your connection to The Boston Globe

Rise in grizzly bear deaths a concern

Loss of habitat, poor crops cited

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Seven were hit by trains or cars. Ten were killed illegally, often shot and left to die. Thirteen were killed by wildlife officials because they had menaced humans or had otherwise become a nuisance. One was killed in self-defense.

All told, 31 grizzly bears in and around Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, 18 of them female, died this year as a result of human actions -- the most in any year since the bears were listed as a threatened species nearly 30 years ago and nearly double the number killed in 2003.

The number of deaths was unusually high, but state and federal wildlife officials say it is not cause for alarm -- yet. They attribute the rise in part to more people moving into bear territory and a poor berry crop that pushed more grizzlies out of the woods in search of food.

But some environmentalists are concerned about these bears and the grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park, where run-ins with hunters accounted for nearly half the 19 grizzly bear deaths in 2004 and where a government proposal to drop federal protection for grizzlies could be in place as early as next year.

''I think we're moving way too rapidly, given the warning signs on the horizon," said Louisa Willcox, Wild Bears Project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont. ''We should take heed and slow down and really look at and solve the problems."

Hunting and habitat loss contributed to the bears' decline in the West early in the 20th century, and in 1975 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. At that time, there were probably 200 to 250 grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem, situated mostly in Wyoming. Today, the estimate ranges from 550 to 600.

Chris Servheen, the US Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont., calls those grizzlies ''the greatest success in the Endangered Species Act."

The move to drop Yellowstone grizzlies from federal protection would not affect the bears in and around Glacier, where the population is estimated at 500.

Servheen said the 19 grizzlies killed by or because of humans in the Yellowstone region this year was comparable to the number in past years. But the nine females that died exceeded thresholds set in 1993 by federal and state agencies to aid recovery. Environmentalists find the figure troubling, given how slowly grizzlies reproduce. Bears can be 5 or 6 years old before they have their first cubs.

Servheen said the deaths would not affect the move to drop federal protection, but officials are studying what steps could be taken to address the issue.

Wildlife officials and private organizations work with homeowners and others in bear country, helping them take steps to keep bears away, such as using bear-proof containers for food or trash, electric fences, and dogs.

Hunters acting in self-defense accounted for at least seven of the 19 human-related grizzly deaths in the Yellowstone region this year. Wildlife officials killed seven bears that rummaged through people's trash and in other ways came into conflict with humans.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives