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Fatal grizzly attack renews debate over how many bears are too many

A grizzly sow and cubs forage along Obsidian Creek in Yellowstone National Park.
Jacob W. Frank
National Park Service
A grizzly sow and cubs forage along Obsidian Creek in Yellowstone National Park.

Authorities have been unable to find the grizzly bear that killed a woman just outside Yellowstone National Park late last month. Last week, they called off the search. That fatal attack has renewed calls to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies, so there are fewer bears on the landscape.

The latest data shows the population of grizzly bears in and around the park at 965. That's more than quadruple the number that existed when they were first protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

Despite their fearsome reputation, though, grizzly bears would rather avoid people than attack them. By the numbers, visitors to the heart of grizzly country in Yellowstone National Park have about the same likelihood of being killed by a falling tree as being killed by a grizzly.

That's despite a lot more people in the area. A record 5 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2021. Even more frequent the surrounding mountains and forests. In that enormous region, the animals have killed a total of 10 people since 2010.

"When you think of that, and you combine that with a population of almost a thousand grizzly bears, it is actually remarkable that there are so few serious incidents," said Frank van Manen, who leads the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. He said attacks are still so rare that statistically, the data doesn't show any kind of an upward trend at all. His group of federal, state, and tribal biologists has documented how the growing number of grizzlies has expanded into territory that's three times larger today than it was 50 years ago. That's only been possible because people who live here have been willing to learn and adapt.

"It's totally possible for people and bears to coexist on the landscape," van Manen said. "I think in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, we have shown that that is the case."

Human responsibility

For rancher and retired educator Hannibal Anderson, coexistence is part of daily life. "It's the human responsibility to figure out where the risks are," he said.

He lives about 30 miles northeast of where the hiker was attacked and killed, and he's walking to where bears have been grazing on his ranch just outside Yellowstone National Park. He says a sow and her cub have been here just about every night. He points to an area where bears have clawed away dirt, almost like tilling the soil, to get at the roots of a non-native plant called caraway that flourishes in the area. The bare patch of earth is a stark contrast to the lush, green grass extending to the jagged peaks above.

Hannibal Anderson on his family's ranch in Tom Miner Basin, just outside Yellowstone National Park, in Montana
Nick Mott / MTPR
Hannibal Anderson on his family's ranch in Tom Miner Basin, just outside Yellowstone National Park, in Montana

Anderson's family moved here in the 1950s. Growing up, he says grizzlies weren't much of a concern. But starting in the 2000s, as other food sources like Whitebark pine declined, grizzlies showed up in droves, searching for that tasty caraway. Grizzlies are ordinarily solitary creatures. But at the right time of day, at the right time of year, he says 15 or more grizzlies could be grazing within sight.

Walking back to his barn, he bumped into Ellery Vincent, a range rider. It's her job to spend time with Anderson's cattle herds. Riders can help fend off bears, and also help just to perceive what's going on across the landscape. Today, she saw something potentially alarming.

She says she got a funny feeling as she was riding. Not long after, "I saw the runny scat and then all the birds everywhere." She had a hunch that might indicate that a grizzly's killed one of their calves.

Anderson says they've lost cows before. But not many. "Not enough to raise alarms with regard to the number of bears," he said.

But he does recognize their negative impacts. All the digging creates conditions ripe for unwanted plants to colonize. He's never personally had a scary encounter, but he's acutely aware that grizzlies have attacked elk hunters nearby. Even walking out the back door at night these days is an exercise in caution.

In response, Anderson's family has changed the way it ranches. In addition to employing range riders like Vincent, they raise slightly older, larger cows, keep them close together to activate their herd instincts, and move them to different places at different times. All that makes them harder for grizzlies to kill. It's a lot more work. But he sees it as a deeper alignment with his belief system.

"I don't see the world as a place where humans just get to trump everything else," he said. "I consider it a really fundamental responsibility of being human to serve the ecological integrity of wherever we live."

For Anderson, grizzlies and other predators, like wolves, are a crucial part of that ecological system.

But most elected leaders in the states surrounding Yellowstone don't see it that way. They say people have done enough adapting to bears and it's time to "delist" them, or remove federal endangered species protections. After last month's attack, two Montana congressmen tweeted exactly that. They suggested state management could reduce grizzly numbers and potentially prevent tragedies like that one.

Grizzly biologist Frank van Manen says there are a number of bureaucratic hurdles to clear in order for delisting to occur. But he said the Endangered Species Act was created to recover populations and then remove protections when they're no longer needed. Today, he said the population is well over the target numbers set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He added that the data shows a striking trend recently. That rapid growth of both population and range has slowed down in recent years. The population, he says, is starting to regulate itself.

"From a biology or an ecology standpoint, recovery to me means bringing a population back to what the habitat supports and that's basically where we are right now," he said.

Fran van Manen leads a team of federal, state and tribal grizzly bear researchers.
Nick Mott / MTPR
Fran van Manen leads a team of federal, state and tribal grizzly bear researchers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed protection for Yellowstone-area grizzlies twice since 2007. Bear advocates sued, and courts overturned both attempts at delisting. But this year, the agency launched a new analysis on grizzly recovery for bears in and around both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Politicians from the region have introduced legislation to delist through Congress, too.

A little north of rancher Hannibal Anderson's property, a coalition of hunting groups has erected a billboard that reads: "Delist grizzly bears to support a conservation success story."

Anderson says delisting wouldn't make much of a difference in what goes on on his ranch. But he's heard both sides of the debate go at it for years.

"I'm not sure one or the other is particularly right or wrong," he said. "The bigger question to me is: what kind of relationship do the humans, wherever they are, want to have with the grizzly bear?"

So whatever happens, Anderson will keep putting his values into practice, trying to create a landscape that nourishes both people and bears.

"It's a lot easier said than done, I understand."

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nick Mott
Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.