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Federal agencies fail grizzlies once again in the Upper Green

National Park Service

National Park Service

For the third time in five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increased the ‘incidental take,’ or the number of grizzly bears they anticipate will be killed, as a result of conflicts with livestock in the Upper Green area of the Bridger Teton National Forest in northwest Wyoming. The Upper Green has the highest number of conflicts in the entire Greater Yellowstone region, yet the agency has once again failed to require any meaningful measures to reduce those conflicts with livestock being grazed on public land. At least fifteen grizzly bears have been intentionally killed in the Upper Green because of conflicts with livestock since 2010.

Because Yellowstone grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), any federal action that could jeopardize the continued existence of the species and/or its habitat must be evaluated. If it is determined that the action (in this case, livestock grazing), will not jeopardize the species but could result in ‘take’ of the species, the take must be quantified and an exemption from the Act is granted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly raised the number of bears that can be killed in the Upper Green while failing yet again to require measures to reduce conflicts. The title itself of the just-released decision tells the story: “Biological Opinion for the 2014 Supplement to the 2013 Supplement and 2010 Amendment to the 1999 Biological Assessment for Livestock Grazing on the Northern Portions of the Pinedale Ranger District.” In 2011, the incidental take limit of six bears was exceeded the following year, even though the term of the take statement was 10 years, through 2020. In 2013, a new take statement upped the take to 11 bears, which was supposed to be through 2017, but by earlier this month, six grizzlies had already been killed. And now in 2014, the agency has allowed another 11 bears to be killed in the next three years. According to the agencies, the Yellowstone grizzly population is ‘recovered,’ (though it remains on the Endangered Species List), and the Upper Green grizzlies are viewed as ‘extra’ bears.

Sierra Club and several other non-governmental organizations are pushing the agencies for more requirements to actually reduce conflicts, instead of ignoring the problem and simply raising the take. The Forest Service, as the agency that grants grazing permits on the lands the agency manages, has the authority to require livestock producers to do more to reduce conflicts. So does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the ultimate authority over species protected under the ESA.  The only meaningful measure in recent years that has been required, night penning of sheep, has been effective in reducing conflicts when done correctly. Now, however nearly all the conflicts are with cattle, and nothing further is being required, or even attempted, by either agency to resolve conflicts between grizzlies and cattle.

Though every situation and landscape is unique, conflict reduction measures have been proven to work elsewhere. Altering grazing patterns, having more riders with livestock, use of guard dogs and other methods have been effective. Federal agencies and the producers who graze their cattle on public lands in the Upper Green should be actively working to find solutions instead of ignoring the problem and killing more bears, particularly a threatened species trying to survive on public lands. The Upper Green has more conflicts than anywhere else in Greater Yellowstone. This is where solutions are needed most. But unfortunately for grizzly bears, federal agencies have once again bowed to political pressure and increased the number of grizzly bears that can be killed in the Upper Green while avoiding the hard work of finding real and lasting solutions.

- Bonnie Rice, Senior Representative Our Wild America campaign

Additional background: 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased livestock-related incidental take of grizzly bears in the Upper Green: 

USFWS 1999 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 5 grizzly bears; met or exceeded.

USFWS 2011 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2011-2020: 6 grizzly bears within any 3 consecutive years; exceeded in 2012.

USFWS Amended Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, September 2012 through 2012 grazing season: 3 grizzly bears

USFWS 2013 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2013-2017: 11 grizzly bears in any 3 consecutive years, with no more than 3 of the 11 being females; 6 bears, including 2 females, killed by August 2014. 

USFWS 2014 Biological Opinion/Incidental Take Statement, 2014-2019: 11 grizzly bears in any 3 consecutive years

 

 

 

 

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Speaking Francly

by Phil Knight

Francs

Francs Peak

Francs Peak, monarch of the Absaroka Range, tops thirteen thousand feet on the high divide between the Greybull and Wood Rivers. Walking the summit ridge with Kim Wilbert and Bryce Born this month, I could cast my vision across vast, remote mountain country, some of the wildest and least known terrain in the lower 48. “Bryce, check it out! It’s a grizzly!” I pointed down the steep west slope of Francs to a brown, moving blob in the talus. “Sure enough, and she’s got a cub!” Bryce exclaimed. Just then, Kim, a little bit behind us on the ridge, peered through his spotting scope and exclaimed “Guys, I’ve got seven grizzlies!!”

Grizzlies

Looking down the west side of Francs Peak at grizzly bears feeding on moths

 

The bears were gathered on these steep slopes to gobble up fat army cutworm moths, one of their most important food sources. As we looked around we found grizzly scat right on the summit ridge. Gazing down at a huge boar on on a snowfield a quarter mile below us, we hoped he would stay down there.

Summit Ridge

Kim Wilbert and Bryce Born approach the summit of Francs Peak, with Washakie Needles in the distance

We’d approached the peak from the Wood River and base camped in the gorgeous Meadow Creek Basin. Coyotes howled at us, mule deer bucks bedded down by the krummholz, a bull elk showed off his growing rack, and a nasty hail and thunder storm blasted us in the evening, giving Kim a serious pummeling as he was hanging our food. We woke at 4 AM to a full moon and more howling, and summited before 9 AM, seeking to beat the afternoon storms.

