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|Stephen F. Stringham, Bear Viewing Association. 39200 Alma Ave, Soldotna, AK 99669
Abstract: From 1975-2017, while Listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) in the
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem increased in abundance and distribution beyond national park boundaries. Although this did not
constitute full recovery of the population’s long term viability – indeed, the population seems to be shrinking again – it did meet
concrete Recovery objectives. So ESA protection was withdrawn in 2017. Withdrawal of protection could allow major increases in
human impacts, especially outside park boundaries, both in terms of habitat degradation and renewed hunting pressure. Hunting has
two main goals: (a) sport harvest of trophies and (b) reducing human-bear conflicts – especially property damage, livestock predation,
and human injury. Hunting could supposedly achieve those goals by reducing the abundance of grizzlies, especially outside national
parks, and by intensifying fear of humans (anthropophobia) by surviving bears.
There is no doubt that sport hunting could reduce bear abundance outside the national parks. It might also suck bears out of the
parks and jeopardize the population’s long term survival. That might be intended. There is ample reason to doubt that risk of human
injury could be substantially reduced by any level of hunting which does not drastically reduce bear abundance.
There are three major motives for bear attacks: predation, rivalry with humans, and defense against humans perceived as enemies.
Likelihood that a bear will treat a human as prey or as a rival might well be reduced by fear of retaliation. Fear might also reduce
likelihood of close bear-human encounters. But when encounters do occur, fear of human aggression isn’t likely to curb defensive
aggression – the major cause of serious or fatal injuries by grizzly bears. On the contrary, perceiving humans as enemies triggers
defensiveness. That’s the first reason why hunting isn’t likely to increase human safety. The second reason is that bears can’t learn
anything from being killed. Only survivors can learn how to coexist with humans; and learning is better promoted by nonviolently
enhancing both trust and respect by bears toward humans. Sport hunting is also unlikely to substantially reduce livestock predation
unless hunting targets known livestock killers.
Keywords: Anthropophobia, assault, attack, brown bear, delisting, Endangered Species Act, fear of humans, Glacier National Park, Greater
Yellowstone Ecosystem, grizzly bear, habituation, hunting, national park, risk, Ursus arctos, Yellowstone National Park
Fearlessness toward humans has been blamed for a wide range of human-wildlife conflicts1. Risks of serious property damage or human injury are
particularly high from large carnivores, ungulates and primates – an issue which has been addressed in particular depth for North American bears
(Ursus spp.)2-12, felids13, canids6-9,14, bovids and cervids6-9, as well elephants (Elephas maximus15, Loxodonta Africana16-17) and baboons
This matter is complicated by the attraction of these animals to food sources near humans, such as livestock, agricultural crops, and garbage.
Animals which habitually consume human-generated foods are said to be “food conditioned.” Food consumed by wildlife and property they
damage in obtaining the food, can be exceeding costly to the people affected. Worse, when food lures such animals close to humans, this can
increase risks of confrontation when people try to protect their food and property, as well as accidental close encounters were the animals attack
Grizzly bears (also known as brown bears, Ursus arctos) are one of the most charismatic, flagship wildlife species in North America. South of
Canada, only two marginally viable populations remain: the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, at the Montana-Alberta Canada border, and
the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), at the junction of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The GYE encompasses Yellowstone National Park
and a roughly equal area of land surrounding the Park. In the USA, grizzlies have been protected from hunters for several decades under the
auspices of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That protection was recently repealed, potentially exposing these bears to sport hunters. One
rationalization for resuming hunting is that it will supposedly make the surviving bears more afraid of people, and thus less dangerous. But there is
good reason to believe that fear instead makes grizzlies more dangerous. Understanding how fear affects animal aggression against humans should
facilitate coexistence with grizzly bears and perhaps with other potentially homicidal wildlife such as other bears worldwide, other large carnivores,
and hoofstock such as elk (Cervus elaphus), moose (Alces alces), elephants, as well as baboons and other primates.
During the decades that grizzly hunting in the GYE was prohibited, the number and geographic distribution of grizzlies within the GYE have allegedly
tripled. This has been accompanied by a rise in human-bear conflicts, especially outside of national park boundaries.19-23 Predation on livestock
has also increased; and numerous people have been injured, especially people hunting elk who have surprised a bear at close range, frightened a
mother with cubs, or been challenged by a bear for the elk someone has killed. In this sense, the grizzly population has exceeded the “political
carrying capacity” of its habitat. For better or for worse, regional concern for livestock and humans, especially elk hunters, is overriding nationwide
and international concern for welfare of GYE grizzlies.
