even surpass last year’s record grizzly bear deaths. So far, 44 grizzlies are considered known or probably dead in the NCDE, all but one killed by humans. Applying the government’s formula that estimates unknown and unreported mortality, near 90 grizzlies are likely dead. This amounts to an unsustainable portion of the population.
Fortunately, we know a lot about how to reduce deaths from poaching, livestock conflicts, vehicle and train collisions, and the lure of human foods — the primary causes of mortality in the Northern Rockies.
This year is increasingly the new normal when it comes to the record numbers of grizzlies killed in collisions with cars (five) and trains (eight). The reasons are obvious. More people are on the roads. More trains are hauling coal and grain. But we can look to work by the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes and Montana Highway Department on Highway 93 through the Flathead to see some solutions. Here, over 40 crossing structures have facilitated safe passage for grizzlies and a slew of other species, not to mention people. But this laudable effort is incomplete and covers a relatively small part of a vast ecosystem.
Burlington Northern Railway has reduced grain spills that are magnets for bears, but cows, including those killed in this fall’s early snows, also draw bears to the tracks. The Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to complete a plan with Burlington Northern to address the problem.
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Among the rapidly growing human population of the Flathead Valley, attractants around residences constitute the root cause of more than one third of grizzly bear deaths on the NCDE’s west side. By contrast, conflicts with cows and sheep lead to more deaths on the more sparsely populated east side.
Reducing both sorts of conflicts depends on assiduously keeping human foods out of bears’ reach. Electric fence, prompt removal of livestock carcasses, and disciplined sanitation are proven remedies. Although the tribes, state and federal agencies, and at least five nonprofit organizations are working to reduce availability of attractants, they still account, directly or indirectly, for roughly 20% of grizzly bear deaths ecosystem-wide. More needs to be done.
Malicious killing is a tougher problem that robs all citizens of their wildlife legacy while imperiling grizzlies. Poaching is notoriously underreported and likely accounts for 25-30% of total grizzly bear deaths in the NCDE. Even though the Endangered Species Act imposes stiff penalties for poaching, funding for law enforcement is far from adequate, and convictions are few and far between. Excessive and poorly managed road systems on national forest lands facilitate access for poachers.
During the next year, the governor-appointed Montana Grizzly Bear Advisory Council will examine ways to reduce conflicts and advance recovery. This means looking anew at problems that will be exacerbated by warming temperatures and increasing wildfires. These changes will continue to drive the spread of bears, even as they bump into more people in more places, especially in the Flathead Valley and around Missoula.
Because the lion's share of our last grizzlies in the Lower 48 find refuge in Montana, we play a critical role in the Great Bear’s future. As grizzlies dream this winter, let us dream a better world for these magnificent animals to wake up to.