Difficult access keeps this place pretty quiet. Yet it’s not designated Wilderness, and the Shoshone National Forest has some hair brained scheme to increase off road vehicle us here. The terrain is not suited to such – it’s extremely steep and cliffy – and such a spectacular place surely deserves better than more over-priced toys spewing exhaust and tearing up trails.

It seemed early in the season for bears to be eating moths. But some of their other food sources are getting harder to find. Cutthroat trout are being devoured by invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Elk herds have diminished, partly due to predation by bears. Whitebark pines, source of nourishing pine nuts, are succumbing to the quadruple threat of blister rust, pine bark beetles, wildfire and extreme weather (avalanches and windstorms).

This is Bryce and Kims’ stomping ground, but I had not been in the South Absaroka since 1991. Since then, forests across the region have been devastated by insects and fire. In the upper Wood River, most of the spruce forests is toast – the ghost town of Kirwin is surrounded by the bleak, grey trunks of a once-thriving forest. This is some of the worst forest die off I’ve seen anywhere. It’s like a hot, evil wind has blasted the land, killing off the larger trees en masse.

Kirwin

Dead spruce forest above the ghost town of Kirwin in the upper Wood River

 

Even here, far from the teaming human hordes, the impacts of industrial, petroleum-based civilization is imprinted on the land. Yet get above treeline, and it feels as wild as any place I have been. Wilderness hangs on despite our best efforts to tame everything. Bears find food and increase their numbers, even when some of their favorite foods are nearly gone. Nature is resilient, and the weeds and wilderness long will live.

As I was driving out though the gorgeous Wood River valley, a huge, dark bull moose appeared along the road, and as I stopped the car he ran right past me. His noble presence could not have offered a more dramatic contrast to the noisy, ugly oil pumpjacks lining the road. The moose jumped one fence, crossed the road behind me, jumped another, and, skirting the pumpjacks, made it to the sanctuary of the Wood River.

Moose

Bull moose dodges pumpjacks in the lower Wood River Valley

 

The harder we press it, the more nature will respond. The question is, how will it respond? With resilience, or with diminishment? And how far can we push the resilient side of nature, before it bites back?

Phil Knight is a thirty year resident of Greater Yellowstone and a member of the delivery team for the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign.

 

 

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Passing the Point of Nature’s Resilience?

Originally in thinking about what to write, I sat down to write a warm fuzzy holiday post. However, recent media headlines keep creeping into my mind:  “Methane Emissions Double EPA Estimates,” “CO2 at 400ppm,” “Ocean Acidification,” as well as previous posts on this site such as Phil Knight’s excellent one on the plight of one of the gems of the GYE’s subalpine ecosystem; the whitebark pine.

This deluge of dismal news is not easy for me to digest. Therefore, I am going to break from this blog’s usual animal-centric adventure with a metaphorical connection to what’s going on in the GYE.  Although, what I am about to say is definitely going on in the GYE.

I’m going to talk about the atmosphere – you know, the cleansing crisp cobalt blue we breathe deep into our lungs, while out exploring some wild corner of a mountain top. Whilst we bask in the glories of our own personal wilderness connections, we should contemplate the loss of these soul-lifting experiences with a fresh set of eyes. During these reviving experiences, if one takes time, one may also bear witness to an unfolding trauma, a dis-ease that at first glance does not cry out to the casual observer. Rather it is insidiously growing across numerous interconnected ecosystems across the globe. No system of intricate evolving parts is ever wholly stable, but a working system grows in fits and starts, trial and error, natural selection and unnatural discards. Science refers to this ability of an ecosystem to absorb and recover from upheaval as “resilience.” Thus, (a simplified example) the GYE’s forests have evolved to bounce back from fire, new and improved, rejuvenated for the better, having been conditioned by eons of fire. This symbiosis recycles nutrients released by fire and returns the released energy (in many forms) to adjust the processes of natural selection upon an evolving forest ecosystem. Science also tells us that a systems diversity of species is the lynchpin of this resilience. This malleable ability for life to thrive under change across every niche on this blue orb is truly amazing.

There is just one juggernaut of a problem with the current nutrient recycling resilience of the planet today. The planet is losing its resilience. As myriad species are winking out of existence we scramble to catalog them into neat little sterile packages. This juggernaut, this asteroid, this tectonic cataclysm is of course ourselves. All 7+ billion of us jockeying for a better position on this crashing biological locomotive, tightly gripping our modern partner in crime, unmitigated atmospheric CO2. And our exhaled resolve to continue on this speeding train is impacting us all. The logarithmically rapid rise in our society’s exhaled atmospheric CO2, (methane, nitrous oxide, CFC’s among others) is an unsustainable, physical, chemical, biological and physiological extreme comparable to a planet-wide geological cataclysm. This unmitigated CO2 release is now ubiquitous enough that science predicts it to remain as a centuries-long heating of our atmosphere. The lungs of the planet, of which countless life forms are reliant on for every breath of cell metabolism is being charred black. We are no longer witness to the extinction of just individual species, but entire concomitant ecosystems with thousands if not millions (counting microbes) of species winking out of existence in our lifetimes.