Problems created by increasing size and distribution of the grizzly population have allegedly been exacerbated by lack of hunting and by large scale
bear viewing. Most viewing occurs in habitats adjacent to roads, mainly within the national parks, or within the Rockerfeller Memorial Parkway
corridor connecting Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. Habitats near humans and roads are usually avoided by adult male grizzlies,
thereby providing a refuge from adult male aggression for subadults and for mothers with cubs.24 Bears thusly forced into proximity of benign
humans sometimes learn to trust people enough to largely ignore them as the bears go about their lives in front-country habitat much as they would
live in more remote habitat – neither seeking people and their artifacts, nor avoiding them by a wide margin. Developing neutrality towards humans
has been referred to as “habituation. To the extent that neutrality increases bear utilization of habitat near humans or roads, it raises the realized
ecological carrying capacity of the GYE for bears. Likewise, to the extent that neutrality, or better yet trust, reduce a grizzly’s defensiveness during
close encounters, attack risk is minimized.
Potential Downsides of Habituation
Nevertheless, critics condemn habituation as dangerously unnatural, in part because it increases risk of close bear-human encounters, during which
people might conflict with bears over food, or accidentally provoke bear defensiveness. This is exemplified by conflicts which have involved highly-
habituated bears such as grizzly matriarch #399 and her clan. They frequent habitat near roads in Grand Tetons National Park and the Rockerfeller
Memorial Parkway, where they have been easily and safely viewed by countless people from around the world, who contribute tens of millions of
dollars annually to local communities.25-27 Yet, despite this matriarch’s unusually high tolerance for humans near roads, she mauled one man who
surprised her elsewhere while she and her cubs were feasting on an elk carcass.28
Hunting Bears Without Hunting Them
One alleged means of minimizing habituation is sport hunting. Supposedly, the boldest bears will fall prey, and the survivors will be too afraid to
approach humans, livestock or other property.
However, even while protected by the ESA, most subadult and adult grizzlies that die each year are killed because of predation on livestock or
from more direct conflict with a human, for instance when a bear challenges a hunter for a big game carcass or its gut pile.19-23 Or grizzlies respond
defensively when surprised by a stalking elk hunter.
What Dead Bears Don’t Learn
So it is likely that anything bears can learn from being hunted is already being learned without them being legal sport targets. Sport hunting
proponents, including state agencies, have provided no evidence that adding sport harvest will teach surviving bears anything new that would
increase human safety. Nor have they presented evidence that whatever survivors learn outside of National Parks is being transferred to bears that
live solely within Park boundaries. On the contrary, most migration by bears is from inside Parks to outside, and this trend is only likely to increase
as outside bear density shrinks.24 There is no scientific basis for claiming that adding a sport harvest of grizzly bears outside Yellowstone and
Grand Tetons National Parks would make surviving grizzlies more wary and less dangerous to humans, livestock or property.
Recreation or Decimation?
Nevertheless, now that ESA protection has been lost, legal trophy hunting of GYE grizzlies outside national park boundaries could soon begin in
each of the three adjacent states: Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.29-30 How many bears will be killed, how soon, remains to be seen In 2015,
shortly after Florida’s black bears lost their protection, trophy hunters killed about 10% of the population (>300 bears) during the first weekend of
hunting season.31 Because the grizzly’s reproductive rate is lower than that of the black bear, the grizzly cannot withstand as much hunting pressure
as black bears. Nevertheless, total allowable mortality limits for GYE could be about 10% for all age-sex classes except adult males, for whom the
limit could be 22%, based on current estimates of around 750 grizzlies in the entire GYE.30 Worse, since the vast majority of GYE grizzlies would
be harvested outside Park boundaries, the effective harvest rate there could be double or triple the population-level figures. That could vastly
exceed immigration from Parks and decimate grizzly numbers in surrounding areas of the GYE – not by accident.
