Mining for Moths


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


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


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


[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


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


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:

If you would like to volunteer or share thoughts with us on sage grouse protection, please contact the following: or WY Chapter of Sierra Club 307-742-0056, 307-733-4557 or MT Chapter of Sierra Club  406-582-8365 or ID Chapter of Sierra Club  208-384-1023

The Nature Conservancy, Flat Ranch at

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Is Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population declining?


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.


Bonnie Rice

Senior Representative, Greater Yellowstone

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Guest Columnist: Bison management out of touch with reality

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s Sunday paper.

By Zack Waterman, Glenn Hockett, Sabina Strauss, and Becky Weed, guest columnists


Photo of Dome Mountain bull bison courtesy of Jim Klyap, Dome Mountain Ranch manager.


On the morning of Friday, April 12, 2013, a bull bison was several miles north of Yellowstone National Park on the remote Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Unfortunately, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), with assistance from MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks responded to this situation by aggressively pursuing this lone bull and killing him.

After laying waste to the bull under the auspices of disease control, the DOL left the carcass to rot. This situation is particularly troubling given the DOL knows bull bison pose no risk of transmission of brucellosis to domestic cattle, not to mention the fact the Dome Mountain “Wildlife Management Area” was purchased specifically to provide habitat for migrating wildlife in an area that is completely free of cattle. Furthermore, there were no conflicts with private property as the adjacent Dome Mountain Ranch has already made it clear that bison are welcome to use their land just like elk, mule deer, grizzly bears, and other wildlife that live in Greater Yellowstone.

In an effort to justify this extreme response, Department of Livestock chief executive officer Christian MacKay explained the bull had to be lethally removed because he was outside of the bison “tolerance zone.”

When government agencies slaughter a bison in a remote area that was posing no threat whatsoever to livestock, private property, or public safety, it’s time to revisit how we manage migrating bison in Montana.

Let’s begin by abandoning the assumption that all bison that leave the state’s negligibly small “bison tolerance zone” are de facto problems that must be immediately removed. We agree that we do not want cattle to contract brucellosis. But can we also agree to manage bison as valued native Montana wildlife, at least on some public lands owned by all Americans?

The good news is there are many public lands like the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area that are located outside of the state’s arbitrary “bison tolerance zone” that provide critical winter habitat for elk – and they can do the same for bison without harming private property. Each year approximately $3 million of taxpayer dollars are spent to remove migrating bison from public lands in Montana. In an era when Americans are tightening their belts and national debt continues to grow, it’s nonsensical to waste limited taxpayer resources.

Elk from Yellowstone National Park have migrated and wintered in this same area for years. Grizzly bears and wolves also use the same area. Now a lone bull bison found this conflict-free habitat near Dome Mountain and the DOL needlessly intervened and killed it. What gives? It’s time for a new approach that takes meaningful steps towards managing bison as valued native wildlife while respecting both public and private property rights. Let these animals show us the way to a habitat solution rather than continue to harass and slaughter them for crossing an imaginary government line.

Unfortunately, we lost a valuable opportunity to learn from the April 13 Dome Mountain bull bison. Such an opportunity will arise again. If we seize that chance to learn, and begin to explore what it means to consider bison-on-public-lands as an asset rather than a catastrophe for the state of Montana, landowners, hunters, tourists and all Montana citizens will reap the benefits Overwhelming public support exists for managing bison as wildlife on appropriate landscapes in Montana. If we adopt a learn-as-you-go approach and tailor bison management as needed, including public hunting, it will become clear the sky is not falling.

Zack Waterman represents the Sierra Club; Glenn Hockett is volunteer president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association; Sabina Strauss is owner of the Yellowstone Basin Inn in Gardiner; and Becky Weed is owner of Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company. The authors are members of the bison citizens working group, which formed to develop consensus recommendations to improve the management of Greater Yellowstone bison.

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Forever Changed

photo courtesy of the National Park Service

bald eagle chicks, photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Sometimes nature throws us an experience, which gradually alters our paths. These subtle breezes of accumulated exposure to nature’s mysteries can carve your life in unpredictable ways. Here is one such a story, a story that gives me hope in the resilience of nature if we only give it a nudge and open our spirit to its universal truths. Every molecule of DNA on this planet arose and is dependent on the forces exerted on it by other collections of life. We are all bound together by the influences of another creature’s DNA.  Personally nowhere are these relationships and events more glaringly clear and freely experienced than in the wild expanse offered by the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

I was far from Yellowstone the first time I became intrigued by birds, natures little forest embers, lighting up the world with their magical concerts of color, melody and prowess of flight. I had already visited Yellowstone as a kid with my family and carried fond memorable firsts with Yellowstone’s wild creatures. I carried these memories back to our home in Georgia. From the antics of magpies and bison, to the robber gray jays stealing my Cheetos, I recognized the basic cyclic truths my young mind observed.

