45 Dead Bears Is “Success”?

There are millions of ways to define success. In some arenas, success is about finances or attaining a certain physique. It could be about the square footage of a home or number of dollars in an account. Regardless of the definition, success is typically defined in terms of numbers. For wildlife advocates, the number correlates to how many animals were harmed or killed as a result of human interaction, and the lower the number the greater the success. The end goal in regard to animal fatalities—the ultimate measure of success—is zero.

The problem is, not everyone defines success the same way. The Powell Tribune reported last week that it was “a good year” for Wyoming, based on information that Dan Thompson, Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor, reported to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee at their spring meeting. Thompson said, “We’re very fortunate that we didn’t have any human injuries or fatalities — the first year in several years we didn’t have a human injury.”

Zero human fatalities is an undeniably positive measure of success regardless of which side of the fence a person stands on, but it’s not the only important number in this equation. For most of us concerned with improving the current and future lives of grizzly bears, 40 dead bears is 40 too many, and while the Powell Tribune reported 40 grizzly bear deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the U.S. Geological Survey reported 45 mortalities in the same area.

Before diving into why the grizzly mortality rate is so high, it’s important to acknowledge a few things. First, because both bears and humans are occupying the same landscape, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge that no fatal encounters for human means that people are being educated and making good choices while recreating and living in bear country.

Making good choices means a lot of different things. For example, it means not only carrying bear spray, but also knowing how to properly use it. It means traveling in groups, keeping a clean camp, and respecting the bears’ space. At home, it means proper containment of garbage, eliminating bird feeders, mindful grilling and cleanup, and not planting shrubs or trees that are known attractants. Being a good neighbor to bears requires thoughtful consideration.

So if humans are being smart, why did 45 bears die last year in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? How can we do better?

According to a Bear Tracks article published in February, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee determined that “of the 111 known and probable grizzly deaths in the area during 2018 and 2019, 99 were caused by humans. That’s 89%.” In 2018 and 2019 combined, only 12 grizzlies died of natural causes.

Powell Tribune reporter Mark Davis wrote that “The types of conflicts have changed over the past few years, with fewer bears sniffing out garbage and destroying private property,” which gives credit to both humans and bears for successfully coexisting, but it’s only part of the picture.

Davis also reported that livestock conflicts are on the rise as grizzly habitat is reduced (though experts disagree on the reason grizzlies are wandering outside of the demographic monitoring area), and “as grizzlies continue to increase their range beyond their suitable habitat into agricultural and residential areas, conflicts with livestock continue to rise. Of the 192 conflicts reported in Wyoming last year, 126 were due to depredation of farm animals.” These deaths are all human-caused fatalities, which is why the number is so high, but of the deaths caused by humans, the majority of them—63 out of 86—were caused by management agencies. That number does not ring of success.

Wildlife biologists categorize grizzly bear deaths for analysis, and a further look into the groupings shows that within the category of fatalities caused by humans (the most obvious being vehicle strikes and self-defense) there is also a large category of deaths (21% for years 2018 and 2019) that fall into the category of “under investigation.”

Grizzly bear fatalities that are under investigation include deaths that occur as a result of poaching, because a hunter mistook a grizzly for another animal, or even because a backpacker said they killed in self-defense though the conditions around that defense remain unclear. “Under investigation” also means that no additional information will be made available to the public, and that designation is both open-ended and unsatisfying to people who correlate the success of advocating for grizzly bears’ well-being to a low number of grizzly fatalities, in addition to the the low number of human fatalities.

The magic number there? Zero.

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