Spring is here, Bear beware!

Photo by Shawn Stewart A healthy, handsome black bear from a prior season is bright eyed and alert.  

Spring is here this week, the snowmelt has started and throughout Carbon County that means bears will soon be awakening. The first grizzly was spotted last week in Yellowstone National Park. CCN checked in with local Red Lodge Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) biologist Shawn Stewart for an update on local activities. He reported, “There is no confirmed evidence of grizzlies moving about on the Beartooth Face yet this spring. However, in 2012 and 2013 we did have grizzlies out and about before March 15. Given the huge snowpack this year bears might be a little later leaving their dens but I doubt it will be much later especially with the warm weather and melting snow we have experienced this past week. Grizzly observations can be reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at 446-4150. Stewart added, “The deep snowpack and cold weather this winter has been hard on deer.

There will likely be quite a bit of carrion available for bears when they emerge from hibernation.” He advised active sportsmen and women, “When out hiking or late season skiing folks need to be watchful for carcasses, which are a major attractant to bears of both species. Carcasses should be avoided since grizzlies can be very protective of such a prime source of food. Carry bear spray in an easily accessible spot and know how to use it. Don't carry it in the bottom of your daypack and expect to be able to access it quickly. Always make noise as you hike or ski through areas with limited visibility. It is also time to make sure your bird feeders are inaccessible to bears and that your garbage cans are secure. A recent study shows that efforts are being made to encourage local black bear and grizzly populations. In YNP, it is anticipated that a lake trout cull could boost cutthroat and promote the local grizzlies by providing an additional food source. The study, “Contrasting Past and Current Number of Bears Visiting Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout Streams,” supports a multimillion-dollar effort to reduce invasive mackinaw in Yellowstone Lake. The paper was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in February.

“We suggest that the number of spawning trout per stream will have to reach approximately 400 fish per kilometer of stream before large numbers of grizzly and black bears once again specialize on this food,” Washington State University researcher and chief author Justin Teisberg wrote. “If the Yellowstone Lake cutthroat trout population can be recovered to such levels,” Teisberg wrote, “grizzly and black bears that still reside within the lake basin will readily find and use this high-quality food resource, potentially returning both species to higher use of backcountry habitat.” The number of grizzly bears using the stream corridors — for any reason — decreased by an estimated 63 percent between the turn-of-the-century study according to Teisberg’s study. Black bear use of the feeder streams decreased by “64 to 84 percent." “The relative abundance of cutthroat trout may influence bear mortality rates,” said the study. “For other major food items (e.g., whitebark pine nuts, ungulates and army cutworm moths), conflicts between grizzly bears and humans increase in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem during years of low availability but decrease when these preferred foods are abundant.” The study supports the premise that grizzly and black bears could relearn how to use cutthroat as a seasonal food source.

While Stewart found the study interesting, the Interagency Grizzly Study team member said that outside YNP in the Beartooths, he did not believe the practice could be repeated. “Most mountain lakes in the Beartooths do not support self sustaining cutthroat populations due to limited or non-existent spawning streams.  So there really is not much opportunity for grizzlies to take advantage of the fisheries in the Beartooths.” As far as grizzlies being in decline, a report in December, 2014 found they were doing just fine. A government-sponsored research team concluded there are no signs of decline among Yellowstone's grizzly bears as officials consider lifting the animals' federal protections — despite warnings from outside scientists that such a move would be premature. Members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team say in a new study that data collected on the threatened bruins over the past several decades contradict claims that the animals could be in serious trouble.

Researchers on the team re-examined how bears are counted after wildlife advocates and a prominent University of Colorado professor questioned the government's methods. The results confirm the validity of past assertions that more than 700 bears live in the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, lead author Frank van Manen said. The peer-reviewed study is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the scientific journal Conservation Letters. "The (grizzly bear) population growth has slowed down in the last decade, but is by all means a robust population right now," van Manen said. "Critiques in scientific efforts can be constructive. Because of this critique, we looked very hard at our own data ... It basically confirms what we had seen before." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are expected to soon announce whether grizzly bears should lose their threatened species. That would kick off a yearlong rulemaking process prior to a final decision in 2015. In the meantime, with a grizzly in every drainage around Red Lodge and black bears plentiful, keep garbage stowed, bear spray in hand when engaged in outdoor sports and be bear aware.