Yes, we environmentally attuned recognize these tumors on the land when we see them. We hold them up before the wider public like a radiologist holds up a lighted X-ray film and points to the cancer. Yet even in the remotest recesses of the planet there grows a cancer, the catalyst CO2, triggering myriad destructive forces all across the planet. The Great Barrier Reef, Boreal Forest, Tropical Forest, Alpine Ecosystems, Deep Ocean Currents, Arctic Ocean, African Savannah, Tundra Permafrost, Mangrove Swamps, Marine Fisheries, The Atmosphere, The Jetstream, and on and on. Every ecosystem on the planet is under severe duress due to human caused climate change. Worldwide the scientific community (IPCC, NOAA, NASA, UNEP, etc.)  is more certain of this than medicine is certain that cigarette smoke causes cancer. The planet is in the first throes of a multi-system organ failure, with tendrils of elevated CO2 acting like metastatic tumors. Eventually deforming every ecosystem on the planet into an unrecognizable shell of its former diverse glory.

So, what are we, (humanity) doing about it? As the cliff approaches, governments seem paralyzed not to pull the emergency brake on this speeding soot belching locomotive. In the absence of leadership from our elected officials on climate change, people across the country are taking action at the local level. The Sierra Club is leading thousands of dedicated activists on multiple fronts to put the brakes on the climate change train. Our Beyond Coal campaign has been instrumental in closing 150 coal plants and counting. In Idaho, Beyond Coal activists recently voiced our opinion and won a Public Utilities Commission decision against Idaho Power’s efforts to invest 130+million in dirty coal. Many other actions are being taken by thousands of people to fight climate change across the country. Fabulous and encouraging work, yes. However, I am still worried that our daunting task will result in a fatalistic attitude, slowly becoming the status quo as we witness a planetary wide ecosystem collapse. I am not saying it is time to jump train and throw up our hands in failure. Instead I am saying it is time to step back, take a second look at the possibility that our movement is trending towards complacency. I do not want the movement to wither as our remaining planetary genome is stored in some sterile test tube vault.

Bill McKibben recently wrote the following in Orion, “ After a certain point, an ongoing crisis just becomes life; when a scorched earth becomes the new normal, when people can’t remember the old climate, outrage and alarm give way to resigned acceptance.” This eco-warrior seems worried as well and seems to be warning us not to throw up our hands in defeat, just yet. When I contemplate the possibility that we will “not remember the old climate” and all of its beautiful accoutrements I am scared as hell.

My reason for writing this post is to elicit the start of a conversation, an ongoing dialog, to engage in the better understanding of our fears and hopes towards protecting one of the greatest wild places left on Earth – the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In doing so maybe we will come to more fully understand why we work and toil under such Herculean odds as activists. After all, we have been dealt a task almost beyond human comprehension, so let us stoke the green fires that reside in us all.

I dedicate this piece to the GYE species in peril:

Grizzly bear, wolf, Canada lynx, wolverine, fisher, American marten, river otter, black footed ferret, pika, pygmy rabbit, black tailed prairie dog, N. Goshawk, boreal owl, burrowing owl, flammulated owl, sage grouse, Clarks nutcracker, three toed woodpecker, black backed woodpecker, yellow billed cuckoo, Lewis woodpecker, Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit, Whitebark pine, alpine wildflowers, and the list goes on.

 Rich Rusnak

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Mining for Moths

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As we crested a windswept 11,500’ ridge in the southeast Absarokas, one of my hiking companions Don, exclaimed, “Guys, there’s a bear!”  Sure enough, a careful look with good binoculars revealed two adult grizzly bears on a steep talus slope about a half mile away.  We tried to slip back over the ridge, but in spite of the large distance, the bears spooked and headed for the timber below their slope. As we got out onto the east side of the peak we hoped to summit that morning, we realized there were three more bears working a talus slope at 12,000’.  Again, even though we spotted the bears at great distance, the sow and two yearling cubs sensed us and fled their feast.  As we climbed further up the peak, we traversed high steep talus slopes that were covered with “moth mines” – the 5’ across, 2’deep holes that were everywhere in the talus.  This was not terrain you would choose to travel across unless you were trying to scramble up the peak.  The diggings, as well as the abundant bear dung, were evidence that we had invaded a very heavily used late summer moth site for grizzly bears. 

Since those bear sightings, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. David Mattson talk about bears and their food sources.  Bears have lost three of their four top food sources, with moths being the only one of those top foods left. Our wonderful bear sightings demonstrate the bear’s new dependence on cutworm moths for food, and how exposed to observation this behavior makes the bears.

