Could Colorado see the return of grizzlies, wolves and wild bison? Here’s how Montanans coexist with them.
Up north, grizzlies are roaming in places they haven’t been in decades and there are enough wolves that hunters are allowed to shoot five apiece
Up north, grizzlies are roaming in places they haven’t been in decades and there are enough wolves that hunters are allowed to shoot five apiecePUBLISHED ONAUG 8, 2019 5:01AM MDTENVIRONMENTPRIMARY CATEGORY IN WHICH BLOG POST IS PUBLISHEDJennifer Brown@jenbrowncolo
KALISPELL, Montana — The latest grizzly bear killed by Montana officials was a relatively small, 278-pounder who ate 40 sheep and lambs in a two-week span, unfazed by four guard dogs and a range rider on a four-wheeler who tried to chase it away.
The bear, euthanized July 19 outside of Great Falls, was the 20th grizzly so far this season killed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks or hit by a car or train along the Northern Continental Divide.
The region’s human-related grizzly deaths are on par with last year’s record-setting season, a result of a growing population of both bears and people. “We’ve got bears right now in areas where we haven’t seen them in decades,” said Dillon Tabish, a Kalispell-based education program manager for the state wildlife department.
As Coloradans face questions about whether to reintroduce the grizzly — and fellow titan of the forest, the gray wolf — the state can look to its northwestern neighbors, where the native animals are making a comeback after decades on the brink of extinction. A recently filed lawsuit demands the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explore reintroducing grizzlies to Colorado, while a petition about to circulate in Colorado would put the question of wolf reintroduction on the November 2020 ballot.
On their own, grizzlies have returned to the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho and Montana, as well as the Rocky Mountain Front, where the Montana mountains meet the plains. They number close to 2,000 in the mountains of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington.
And the gray wolf, with a population estimated at about 300 just more than a decade ago in Montana, has rebounded so dramatically that hunters there complain the wolves are decimating elk and deer populations. Montana now has a hunting season on the once-endangered species — six months long with a five-wolf bag limit.
Wolves number about 850 in that state, and 315 were killed during the most recent hunting season. Still, irritated elk and deer hunters are packing the house when state wildlife officials come to town, protesting that wolves have hampered their ability to stock their freezers with wild game.
As for grizzlies, human encounters have increased enough in recent years that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock this summer created an 18-member Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. The group of citizens, chosen from more than 150 applicants, is tasked with making recommendations about how to keep humans — and bears — safe in bear country.
The panel comes a few months after a man teaching a friend to hunt was mauled by a grizzly near Columbia Falls in northwest Montana. Anders Broste told Montana Public Radio he fell on his back while trying to get away and the bear got on top of him and started biting and tearing his arm and leg. He survived because the griz ran away after trying to pull off his boot.
Three years ago, in June 2016, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Brad Treat was mauled to death by a grizzly bear, also in northwestern Montana, when he rounded a curve on his mountain bike and collided with the bear, which was startled and attacked him.
Any effort to reintroduce large carnivores to areas where they haven’t lived in decades is met with fear — fear of human injury or death, and fear that a protected species could bring greater restrictions in logging, mining and access to public lands.
“It’s really important to have the public invested and involved in the management,” Tabish said. “If you just force it upon people, it doesn’t end well. History has shown that recovery requires the public’s investment. You can’t just put grizzly bears on the landscape. You need to have public tolerance.”
But fear of the grizzly, which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds, is part of the fascination.
It’s one of the reasons millions of people drive to Glacier National Park every summer hoping to see one — from a distance. Hiking without bear spray, which only works within about 15 feet, is not recommended, and trailheads often are marked with a bright-red sign picturing a hump-backed, brown griz and an alert: “Do not approach or feed.”
Would grizzlies move to Colorado on their own?
It’s highly unlikely that grizzlies would return to Colorado on their own, crossing highways and moving across populated flatlands, said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The group filed a lawsuit in June asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to initiate research regarding reintroduction of grizzlies to places they once roamed, including the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. The last grizzly documented there was in 1979, when an outfitter leading a hunting trip stabbed it to death with an arrow.
“We are not proposing right now that we should introduce them tomorrow,” said Santarsiere, who lives in Idaho and spends weekends hiking in bear country, bear spray strapped to her backpack. “We’re not looking at dropping grizzly bears in Denver proper.”
