Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Grizzly attitudes in Montana

I just returned from western Montana, where I appeared several places to promote my new book: Grizzly Wars: The Public Fight Over the Great Bear.

I found that local attitudes toward grizzlies differed depending on where I was. In the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, where grizzlies have been absent for years, a resident of Salmon, just across the border in Idaho, described the stormy public hearing eight years ago over reintroducing grizzlies into the Bitterroots. The mayor warned wildlife officials at the hearing that he would charge them with murder if anyone around Salmon was killed as a result of bringing back the bears.

In Hamilton, unofficial capital of Montana's Bitterroot Valley, locals told me that grizzly opponents are still vocal, yet a silent but growing majority supports reintroduction. New residents from California and elsewhere. I was told, are moderating local attitudes.

A woman from Helena who likes to hike told me that she doesn't stay home because of grizzlies. She does not hike alone, but she and her friends hike all the time in grizzly country, and they don't wear bells or shout to avoid surprise encounters.

In Butte, a man told me that he thought the biggest problem in managing grizzlies was "too many people."

The clearest message came from a newspaper reporter I met with in Kalispell. He's been covering public land and wildlife issues for many years, spends a lot of time in the hills, and regularly reports in the local paper on grizzly bear news. Sitting between the Cabinet-Yaak and Northern Continental Divide grizzly bear recovery areas, Kalispell is familiar with grizzlies. "I know a lot of rednecks around here and none of them complain about grizzlies," he says. "If a grizzly gets into someone's chicken coop or whatever, it makes for some good bar talk, but that's all." He was surprised to hear about anti-bear attitudes elsewhere. "You'll see bumper stickers that say 'Kill Wolves', but I've never seen one about grizzlies." he insists. "They're just part of the terrain."

submitted by David Knibb, author
Grizzly Wars: The Public Fight Over the Great Bear

"Bears move to town" follow up comments

Related to the previous BLOG entry I found the following graphic in the most recent issue of High Country News interesting. This graphic is based on data from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Click on the above image to enlarge.

Of particular interest were the facts that bears weigh more in urban areas, and that their density per square mile is greater. For instance the density of bears in the wild is 3 per 38 square miles, but in urban areas their density was documented as 120 bears per 38 square miles. Also noted is a decrease in denning period from 100-150 days per year to 50-100 days per year in urban areas, which means that bears are out and about searching for food more of the year. Finally, the age that females first reproduce is reduced, and the numbers of cubs per birthing cycle is increased in urban areas. This increase in reproductive rate is a natural outcome of an abundant food supply – most wildlife will increase their reproductive rate when food supplies are good and reduce their reproductive rate during harder times.

This data points out a positive feedback loop that certainly we humans don’t want to promote. The fact that bears can access an abundant and easy food supply in and around residences not only contributes to challenging bear behaviors, but also increases their reproductive rate and densities. All of this is another indicator of the need to educate citizens, businesses, schools and governmental organizations to make bear attractants inaccessible.

Unfortunately, however, it only takes a few people to contribute significantly to the food conditioning of bears, and not infrequently those that contribute most to the problem are least inclined to change their behavior. Even in parts of Canada where Conservation Officers can fine people who leave non-natural foods accessible to wildlife, large numbers of bears are euthanized each year. So there is no easy answer, but certainly continued education about this issue is warranted.

Nan Laney
Skagit, Whatcom and Northern Snohomish Coordinator
Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (GBOP)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bears abandon wilderness and move to the city

Bears are deserting traditional mountain and forest ranges and moving into towns where they scavenge for food. This attraction to 'fast food' in urban areas is luring black bears in North America to an early death, scientists have found.

Why? So many young bears are killed in traffic accidents that it is threatening the viability of wild populations.

A 10-year study in the Sierra Nevada Mountains looked at the effects a landscape changed by human activity was having on the black bear (Ursus americanus). Led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) it looked particularly at whether exposure to humans and new food resources in the form of rubbish was affecting bear life history patterns.

Scientists followed 12 female bears in an urban environment and 10 females in wild land habitats from 1997-2006. All 22 bears were sexually immature females who could be followed through their life cycle.

The study, published in the Autumn 2008 issue of the journal Human-Wildlife Conflicts, had to be limited to 10 years because by then all the urban bears had been killed in traffic accidents while six of the bears still living in the wild survived. During the study the team handled a total of 43 female bear cubs and of those 28 (65 per cent) were dead before they reached 15 months of age.

Despite the bear being a protected species in Nevada, 89 bears were killed by vehicles, 27 by agency management actions for public safety, 17 for attacks on livestock, two due to illegal killing, and 16 due to other causes - such as being humanely put down because of their poor condition.