Dr. Mattson’s research has clearly demonstrated the importance of late summer diet to the ability of breeding sow bears to be able to produce 2 or 3 cubs, which are the numbers required for the tenuous Yellowstone bear population to maintain present numbers.  Because of the disappearance of other desirable food sources, many bears in this population now are dependent on small moths that migrate from great distances each summer to the alpine zones of the Rocky Mountains. Further, the great bears must spend all day excavating these insects on totally exposed rock slopes.

I’ve also begun to understand that current grizzly bear population modeling is likely leading to inflated estimates. One big change in the way bears are counted is that the number of reconnaissance flights has increased substantially, up to three times more flights per year!  I’ve hunted quite a little, and have always noticed the amount of wildlife one sees is directly proportional to the time spent in the field.  I would think the same would apply to aerial surveys.  When you add the fact that bears are increasingly spending more and more time on totally exposed alpine slopes to the fact that the time spent looking has tripled, it seems obvious that bear counts will rise.  Just as we saw a lot of grizzly bears on our hike this summer, more frequent flights in late summer are going to see more bears because the bears have to be out on those open slopes to find the food that will get them ready for winter. 

The other lesson from our Absaroka hike this summer is that, in the future, I will be prepared to change trip routes and plans if I spot bears trying to eke a living out of the alpine zone.  We caused at least six bears to interrupt and flee their chosen food sources by hiking and climbing on the same mountain at the same time that they were using those sites.  When I saw the moth mining zone above 12,000’, I realized that grizzly bears are presently at the extreme fringes of available food sources.  I wish we had not disturbed their industrious food gathering on that mountain side. I have said many times in the past that the ideal bear sighting is at large distance above timber line.  After our experiences this summer, I realize those sightings are not necessarily ideal for the bears.

The importance of establishing every level of protection possible for lands like where we hiked last summer is paramount.  It is at the edges of the GYE where populations of threatened species like grizzly bears need security to expand their ranges.   I will alter my recreational goals in the future to be less intrusive in these special places.

Kim Wilbert – Sierra Club member, Riverton, WY

 

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All Hail the Noble Whitebark

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by Phil Knight

Climb into the high country of the Yellowstone ecosystem, and you enter the realm of the Whitebark pine (Pinus albicans). Long-lived, slow-growing, sturdy and hardy, these iconic trees are an integral part of Greater Yellowstone’s mountain ecosystem. Unfortunately, they are now going the way of the dinosaurs. According to USGS biologist David Mattson, in 10 to 15 years the whitebark will be functionally extinct in Greater Yellowstone.

If you have eyes in your head, when you enter a Whitebark pine forest you can see the results of climate change – the needles on the Whitebark trees are a rusty red, if indeed they have any needles left at all. Look across a high elevation forest from a peak in the Absaroka or Gallatin range, and you see red everywhere. It’s like a giant industrial dragon has blasted the wildest, most remote and inaccessible regions of Greater Yellowstone with its foul breath.

Whitebarks grow only at high elevations in western North America, and are sometimes referred to as “stone pines.” These five-needle pines are often found in association with dark, pointy Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and are closely related to Limber pine (Pinus flexilis). The only way to reliably tell Whitebarks from Limbers is by their cones. Limbers have large, woody cones, the largest of any tree in Greater Yellowstone, while Whitebarks produce small, sticky purple cones which, when ripe, are loaded with edible pine nuts. Whitebarks grow fat and short, forming bushy growth that is often made up of several trunks. Stout trees like these tend to hold snow in drifts, helping conserve snowpack and lengthen the time it takes to melt off, thus preserving high-country snows into summer.

Whitebark pine nuts are the most important food source for grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone. This is a unique association between bears and trees, with help from squirrels and Clark’s Nutcrackers that collect and store the seeds and cones. Bears depend in a big way on these rich, fatty pine nuts to make it through hibernation.

I am baffled by how the US Fish and Wildlife Service can claim Yellowstone area grizzly bears are ready to “delist” (remove from the Endangered Species List) when their most important, widespread food source is going away.

Since the 1980s, Whitebarks (and Limbers) have been dying across the Yellowstone Ecosystem from a combination of an invasive pathogen called white pine blister rust, an epidemic of pine bark beetles, and extreme weather events. The blister rust, while not a symptom of climate change, did result from human meddling (it probably got to North America on a shipment of plants from Asia). The bark beetles, however, have invaded the Whitebark forest solely due to warming temperatures. These native insects normally cannot survive the cold winters at high elevations in the Rockies. Ironically, climate change is happening faster at higher elevations (and higher latitudes), thus allowing the beetles to attack Whitebarks that have little defense against them. The one-two punch of beetles and blister rust is delivering the death blow to these spectacular trees.

Few scientists predicted the swiftness of the demise of the whitebarks. Climate change is, if anything, stochastic in its symptoms. Attempting to predict the rate and the effects of climate change and related events is like trying to predict which way the cars on a crashing train will roll. The rapid demise of the Whitebark puts the lie to forest management “experts” who claim that human interference in forested ecosystems, mainly thinning and logging, can bring about an improvement in forest health. In truth, forest ecosystems are more complex than we can know, and the added chaos of climate change is leading to unpredictable consequences.