Grizzlies were listed as a threatened species in 1975 in the lower 48 states (Alaska and Canada have robust populations). A grizzly bear recovery plan identified six zones in the lower 48 states, places the bears still lived or had lived most recently:
- The Northern Continental Divide, including Glacier National Park and northwest Montana, which now has an estimated 1,000 grizzlies
- Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding area, with an estimated 700 to 800 grizzlies
- The Cabinet-Yaak in extreme northwest Montana and Idaho, which has 50 to 60 bears
- The Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and eastern Washington, with an estimated 50 to 80 bears
- The Bitterroot Mountains, mostly in Idaho but also Montana, an area that is just starting to see evidence of the grizzly’s return
- And the North Cascades of Washington, which officially has no bears (although there have been reported sightings) but is the subject of a reintroduction plan now seeking public comment
Grizzlies once roamed from Alaska to Mexico, from the West Coast to the Great Plains, and numbered in the tens of thousands. Today, there are an estimated 2,000 in the lower 48 states, limited to those five, isolated zones.
While the populations have increased significantly in recent years, exceeding the bar set by federal wildlife officials for some areas, “recovery is more than just reaching a certain numerical population,” Santarsiere said. The Center for Biological Diversity wants the grizzly populations to connect, not live in isolated areas, for the genetic health of the bears.
Restoring native animals to the landscape for future generations
On a recent July day, Wayne Kasworm, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist and grizzly expert based in Libby, Montana, had crews in the woods measuring this summer’s huckleberry crops. It’s a decent season, which means the bears should have a good amount of food.
Kasworm’s also got biologists collecting grizzly bear hair samples caught on tree branches as part of a genetic testing program to count the bears and see whether they are healthy. Several bears in the area are radio collared, so he can track their movements.
Natural migration is possible — he’s seen it happen with grizzlies moving down from Canada, and into the Bitterroot range in Idaho — but not as far of a trek as from Montana and Wyoming to Colorado. Healthy grizzly populations expand their range by small amounts each year — a chart showing their growing range looks like ripples in a pond.
“I don’t see that happening in my lifetime,” Kasworm said. Young male grizzlies often roam far from their mothers when they set out on their own at about 2 years old, but female grizzlies typically stay on their mother’s range or adjacent to it, he said. “Obviously, you need both sexes to create a population.”
Even human-led reintroduction is a slow process, he said. To supplement the grizzly population in the Cabinet Mountains of Idaho and Montana, Kasworm and team have transferred 22 animals since 1990 from the backcountry of the northern Contintental Divide.
Federal proposals to reintroduce grizzlies to the North Cascades in Washington, as well as a reintroduction plan for the Bitterroots a decade ago that fizzled out, called for bringing a minimum of 20 animals to start.
During a previous public comment period about the North Cascades proposal, those opposed to the reintroduction said federal officials should allow repopulation to happen naturally and spend tax dollars elsewhere. Others noted that if any grizzly left the designated recovery zone, authorities should return them deep into the mountains, and that ranchers should have permission to shoot bears if they threatened their livestock.
Because grizzlies are a federally protected species, it’s illegal for ranchers to kill them. Instead, they are supposed to report a problem bear to wildlife authorities, who can relocate or euthanize the bear.
“When you have more bears and you have more bears expanding their range, … and people haven’t experienced bears in their lifetime, … we have more livestock losses,” Kasworm said.
Reintroduction makes sense in some areas, but not in others, he said, noting that it’s not realistic to expect a return to the days when grizzlies roamed the entire West. Government intervention must strike a balance between wildlife preservation and human progress. “We seek to keep those things on the landscape not only for us but for future generations, rather than us making choices today that might be irreversible,” Kasworm said.
What about the wolf that wandered down from Wyoming?
A lone gray wolf, an animal gone from Colorado since 1940, strode into the state last month, raising the hopes of some that the species might return.
That’s unlikely anytime soon, Wyoming wildlife biologists say. The male wolf that roamed into Colorado wore a radio collar, so officials could see that he was part of the Snake River pack in Wyoming.
It’s not unusual for a young male wolf to travel several hundred miles looking for new territory, said Sara DiRienzo, public information officer for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He’s unlikely to stick around, though, if there are no female wolves. “It takes two wolves to breed,” she said.
In Wyoming, the gray wolf has bounced on and off the endangered list for 40 years, and was delisted again two years ago. Wolves have exceeded the population goals set by federal wildlife officials, numbering 286 at the end of 2018.
Most of the wolves are in northwest Wyoming, and there is a hunting season on wolves — one per person — in a trophy game management area. If wolves leave that area, they are considered predators and can be shot without a hunting license. About 40 wolves were killed by hunters last season, and another 40 were shot as predators.