Unprepared for my first close encounter of the bird kind I was out one spring day in the long leaf pines of Georgia exploring the woods. On this much needed spring excursion I had decided to wear my fall deer hunting camo outfit and see just how close I could get to the resident whitetail that frequented this dense Georgia jungle of a woodlot. I had been sitting motionless for more than an hour listening and watching as three does casually mingled, browsing and on occasion suspiciously looking my way.  The woods were full of bird song, the deer were very close and the pale blooms of ghostly dogwood were peeking through dense greenery on the forest floor.  All in concert  this dawn chorus was a moment of pure perfection. The whistling “peter-peter-peter” of the tufted titmouse, the crimson Northern Cardinals, the raucous Carolina Wren, the cute Carolina Chickadee, the Redtail imitating blue jays, and the echoed caws of a murder of crows all transfixed my senses.

Suddenly, a really heavy leaf landed on my hatless head.  No wait, this was no leaf for it was now ripping at my 1970s length hair. For several minutes this little bird would not give up.  I cold feel his needle sharp claws digging in as he ripped and pulled on my hair in a spring hormone driven frenzy to gather nesting material.  I slowly raised my hand twice to attempt a swift capture.  But this coil of energy and feathers was too quick, flying to the nearest tree a few feet away, it scolded me ferociously.  Only to return for another tug-o-war with my youthful locks. I finally got a look at it, inches from my face this tiny tufted titmouse scolded me once more before flitting away to change my relationship with nature forever.

From that day forward I began my own journey, driven by a voracious appetite to quench this need to experience another intimate encounters with wild creatures of every shape and size. This path of exploration of nature and it’s residents has lead me to want to defend these creatures and their habitat’s which have so enriched my life through many close encounters with natures gifts.  That’s really what it comes down to for me as an advocate for keeping it wild.  Yellowstone offers these gifts to all that visit her bounty, mystery and opportunity of sharing a once in a lifetime experience.  Countless families and visitors to Yellowstone can recount similar experiences as mine, and Yellowstone has been their catalyst to advocacy.  For many those experiences never stop growing and the need for more can only be quenched when they return to Yellowstone country.

Please join us in our efforts to explore and protect, not just the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but your own backyards.  There are a few links that explain the growing understanding of Yellowstone’s birds and how the reintroduction of wolves is helping restore the bird populations again.

Guest column by Richard Rusnak,  Rich serves on the the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign steering committee. 

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Tribes, wildlife advocates rally for bison



HELENA – Kill the bills, not the buffalo.

That was the message of many Native American leaders who spoke at the Rally for the Future of Montana’s Buffalo, held Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda.

During this session, legislators have proposed a dozen bills that would affect bison in varying degrees, from allowing people to shoot them on sight if they stepped outside Yellowstone National Park to allowing wardens to tell hunters the location of bison.

Only five bills remain alive, but Montana’s tribal councils said that’s still too many.

“All these bills are going to create conflict between the tribes and the rest of Montana,” said Ken Ryan of the Fort Peck Assiniboine tribe. “But we’re all Montanans and we want peace; we want friendship.”

Ryan then sang a solemn Assiniboine song that calls the bison. Then he led a peace-pipe ceremony on a bison hide in the center of the rotunda, sharing with nine leaders from the four reservations and five tribes in attendance.

More than 80 observers, around half of which were Native American, watched the smoke curl through the crowd as Ryan sang, offering the pipe to each leader.

Host Thomas Christian of the Fort Peck said the sacred ceremony was appropriate because bison are spiritually symbolic to First Nations people.

The five speakers who followed Ryan also highlighted the spiritual connection with bison as justification for anger over bills that they perceive as being slightly racist.

Fort Belknap Reservation president Tracy King said he believed the anti-bison bills are unconstitutional because they impinge his religious beliefs by restricting his access to wild bison.

“When I face racism, I know it. It’s like a cold wind: You can’t see it, but you can feel it,” King said. “Don’t destroy our culture.”

The Fort Belknap reservation has managed a bison herd for years, but wants more Yellowstone bison, which are most closely related to the historic plains bison.

“These bills almost feel anti-Indian. Let’s find a better way,” said Intertribal Buffalo Council President Ervin Carlson.

After the rally, the tribal elders took their case to Gov. Steve Bullock.

Of the five bills that are still alive, lobbyists expect that two are the most likely to make it to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 305 changes the definition of “wild buffalo” to an animal that has never been in captivity or owned by a person. It will be heard in the House Agriculture committee on March 21.

Some oppose this definition because it would mean that Yellowstone bison held for even a short time would become livestock.

House Bill 396 would require county commission approval before bison could be transplanted into an area. This would affect the tribes because it could eliminate the possibility for augmentation or initiation of their herds.

Elizabeth Azure of the Fort Belknap Reservation said the Blaine County commissioners usually defend farmers’ interests so they probably would block bison transplants.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Azure said. “We have two people on the commission who are trying to help, but when election time comes, it’s hard to say if they’ll still be there.”

HB 396 will be heard in the Senate Fish and Game committee next Tuesday.

Wildlife advocates traveled from around the state to attend the rally, including several Bozeman representatives of the Sierra Club, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and the National Resources Defense Council.

Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Jonathan Proctor said they were mainly showing support.

“This affects the tribes more than anyone,” Proctor said. “Not many legislators came to watch, but I’m sure they heard it.”

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said the 2011 Legislature already hammered out a law to allow Fish, Wildlife & Parks to take a serious look at the potential to have bison on public lands. So bills like HB 396 that would allow other agencies to step in should be tabled, Gevock said.

“The 2013 Legislature should honor that compromise and let it move forward,” Gevock said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.

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