In the 1990s my wife and I hiked the Indian Ridge trail into the Spanish Peaks Wilderness of Montana. We walked through what may have been the most beautiful Whitebark forest we had ever seen, and called it the “Enchanted Forest.” When I backpacked that trail in 2012, the Whitebark forest was unrecognizeable. All the trees were dead and most had blown over, forcing trail crews to recut the trail through all the dead trunks. Elsewhere on Indian Ridge, another patch of healthy whitebarks had been destroyed by a recent avalanche. Extreme weather events like windstorms, avalanches and severe wildfire are also taking out whitebarks, which grow so slowly that, even were they to grow back, it could take a century to replace a ruined forest. I did, amazingly, find some healthy patches of Whitebark high on Indian Ridge, loaded with sticky purple cones and that, of course, is where I found fresh bear tracks on the trail.

Forest destruction like that I saw on Indian Ridge is shocking and produces a visceral reaction in me. It’s like witnessing the loss of something you never knew how much you loved until it was gone. It’s also an in-your-face display of the power of human-induced climate change, a process that is ramping up as we draw well past the 400 ppm mark of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere.

Trees, bears, squirrels, birds, humans…which will be the next to face the abyss of extinction? Or can we, the only species with power to decide, amend our wasteful ways for the sake of all?

Phil Knight is a long time Sierra Club member and local organizer, conservationist, guide, naturalist and author of two books about traveling and living in the backcountry.

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Yellowstone Grizzlies Must Be Fully Recovered Before Federal Protections Are Removed

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Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Last week I attended the biannual meeting of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee (YES) of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. YES is comprised primarily of representatives from federal and state agencies charged with grizzly bear recovery and management. This was a pivotal meeting, as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team revealed results of its long-awaited analysis of grizzly bear foods. The Study Team began the analysis nearly two years ago after a court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had not adequately justified its conclusion that the steep decline of whitebark pine throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem would not adversely affect the survival of the grizzly bear, when the agency removed the Yellowstone grizzly from the Endangered Species List.

Over the past 18 months, the Study Team has conducted research to determine what foods grizzlies may be substituting for whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout (two of four major grizzly foods rich in protein that have steeply declined in the past decade), and how the bears are faring. A key question is whether those alternative foods pack the same kind of calories and nutrition that the bears need to maintain healthy reproductive and survival rates. The Study Team’s preliminary conclusions are that grizzlies are finding comparable foods and that the leveling off of the growth rate over the past decade is not so much due to the decline of whitebark pine, but rather because we’ve reached the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for grizzly bears.[1] Based on these preliminary findings, federal agencies are gearing up to again propose removing federal protections from Yellowstone grizzly bears.

If bears are indeed doing fine, that’s good news. However, the Study Team’s results are preliminary — much of the research is still being reviewed by other scientists – and significant questions about the status and trends of the Yellowstone grizzly population have not yet been answered. Last summer, research by Dan Doak and Kerry Cutler[2] raised serious questions about the federal government’s grizzly population estimates and asserted that the population may actually be in decline. Federal agencies dispute this, but have not released the data that their (higher) population estimates are based on, so their conclusions of a healthy grizzly population cannot be independently verified. Also, a key study that looks at where alternative foods are located has not yet been completed by the Study Team as part of its analysis. Whitebark pine lives at high elevations that keep bears away from people; switching to other foods – whether elk killed by hunters, or backyard bird feeders — could bring bears into closer proximity to humans, resulting in a much higher risk of conflicts and mortalities. There may be substitute foods, but if grizzlies die at a higher rate when trying to utilize those foods, that’s important to know.

Additionally, in its analysis the Study Team saw a decline in the percent of body fat for females, which directly affects reproductive capacity, from 2007-2010. This result could be the result of the study’s small sample size; as the Study Team notes “ Clearly, additional research is required to ascertain if this downward trend is in fact real….”[3] , but it adds to the uncertainty about trends in the grizzly population and the need for taking a closer look.

One of the biggest issues that must be resolved, in order for the Yellowstone grizzly population to be fully recovered, is the geographic isolation of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. At the YES meeting government scientists confirmed that there has been no genetic exchange between Yellowstone grizzlies and any other grizzly bear population. Think of an island of 500-600 people that never has any new migrants: it doesn’t bode well for the long-term health of the population. It’s the same with bears. Right now, the government’s plan to get around this problem is to truck in a bear every 10 years or so from another grizzly population to Yellowstone. Such ‘solutions’ are not true recovery.  Natural connectivity must be established between Yellowstone and other populations, like Northern Continental Divide grizzlies, and habitat protections must be extended outside the current core area to include these linkage zones.

Despite this list of uncertainties and lack of connectivity between populations, the majority of YES members voted to conditionally approve the Study Team’s conclusions (provided no substantive issues come up in the scientific review of its analysis that is currently underway) and thus begin the process of once again removing Endangered Species Act protections from the Yellowstone grizzly.