Wyoming officials were thrilled when the animal was delisted and moved under state management, allowing state officials to work with ranchers on wolf policies.
In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat now running for president, knows the political potency of the wolf issue.
“When I was running in 2012 for governor, I probably heard more about wildlife than I did taxes and education,” he told The Colorado Sun in July when he visited Denver for a campaign stop.
Returning to a frequent joke, he added: “There’s two ways to become a wildlife biologist: one is to get your master’s or Ph.D., the other is to run for office. And I think I see that time and time again.”
What’s his advice for Coloradans who might get to vote on the return of the wolf next year?
“I won’t tell Coloradans what to do, but it has worked pretty well in Montana,” he said.
Could Colorado reintroduce wild bison too?
Colorado has a thriving bison herd on public land north of Fort Collins, and another at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, but that might be as close as the state ever gets to restoring the iconic beasts to the plains.
At Soapstone Prairie, a preserve owned by the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County, the bison herd has grown from just 10 animals to 77 in less than four years. Most of that occurred through natural breeding, said Jennifer Barfield, an assistant professor with Colorado State University’s biomedical sciences department.
The bison are descendants of the herd in Yellowstone National Park, the largest herd in the nation in which there is no evidence the animals were bred with cattle. “From a cultural perspective, that makes them very valuable,” Barfield said. And unlike the Yellowstone bison, the Colorado herd is free of brucellosis, a nonnative bacterial disease that is found in about 60 percent of female bison in Yellowstone, according to the National Park Service.
Most bison living in Colorado these days are on ranches, raised for human consumption. And even the few herds kept for conservation purposes — including those at Soapstone Prairie — are not exactly free.
A wildlife-friendly fence surrounds the animals, though they are left on their own to breed, become prey for wild predators (though that hasn’t been an issue) and graze the natural grasses. Biologists feed the animals only when severe drought hampers food supply, Barfield said.
“They are living off the land. They are moving at their own will,” she said. Still, they are a managed herd.
The preserve has given bison to zoos in California, New York and Minnesota, and to Native American tribes trying to restore wild bison on their lands.
Other parts of North America, including Alaska and Canada, have reintroduced wild bison that roam free without fences. There are no such plans in the works for Colorado, though.
For now, knowing the bison are thriving in the state — though not completely wild — is enough, Barfield said.
“We live in this very urban environment. We have social media. We have all of these not-natural things that bombard us in daily life,” she said. “So being in a place where you feel like you are closer to the earth in general is important. Knowing that those places are out there, I think it’s a bit of a romantic idea for people.”
It’s part of the reason, she figures, that some people want to restore native species — including the grizzly and wolf — to the landscapes they once walked. “People are recognizing the value of it,” Barfield said. “The health of our population depends on the health of our environment as well.”
Colorado Sun reporter John Frank contributed to this story.
Lassen’s Famed Wolfpack Grows with a New Litter of Pups
By: Active Norcal – July 14, 2019
The Lassen Pack, California’s only known wolfpack, has grown recently with the announcement of a new litter of pups. It’s the third litter from the pack that wolf specialists have recorded this year alone.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf specialist Kent Laudon, who is based in Redding, made the announcement at a recent meeting of the Wolf Stakeholder Group.
“We still don’t know how many there are.” Laudon said. “We’ve got cameras out and we think there are at least three.”
Some wolf pups of the recent litters have died, while others have dispersed to other areas. Specialists are continuing to attempt to track the pack to better understand its size and movement tendencies.
“We’re going to try and collar one or two more wolves in the pack now, and then we’ll have better ideas on where they are headed and see what’s happening with other wolves on the landscape.”
The Lassen Pack is the descendant of famed OR-7, a wolf that famously traveled from Oregon into Northern California in 2011, becoming the first known wolf in the state in nearly 100 years. The Lassen Pack’s father wolf, known as CA-08M, is the son of OR-7.
The only other known pack in California was the Shasta Pack, which mysteriously disappeared in Siskiyou County recently.
The revival of wolves in Northern California remains a controversial topic in rural communities. The fascinating animals diversify the local ecosystems while creating legitimate arguments between conservation and protecting personal property, particularly of cattle on remote ranches.
Island wolf population ‘reasonably secure,’ says researcher
Forestry practices, not predation by wolves, blamed for reduced numbers in prey animals
A recent wolf sighting in Campbell River raised questions about the animal’s conservation status on Vancouver Island, and whether wolves are responsible for reduced numbers of animals including deer and marmots.
