A 15-year-old male grizzly bear was euthanized Wednesday after being captured Tuesday in West Yellowstone, where it had been seen near a schoolyard and around town for five days.
At first, the town’s police and a Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden attempted to haze the bear out of town, but it entered an alley and lay down. It was later captured in a culvert trap.
The bear was thin with worn and missing teeth. Given the animal’s poor condition, it was determined that the bear would not survive the fall if it was relocated, so the decision was made to euthanize the bear.
“It’s unlikely that this bear would have remained out of conflict due to its age and poor condition,” Kevin Frey, FWP bear management specialist, said in a statement.
Also on Tuesday, a chicken-killing grizzly bear sow with two cubs of the year was darted and captured north of Gardiner. After being examined, tagged and radio-collared, the bear and cubs were relocated to the interior of Yellowstone National Park on Thursday.
“We hope the sow will stay out of conflict until she dens with the cubs for the winter,” Frey said. “If she returns to a developed area, we will reassess the situation.”
The 8- to 10-year-old sow had raided separate chicken coops near Little Trail Creek on Monday and Tuesday and scared one horse, which was injured when it bolted through a fence. The bears had not threatened humans.
After assessing the bears in FWP’s Bozeman lab, it was determined that the sow was in fair condition, but that her two cubs were small and thin for their age and the time of year — anywhere from 15 to 40 pounds underweight.
Fall is when bears gorge themselves on a variety of foods to build fat reserves for winter hibernation. Biologists were uncertain, given the cubs’ condition, if they would survive the winter.
The Greater Yellowstone Area supports an estimated 600 grizzly bears, according to surveys this year. A cold, wet spring, which limited early vegetation growth, and a poor fall whitebark pine nut crop have meant scarcer food resources for some bears.
As the grizzly bear population has grown, Frey said, competition for food has increased.
When there is competition, older bears and females with cubs often lose out to stronger, more dominant bears, he said. That’s often when the bears wander to developed areas where there’s easier access to food and no threats from other bears.
A malnourished grizzly sow with three cubs mauled two campers and killed and fed on a Michigan man this summer in a campground near Cooke City. After the sow was captured and killed, an autopsy revealed that the bear was infested with an unusual amount of intestinal parasites.
Frey said the sow captured near Gardiner was in better shape.
Grizzly bears are protected as a threatened species, although they were delisted for two years beginning in 2007.
Bear advocates successfully sued to have the bears returned to protected status in 2009 with the federal judge agreeing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t adequately considered the effects of climate change on bears and finding the agency’s protections lacking.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has challenged the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing, in part, that the grizzly population continues to grow.
Under the microscope
The mauling this summer has heightened interest in grizzly bears.
On Tuesday, as FWP attempted to capture the bears in Gardiner, crews were being photographed by onlookers. When the bears were hauled from the capture site late Tuesday, speculation about the nighttime departure lit up the Internet and included concerns about where the bears had come from, why they were being trapped and that FWP planned to kill the animals.
The initial post on Tuesday night was headlined: “Beloved Grizzly Sow & Cubs About to be Euthanized!” The posting encouraged readers to contact officials to ensure that the bears weren’t killed.
“The initial report had no relation to reality,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Vicky Kraft, a regular poster to the Yellowstone.net website who lives in Southern California, said FWP should have been quicker about getting out information to clarify the situation.
“Why didn’t they put out a release that said the bears have been captured and are being assessed in Bozeman?” she asked.
One of the assertions was that the sow and cubs were from the Dunraven Pass area and had been driven out by a wildfire burning in Yellowstone.
“We have no way of knowing exactly where in the ecosystem this bear came from because she was unmarked,” Servheen said in a statement. “Rumors that the bear was from the Dunraven Pass area of Yellowstone have no factual basis.”
The decision to release the bears required permission from Yellowstone National Park and coordination with the Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP. Under recovery program guidelines, the unknown bear did not warrant removal from the population based on her first chicken coop raids.
“It is always a difficult decision for managers to balance what’s best for the individual bear, the welfare of the grizzly population as a whole and public safety,” Frey said.
Bear managers are concerned that, given reduced food sources this fall and a strong bear population, grizzly-hunter conflicts could be more prevalent.
The big-game rifle season opens in Montana on Oct. 23. Many of the conflicts involve elk hunters in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
Already this year, 37 grizzly bear deaths have been documented in the Greater Yellowstone Area — 25 males, 11 females and one whose sex could not be determined because the carcass had been fed upon.
Contact Brett French at email@example.com or 657-1387.