This is illustrated below. The maximum mortality of adult males would be 22% of their abundance across the whole ecosystem. Of those dead
adult males, up to 80% (= 16% of all adult males in the GYE) could be due to sport hunting – judging from sport hunting GYE grizzlies during the
1960’s while it was still legal.32 The smaller the fraction of the ecosystem’s adult male population outside the Park during hunting season, the more
heavily that fraction would be impacted; this is illustrated below by using the hypothetical fractions of 30% and 20% of the adult males being
exposed to harvest [22% = total mortality; 80% = fraction of total which is due to hunting; 30% or 20% = fraction of the total population that is
exposed to hunters]:
22% * 80% /30% = 59% 22% * 80% /20% = 88%
If 30% of the ecosystem’s adult males were vulnerable to harvest during the first year, almost 60% of that subpopulation could be harvested –
nearly 3-fold the 22% ecosystem-wide quota. If the vulnerable fraction were 20% of the adult male population, almost 90% of that subpopulation
could be killed. This would deplete adult males outside the National Park, and eventually within it.
Why is the allowable quota so high? It might seem self-evident that livestock predation and other forms of conflict with humans by wild carnivores
can be minimized by reducing carnivore density. However, there is a surprising lack of empirical data showing that anything short of predator
holocaust can achieve that goal.33 After reviewing the literature on predator control in North America and Europe, Treves and his colleagues34
found little reliable evidence that increased harvests of coyotes (Canis latrans), wolves (C. lupus), cougars (Puma concolor), or bears (Ursus
arctos or U. americanus) substantially reduced livestock predation. Nor does it reduce other kinds of conflict between black bears and humans.
35-36. The same lack of success has been found in Australia with culling dingos (C. dingo).37
Sometimes predator control backfires, as has been well known for decades among predator control officers.38 One reason stems from predator
social dynamics. Adults limit the number of competitors from their own species and perhaps other species with which they share habitat. Adults
tend to be relatively skilled at capturing wild prey and avoiding conflicts with humans, in part by not preying on livestock. When such adults are
killed, their home ranges tend to be taken over by immigrants that are less skilled at predation on local wild game and at coexisting with humans.
Ability to coexist depends in part on an animal’s ability to predict human behavior and vice versa. Learning that can take months or years.
Decimating adult male grizzlies could likewise cause a backlash that actually increases human-bear conflicts.
Given that most grizzly predation on livestock is done by adult males,4 one might expect trophy hunters to be targeting the same class of bears
troubling ranchers. However, a more effective strategy would be hunting the specific bears killing cattle. Even that could be minimized if adequate
livestock protection can be achieved using non-lethal tactics such as (a) reducing livestock vulnerability,33-34 (b) aversively conditioning bears, or
(c) diversionary baiting.39-40 One driver of livestock predation by grizzlies in the GYE is the rapidly diminishing supply of seed-producing whitebark
pine trees (Pinus albicaulis) due to climatic warming and pathogens; that exacerbates earlier loss of most cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii)
and diminishing supplies of elk as prey or carrion – i.e., three of the grizzly population’s four major sources of protein and lipid, aside from livestock.
Aversively conditioned bears can survive long enough to learn how to coexist with humans and transmit this knowledge to other bears; harvested
bears can’t. Bears chased by free-running hounds may learn greater fear of hounds; but does this teach bears anything about coexisting with
humans? Bears stalked by trained bear dogs leashed to a human handler are likely to learn more.
With or without a leashed hound, a person who persistently follows a bear – thereby behaving like a higher ranking bear -- can increase the bear’s
respect toward humans.9,11 A recent study in Sweden found that after brown bears were closely approached by a human on foot, although not
necessarily within sight of the bear, the bears shifted their activity peaks from daytime to nighttime – a tactic commonly used by prey to avoid diurnal
predators.42-43 Although a single encounter tended to increase nocturnality for only a few weeks, repeated encounters could make this more
durable. Furthermore, in Scandinavia, differential responses by adult females with dependent cubs (which are protected from hunting) vs. single
bears (which are hunted) indicate that bears distinguished between hunters vs. non-hunters (e.g., people hiking or harvesting wild mushrooms and
Just as important as educating bears, is educating humans about bears so that perceptions about risk are more realistic – countering propaganda
that exaggerates risks – and about how to minimize risks,44 even when “educating” bears to minimize future conflicts.
|Hunting Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears:
Will It Backfire by Making Them More Dangerous?
|Part 1 Go to Part 2