Sierra Club believes the risk of removing federal protections for the Yellowstone grizzly is too great at this time. There must be a higher degree of confidence in the actual status and trends of the grizzly population. There must be a greater understanding of where alternative foods are, and what the increased risk is to grizzlies attempting to utilize these foods. The Yellowstone population needs to be connected naturally to other populations in order to ensure the long-term genetic health of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. And habitat protections must be extended to areas critical to grizzlies’ ability to find food and mates in an ecosystem that is being significantly affected by climate change, development, and other factors.

Misguided decisions and the premature removal of endangered species protections could quickly have a severe impact on grizzly bears, undoing decades of recovery efforts. Grizzlies are the 2nd slowest reproducing mammal in North America – females are typically at least 5 years of age before they reproduce; they only have litters once every 3 years, and generally a litter is 1 to 2 cubs. So we too must move slowly. Grizzlies are the ultimate symbol of wildness and one of the animals we treasure most. Their comeback since the 1970s has been a success that we need to keep moving forward. If the Study Team is right, and the Yellowstone grizzly population is healthy and bears are able to find adequate substitute foods and thrive, then that is indeed a cause for celebration. But let’s make sure they are truly recovered before we take away the very protections that have saved them from extinction.

Bonnie Rice, Senior Representative – Greater Yellowstone

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[1] It is unclear how the IGBST is differentiating foods from carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is related to available foods; if key food sources are declining, the carrying capacity of the ecosystem is reduced.

[2] Doak, D. F. and Cutler, K. (2013), Re-evaluating evidence for past population trends and predicted dynamics of Yellowstone grizzly bears. Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12048

[3] Schwartz et al (2013), Body and Diet Composition of Sympatric  Black and Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Journal of Wildlife Management DOI: 10.1002/jwmg..633

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Of Moths and Grizzlies

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USGS photo

How does a moth from eastern Montana prairies feed grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE)?  When I think of grizzly bear foods, I tend to think of berries, carrion, trout and whitebark pine nuts, but recent research shows that equally important to GYE griz is a moth called the army cutworm moth. These moths gather in the mountains in the GYE above 9000 feet in the late summer/early fall to find food and put on fat to support the development of eggs and power them on their return to the lowlands. That is pretty strange by itself, bears weighing hundreds of pounds depending on moths that might be an ounce or less, but studies show grizzlies can eat 40,000 of these moths a day! That is 20,000 kilocalories per day or the equivalent of 62.5 fast food cheeseburgers. No wonder grizzlies intent on packing on the fat for the winter search out the swarms of these moths in the mountains.

A study just completed found that GYE army cutworm moths fly from agricultural lands spanning Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in search of food. They seek the flowers found at higher elevations later in the season when lowland flowers have withered in the heat. This justifies the energy they spend gaining 8000 plus feet in elevation and traveling hundreds of miles in some cases. The moths gather in talus slopes to hide during the day and emerge to feed and mate at night. Grizzlies seek out their hiding spots and turn over rocks to find concentration of the fat-filled bugs (up to 83% fat). Who knew a bug could hold so many calories!? The surviving adults return to the lowlands to lay eggs that lead to the emergence of caterpillars on wheat and oat crops in eastern Montana.

There are dozens of moth sites in the eastern mountain ranges of the GYE. With so many grizzly foods like whitebark pine nuts and cutthroat trout on the wane, protecting this food source becomes critical. Observations indicate that grizzlies will abandon moth sites if they encounter humans, even hikers. Some guides in GYE are already aware and avoid sites they know about, but keeping these sites available to griz will be all the more important in the coming years.

By Len Broberg

Len photo

Len has been a Montana Sierra Club member since 1995 and has served as the Chair of the Bitterroot-Mission Group and Montana Chapter executive committee. He is currently a member of the Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone Campaign’s Delivery Team and the Wildlands and Wilderness Activist Team. Len is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana.

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The Forest Service Should Listen to the People

 Guest Comment – Hap Ridgway

            As the Shoshone National Forest nears finalization of its new management plan, it is worth taking a moment to look at the thousands of public comments received by the Forest Service and to understand the public interests expressed in those comments. 

            We all understand Wyoming’s commitment to conservative values, but in the upside-down world of today’s politics we might forget that those same values apply to the care of our national forests.

            Our first great conservationist president, Teddy Roosevelt, was a Republican who had a strong personal connection to the Shoshone National Forest; the United States Forest Service was founded during Roosevelt’s presidency and the Shoshone National Forest was our country’s first national forest.

            Conserving our national forests for all Americans, present and future, is not an alien idea in Wyoming, and comments from Wyoming residents on the management plan show this:  of the 410 letters submitted by Wyoming residents, 75% of those who commented on motorized use wanted no expansion of the areas for such use, 90% of wilderness comments supported more wilderness areas, and 98% of comments on oil and gas opposed surface development on the Shoshone.

            This strong Wyoming support for conservation may surprise some readers, but it has a long history in Park County, where I live.  More than 30 years ago, concerned citizens formed the Northwest Resource Council to battle surface oil development on the Shoshone.  In 1980s and 1990s, local zoning helped protect natural values of the Shoshone National Forest and the Absaroka Mountains.