Chris Darimont, a leading wolf expert and Raincoast Research Chair at the University of Victoria, says there’s no immediate threat to wolf populations on Vancouver Island, and forestry practices, not wolf populations, are to blame for a decline in animals such as deer.
“They’re a convenient scapegoat,” Darimont said in an interview. “But decades of research… reveal very little evidence that wolves cause declines in prey populations.”
Predator and prey systems are largely self-regulating, he said, meaning a decline in deer generally goes hand-in-hand with a decline in wolves.
And even if wolves hunt the Vancouver Island marmot as a “rare meal,” it isn’t wolves that are at the root of the problem.
A common cause for the decline of both animals is forestry practices, he said.
“The demise of marmots and the decline in deer share a common cause, and that is whole-scale conversion of ancient forests into a series of logging roads and tree plantations,” he said. “We should be reconsidering how forests are managed.”
As for the status of the grey wolf, the animal has been wiped out throughout the coastal United States, where they used to occur. Their southern limit tends to be Sooke on Vancouver Island and Howe Sound near Vancouver, Darimont said.
Wolves have also lost large areas of range along the built-up areas of eastern Vancouver Island roughly from Campbell River to Victoria, he said.
In other areas, wolves are likely in lower abundance than they were, Darimont said, due to forestry practices that convert old-growth forests into “tree plantations” that support less deer.
Information posted on the website VI-Wilds states that Vancouver Island wolves are a subspecies that’s considered endangered and that less than 150 were estimated on the Island in 2008.
However, there’s no “immediate catastrophic threat” to wolves on the Island, according to Darimont.
“They are, in the short term, reasonably secure here on Vancouver Island,” he said.
Wolves were formerly subject to government-sponsored eradication campaigns and were thought to have disappeared entirely from the Island decades ago, he said, citing a 2010 research paper that he co-authored.
As for the designation of “subspecies,” Darimont said few scientists in his field would use that terminology anymore.
He said that wolves are good swimmers known to travel to and from the mainland. This has resulted in a mixing of their genes into an “evolutionarily significant unit.”
Wolves often go into populated areas, but cellphone cameras have turned these sightings into news, he said. Recent examples include cellphone footage of a wolf swimming across the Discovery Passage in Campbell River on June 29.
“The difference is these days everyone’s connected by social media,” he said.
The Ministry of Forests said in a statement that Vancouver Island wolves aren’t recognized as a distinct subspecies, and that evidence points to ongoing dispersal of wolves to and from the mainland.
“(T)his has likely resulted in frequent transfer of genes between wolves in these areas of relative geographic proximity,” according to the statement.
The grey wolf is considered “not at risk” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and its provincial conservation status is “apparently secure to demonstrably widespread, abundant, and secure.” The ministry describes the wolf as “widespread and abundant on Vancouver Island.”
There are “more than 250 wolves on Vancouver Island at this time and the population is increasing,” according to estimates from the Ministry of Forests.
Darimont said in an email it’s likely true that more than 250 live on Vancouver Island, but there’s “no evidence I’m aware of that they are increasing (or decreasing for that matter).”
Call to Action!!!
Please support the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund!!! Let’s bring back the wolf to Colorado and Utah!
Follow this link to donate: https://www.wolfactionfund.com/
Mexican Gray Wolves and Northern Gray Wolves
A highly endangered, desert-adapted subspecies of the northern gray wolves, Mexican gray wolves once ranged from California to Texas and as far north as Nebraska. An extirpated native of Utah and Colorado, today Mexican gray wolves number just 114 in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico. Another 30 or so are in Mexico.
Wolves have long been a focus of Western Wildlife Conservancy’s work. Director Kirk Robinson and board member Allison Jones served on the Utah Wolf Working Group in the early 2o00s. WWC is part of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and Lobos of the Southwest.
Western Wildlife Conservancy campaigned to get public comments, in favor of returning Mexican gray wolves to Utah, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during their comment period for the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. Although clearly supported by the science, the final recovery plan released in November 2017 did not include Utah and Colorado in the recovery zone. WWC also campaigned in Arizona and Nevada, generating phone calls in opposition to anti-wolf legislation to U.S. Senators in the spring of 2017.
We continue to inform Utahns on the need to restore both northern gray wolves and Mexican gray wolves to our landscape through our tabling projects and social media work. We want to hear wolves howl in the Bear River Range, Uinta Mountains, Wasatch Plateau, Abajo Mountains, Dixie National Forest, Grand Canyon National Park, and the San Juan Mountains (among other places). Utah and Colorado need wolves. Wolves need Utah and Colorado.
We work with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project
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