The study found that bears who lived in urban areas weighed an average of 30 per cent more than bears in wild areas due to a diet heavily supplemented by scavenged rubbish. As a result female bears give birth at a much earlier age - on average between four and five years old, compared with seven to eight years for bears in wild areas. Some urban bears around the Lake Tahoe area even produced young as early as two to three years of age.

The scientists concluded there had been a dramatic and rapid ecological shift of bears from the wild to urban areas in only 10 years to the extent that they found only one wild bear in the Carson Range outside the state capital of Carson City where historically they had always existed.

WCS researcher Jon Beckmann, the study's lead author, said: "Urban areas are becoming the ultimate bear traps. Because of an abundant food source - namely garbage - bears are being drawn in from backcountry areas into urbanised landscapes where they meet their demise."

The WCS is studying the effects of urban sprawl on a variety of wildlife and habitats in north America and is working with local authorities to increase the use of bear-proof rubbish containers and improve education efforts to reduce human-bear conflicts.

First published in the Telegraph. Read the full story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poor Huckleberry Crop May Lead to Fewer Bear Cubs Next Spring

I’ve noticed while hiking in the high country this late summer and fall that something is notably missing – huckleberries. I’ve done a fair amount of hiking this year – on the PCT between Rainy Pass and the Canadian border, and closer to home on the northern and southern slopes of Mount Baker. Consistently I’ve seen small huckleberry crops in the alpine areas. I know the trails on the slopes of Mount Baker well, and my estimate is that the huckleberry crops there are 5-10% of a normal fall crop, depending on location. Aspect, shade / sun and soil are influencing factors in berry yields, but mostly the poor berry crop is a reflection of the late-arriving summer and unusual weather this year.

The fact that we are having a poor berry crop this year is contributing to increased human-bear conflicts in some instances. Bears are involved in something called “hyperphagia” in the late summer and fall. Hyperphagia is essentially a feeding frenzy to put on weight for the winter denning period. When food crops are scarce, such as they have been this year, bears can find human garbage, bird feeders, orchards and compost even more attractive than when there are good natural food supplies. In my experience the years with the most human-bear conflicts are the years when natural food supplies for bears are most limited.

A poor berry crop this year will result in some bears going into their dens under their ideal weight. For females who have been bred this summer who are underweight this may mean that they will come out of the den next spring without cubs. Bears have developed an evolutionary survival strategy called “delayed implantation.” What this means is that while breeding season is May through July, the fertilized egg is not implanted until the female goes into the den in October or November. If a bred female goes into the den in poor physical condition the fertilized egg(s) will not be implanted, but will instead by sloughed off, and she will come out of the den the following spring without cubs.

Polar bears will likely suffer the same fate as receding sea ice due to global warming inhibits their ability to hunt seals. This is their primary food source and will result in decreased denning wieghts.

Interestingly I’m taking a class at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor to meet the continuing education requirements for my teaching certificate. Last week we had a guest speaker, Dr Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian who works for SeaDoc Society, come share information with us about Mustelids. (Mustilids are the largest family of carnivores and include river otter, sea otter, mink and about 60 other species.) I was fascinated to learn that many (maybe all) Mustelids also have delayed implantation. In the case of mink, fertilized eggs are not typically implanted until 30 days after breeding, and gestation is 27-33 days. Delayed implantation obviously has survival advantages or it would not have evolved, and I find it fascinating, amazing really.

Nan Laney, GBOP field coordinator

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

You make the call- Grizzly? or Black Bear?

Each year a fair number of people report seeing a grizzly bear in the North Cascades. Some even take photos. Field biologists from the various agencies and non-profits examine these photos to try and determine if indeed they are grizzly bears or just large brown black bears.

You be the referree. These photos were all recently submitted with sighting reports.

So, what features make a big brown bear a grizzly? Black bears and grizzlies overlap in both size and color.

Grizzlies have a large, defined shoulder hump. A big block head with small looking ears. Large claws, very large indeed. A face profile that is dished.

Black bears have a small or no defined hump. Large ears compared to their head size. A long snout that has a face profile that is straight. Claws that are rather small.

Most folks do not want to go up to the bear and examine it's claws. However a good track will tell you if the bear was a black bear or a grizzly.

Learn more at the GBOP website about identifying bears.

If you see a grizz, call 1.800.WOLFBEAR or report the sighting at the GBOP website.

Alas, none of these photos can be classified as a grizzly. Therefore, they are most likely large brown black bears.