            More recently, Cody developed two long-range plans with a consistent conservation voice: Vision 2007 followed by Cody 2020.  During the Cody 2020 planning process, 1700 local residents identified recreation, open space, the environment, and small town lifestyle  as their most important values.

            Make no mistake: conservation may not be the loudest voice in Wyoming, but it is deeply and strongly rooted. The comments to the Forest Service should surprise no one.

            The Forest Service also received individual comment letters from 655 people who don’t live in Wyoming but who care enough about the future of the Shoshone to write.

            The support for conservation is equally strong within and without Wyoming:  of the total 1065 individual comments, 70% broadly supported conservation measures, 74% of motorized comments opposed additional motorized areas, 92% of wilderness comments supported additional wilderness, and 99% of oil and gas comments opposed surface development.

            The Forest Service received over 22,000 more comments submitted through organizations.  Combining all comments, 98% favored the priorities of conservation.

            That would seem to be an overwhelming mandate, but the Forest Service discounts the organizationally driven responses as less meaningful.

            Most people don’t have the time or opportunity to attend public hearings, read hundreds of pages of planning documents, and compose individual comments; it’s no surprise that many turn to organizations they trust, on either side of the debate, for guidance.

            Regardless of how they are submitted, these people’s opinions matter, and their voices need to be heard and respected.

            It’s also important to note how much outpouring of interest came from outside Wyoming, from the well of past and future visitors to our state.

            The importance of tourism to Wyoming – from auto tours to guest ranches to ice climbing to wildlife watching to museum visits to water rafting – increases every year.  In 2011, Yellowstone National Park’s three million visitors spent more than $300 million in communities around the Park and generated more than 5,000 jobs.

            The beautiful little secret about conservation, especially in a state with Wyoming’s great natural beauty, is that it is a terrific economic engine. If we sustain that resource, it will sustain us.  It is the ultimate renewable resource that will last not just a few years or a few decades; it can power and support Wyoming as far as the mind’s eye can see.

            I hope the Forest Service, as it puts the finishing touches on the Shoshone Forest management plan, will pay close attention to the strong conservation voice revealed in the public comments.

            The Forest Service’s website proclaims its commitment to “100 years Caring for the Land and Serving the People.” These are proud words, and many people agree that the organization has met this commitment over the last century.

            This new management plan will take us well into the next century. The people of Wyoming and the United States have strongly voiced their preference for conservation, and their desire mirrors the Forest Service’s stated commitment to care for the land.

Hap Ridgway lives in the Sunlight Basin near Cody Wyoming, where he and his family have owned and operated Elk Creek Ranch, a ranch and wilderness program for teenagers, since the 1950s.  Hap’s Guest Editorial was published in the Casper Star Tribune on September 21, 2013.

 

 

 

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Protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse

By Rich Rusnak – Idaho Chapter Executive Committee and Greater Yellowstone Campaign Volunteer

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An ocean of sagebrush borders the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) on several fronts. These often unappreciated lands lie in the shadow of Yellowstone’s majestic peaks and thermal and megafauna drama. In the not too distant past, these lonely steppes of sage held most of the GYE’s megafauna in an ages-old cycle of migration, supporting both predator and prey in an abundance we can scarcely imagine today.

ImageAlong with the thousands of bison and pronghorn migrating from winter to summer range, there also thronged a shy and graceful creature in synchronous abundance – a creature solely reliant on an undisturbed expanse of sagebrush. Once numbering in the tens of millions, today the Greater Sage-Grouse survives on dwindling broken habitat separated from the core GYE by myriad habitat degradations. The sage grouse (centrocercus urophasianus) population is under intense pressure from all sides, natural and unnatural. From coyotes to magpies, natural predators are ever present in the life cycle of sage grouse. Human encroachment has altered the landscape systemically, all seeming to affect the sage grouse life cycle in some way.

Collectively, mega fires, invasive plants, fences, buildings, power poles, irrigation structures and millions of livestock all break down the continuity of cover that sage grouse rely on for completing their lifecycle. With a lack of adequate nesting cover, the brooding chicks are easy prey and habitat degradation results in a high loss of juvenile birds. Successful brood rearing is directly related to availability of taller, dense herbaceous cover provided by an unbroken artemesia plant community. Simply put, the more cover, the harder it is for predators to find the vulnerable ground-nesting sage grouse during the critical chick rearing period.

I once observed this predator vs. prey drama unfold while in sagebrush country. Out of curiosity I stopped to watch a Northern Harrier’s repeated swooping dives into a heavily roaded, sage-covered hill. After several aggressive attempts, I saw a very agile hen sage grouse bolt skyward to intercept the persistent raptor. I had never seen a sage grouse fly straight skyward, but this hen seemed desperate in her determination to pummel this predator. The Harrier persisted its swooping dives, easily avoiding the frantic grouse’s counterattack. After several minutes of back and forth aggression, the hawk’s harrying paid off. A chick bolted away from the brush on weak, shallow wingbeats. Seemingly without missing  a beat of its rhythmic attack, the hawk plucked the inexperienced chick from midair and disappeared over a rise. A Harrier by trade indeed. I have to wonder if this ages-old fight for survival would have been different had there been no roads, and thus heavier cover and continuity of habitat in which the chicks could hide. Nor will I ever know if this was the last chick of her brood. Were they all picked off due to the influence of a degraded habitat? I waited to see the survivors but experienced only a silence and absence of motion after the event passed.

