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Guest column: As grizzlies and elk adapt to change, so must hunters

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As they launch a few last arrows into straw bales, sight in their rifles one more time, and hone their elk bugling, enquiring hunters are faced with three new burning questions as they prepare to embark on another autumn in the Montana outback:

* Are there any elk left out there?

* Can I hunt in Yellowstone National Park now?

* Will I be devoured by a hungry grizzly bear?




OK, just joking on that last one – sort of. Truth is, given the dramatic decline of the whitebark pine, and grizzlies looking for new sources of hibernation sustenance in new places, the potential for hunter/bear conflict is as acute as ever.

Hunters in bear country have long known that firing a rifle in the forest is akin to ringing a dinner bell. To the grizzly, the echoes signal a ready-made meal.

And this fall, more griz will be within earshot.

An estimated 600 roam Greater Yellowstone, the most since the park stashed its bleachers and closed its garbage dumps in the 1970s, halting distasteful daily spectacles. In a harbinger of challenges to come, the loss of a food source back then also forced grizzlies to look elsewhere for food.

Many found trouble, and many perished – so many that the Yellowstone icon teetered on the brink of extinction here. The grizzly’s collapse necessitated the Endangered Species Act protections it enjoys again today after an unlawful delisting from 2007-09.

Four decades later, it’s déjà vu. Only this time the culprit in a suddenly changing world for grizzlies is a rapidly warming climate.

In Greater Yellowstone, the canary in the climate coal mine is the whitebark, a sensitive high-elevation tree. Scientists say the pine will be functionally extinct in the region within a decade due to a warming-induced pine beetle infestation.

The whitebark cone’s nut is coveted by squirrels, which cache them in prodigious quantities. The result for grizzlies has been a pine-nut buffet.

Without whitebark nuts, the bears likely will descend to lower elevations in search of food – inevitably to places where people live, work and play.

And, as we discovered four decades ago, when people and bears converge, people sometimes get hurt and bears usually die. Hence today’s paradoxical need for continued Endangered Species Act protections until stable food sources and more suitable grizzly habitat are assured in and around this ecological island we call Greater Yellowstone.

In challenging the relisting, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says grizzly numbers are strong and the bear will adapt to the loss of whitebark. At the same time, the agency is cautioning hunters, conceding a bad year for whitebark nuts.

Trouble is, for the whitebark, every year is a bad year now. Yes, the bears will adapt, but they’ll likely do so closer to expanding human development, with predictable results.

At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, many staffers are avid hunters. Those who tread in grizzly country will be extra wary this fall, and always carry bear spray.

Of course, one way to avoid conflict with grizzlies is to simply not hunt. After all, wolves have eaten all the elk anyway, right?


Elk continue to thrive in Greater Yellowstone, despite pressure from wolves, grizzlies and humans. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in some places elk numbers are down due partly to wolves; in other areas where wolves and elk interact, the ungulate’s habits are changing but their populations are either stable or actually increasing.

Wolves are smart. They would never annihilate their primary food source. They didn’t for thousands of years without our intervention, and they wouldn’t now.

Where wolves have reduced elk populations, such as in Yellowstone, wolf numbers have naturally fallen into line as well – from a peak of 171 in the park in 2007 to fewer than 100 now. Scientists say wolves and elk have struck an appropriate balance, to the entire ecosystem’s benefit.

This fall, there’s no question: With wolves moving elk around and hungry grizzlies on the prowl, it’s all about adaptation for the hunter, too.

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman.

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