Dead Pits: How Ranchers Handle Livestock Carcasses Impacts Grizzly Bears

It’s a simple fact that dead animals attract scavengers. Including grizzly bears. What wild species wouldn’t relish an easy meal, especially in the springtime when food sources might be scarce? It’s also a fact that livestock death is an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of animal husbandry, and every rancher must invariably deal with mortality amongst their herds each season. Some ranchers have traditionally piled dead livestock in pits on their land, a practice that offers an alluring attractant for wildlife looking to scavenge food. While in the midwest this practice, perhaps, has fewer potential consequences for our wild neighbors, in grizzly country it is problematic because it escalates bear-livestock conflicts.

Livestock Carcasses in Grizzly Country

People who share the landscape with grizzly bears have a responsibility to co-exist thoughtfully. In cattle country, this means the proper removal and disposal of livestock carcasses in order to prevent conflict. When done well, carcass management keeps bears off of ranch lands and away from vulnerable herds, especially during spring calving season when mortality rates are highest due to factors like birthing complications or disease. When done poorly, however, the cost is often a grizzly bear’s life. 

Historic methods for disposing of dead livestock have included burial, hauling carcasses to a local landfill, and even on occasion incineration. Another easy and common practice has been to dig a carcass pit, especially on Western ranches where land is abundant and people are scarce. 

Carcass pits are about as unappealing as they sound. They are holes in the ground where dead livestock are amassed, perhaps to be burned into a bone pile or eventually decompose. These pits are also open invitations to grizzly bears to hang around and use as feeding grounds. In time, bears may even go after live cattle or sheep. 

Ending the Practice of the Carcass Pit

While stopping this practice may seem like a no-brainer, there was, almost unsurprisingly, disagreement during one of Montana’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Committee (GBAC) April meetings around the efficacy of different carcass management practices. Some council members argued that carcass pits concentrate bears in one place, allowing ranchers to manage their herds safely on other parts of the landscape. One thread of the argument even included this: “Carcass pits are an important spring food source for bears right after they emerge from hibernation and they are hungry and scavenging,” claimed Trina Jo Bradley, a Montana rancher, who has previously made claims of grizzly bears being lured to her home by the sound of crying babies. “Bears need that protein.” Another seconded the necessity of these pits, noting the insult of being asked to pay $75-$100 for a carcass pickup after already absorbing the financial loss of the dead livestock.

While these financial costs are certainly real for ranchers, the argument that bears rely on carcass pits as an important spring food source is not. The logic here is simple: Bears follow the food. If carcass pits were not accessible, bears would simply go elsewhere. They would certainly not perish without this source of protein. This is what bears do. In that same GBAC meeting, another council member countered that carcass pits are, at their core, anthropomorphic. “Bears are smart, yes, but they are also trainable and they can learn that a bone or carcass pit is no longer a viable food option. We can wean bears off of this learned behavior.”

Alternatives that Keep Grizzlies Safer

One alternative to carcass pits is removal and composting, and it’s proven to be an effective, efficient and safe way to dispose of livestock that keeps grizzlies alive. The Blackfoot and Big Hole valleys in northwestern and southwestern Montana have invested in carcass removal and composting programs, and these have significantly decreased wildlife-livestock conflicts in those regions. Indeed, the carcass removal program in the Blackfoot, along with other prevention efforts there, has reduced conflicts by 93% since 2003. It’s “a huge tri-county project now, and in a given year probably 100 ranchers are taking part,” said Seth Williams, Executive Director of the Blackfoot Challenge that leads the program, in a recent Mountain Journal article.

At least a few other counties in Montana have had some good news when it comes to incentivizing carcass removal while at the same time eliminating the financial barrier for ranchers that the GBAC council member noted above. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) announced in March that a free carcass removal program would continue this spring in Ponderosa and Teton counties at no cost to landowners. “As grizzly bears continue to move out from the Rocky Mountain Front and into areas they haven’t occupied in a long time, we’ll continue to look for ways to work with local producers, communities and other partners to avoid or reduce conflict,” said FWP Director Martha Williams. 

All of us, including ranchers, can do more to prevent conflicts with grizzly bears. Carcass management alternatives like removal and composting are one step to ensuring that we are being good neighbors, steering grizzlies away from livestock herds and herds away from grizzlies. Stopping the practice of carcass pit disposal is another good place to start.