In sagebrush country, there is a new urgency to help the sage grouse before it may become listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Federal and state agencies are developing various recovery plans for this stunningly beautiful bird in an attempt to preclude ESA listing. The Federal agency responsible for recovery of species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is reviewing several western states’ plans and will determine whether the states are providing adequate recovery of the sage grouse. The USFWS is required to make a decision in 2015 on whether to propose protecting the sage grouse under the ESA.

There is hope, as the Sierra Club and many other groups are working to influence policy and sage grouse recovery plans, and to do on-the-ground work to aid sage grouse recovery.

On the western flanks of the GYE and just south of the Continental Divide, the Sierra Club is working with The Nature Conservancy to remove fencing and hang warning flags acrossImage miles of barbed wire fence in sage grouse habitat. The flags flash white at the slightest breeze, and alert the sage grouse, which are prone to crash into the top fence wires during bad weather or panicked flight. This unfamiliarity with structures seems to be killing a large number of sage grouse. They are vulnerable while moving between spring habitat used during lekking (mating) activity and the more protected summer ranges. ImageThe hens and chicks are especially at risk while traveling up mountains through degraded and sparse habitat. Our efforts offer some help along their short yet susceptible migration through the sage brush steppes toward the GYE’s Continental Divide in the Centennial mountain range that divides Montana and Idaho.

If you would like more information, please see the following links:

http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/04/24/2549175/sage-grouse-need-habitat-and-solitude.html

http://www.npr.org/2013/07/10/200376654/in-montana-wilds-an-unlikely-alliance-to-save-the-sage-grouse

http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Centrocercus+urophasianus

http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/pressrel/2013/03252013_COT.html

http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/wildlife/?getPage=310

If you would like to volunteer or share thoughts with us on sage grouse protection, please contact the following:

Wyoming.sierraclub.org or WY Chapter of Sierra Club 307-742-0056, 307-733-4557

Montana.sierraclub.org or MT Chapter of Sierra Club  406-582-8365

Idaho.sierraclub.org or ID Chapter of Sierra Club  208-384-1023

The Nature Conservancy, Flat Ranch at  mward@tnc.org

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Is Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population declining?

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

A new study raises serious questions about the health of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and consequently, whether federal Endangered Species Act protections should be removed.

Federal scientists with U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) studying the bears have long held that the population grew at a rate of 4-7% from 1983-2001. More recently, USFWS scientists have acknowledged that the growth rate has slowed, but assert that it is because the population has met its “carry capacity” i.e. the maximum number of bears that the ecosystem can support. From a low of approximately 150-200 bears when they were placed under ESA protection in 1975, the USFWS now estimates that there are around 700 bears in the ecosystem.

However, new research by Dan Doak of the University of Colorado and Kerry Cutler of UC Berkeley  point out significant flaws in the methods used by federal scientists to estimate the Yellowstone population, and that these errors have led to inflated estimates of the overall growth rate in the past and  how many bears there are on the landscape.  Since the 1980s when USFWS began aerial flights to monitor the bears, the agency has greatly increased ‘observer effort’ i.e. the amount of time they spent looking for bears. If you spend more time looking for bears, chances are you’ll see more bears.  Also, as a result of landscape changes affecting bears’ major food sources like whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout – both of which have steeply declined in the region in the past decade  – bears are now foraging for food in more open spaces, such as moth sites on talus mountain slopes, where they are much more visible. The authors assert that neither of these ‘sightability’ factors was adequately taken into account in USFWS’ past estimates of the population.

Secondly, Doak and Cutler’s research highlight the fact that the USFWS has relied on two flawed assumptions in estimating the number of bears: that all bears live to the age of 30, and that they reproduce at a constant rate during that entire time.  In actuality, many bears don’t live for 30 years, and a 7-year-old bear’s reproductive rate can be very different than a 25 or 30-year-old bear. As the authors note, “there is clear evidence for both reproductive and survival senescence in grizzlies, including the GYE population,” however, inexplicably, senescence has not been taken into account in past and current estimates of the bear population.

When these factors are taken into account, the new study shows that the population may have grown very little over the past decades, and “it is quite likely that the population is now, in fact, declining.”

Based on an apparently inflated growth rate and current estimate of more than 700 bears in the ecosystem, the USFWS is again gearing up to delist the bear in 2014. In light of Doak and Cutler’s research, however, the agency should take a big step back and re-evaluate its flawed methodology – particularly in the face of declining food sources in the ecosystem and a lack of understanding on how those shifts in major food sources will impact the bears’ future. The Yellowstone grizzly is too treasured and plays too important of a role in this ecosystem for guesswork and flawed science.

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Bonnie Rice

Senior Representative, Greater Yellowstone

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