CODY, Wyo. — The key to maintaining a strong grizzly bear population in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem may no longer lie in the numbers of bears roaming the area, but rather in the minds of the people who live there.
With most wildlife officials in agreement that the grizzly bear is recovered in areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park, the next step may be locating socially acceptable habitat where people will tolerate living among an expanding grizzly bear population.
“We’ve done incredible bear management work, and now we’re stepping out to the human aspect of management,” said Gregg Losinski, regional conservation director for Idaho Fish and Game. “The bear needs to be able to go beyond the primary conservation area and expand into state and private lands.”
To achieve that, Losinski said, the grizzly will require habitat that is both biologically suitable for its survival and socially acceptable to humans.
But not everyone agrees on what’s considered acceptable habitat, or where people are willing to live with grizzlies.
A report by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department noted that despite five years of public input, there remains no clear consensus on grizzly habitat that is both biologically suitable to the animal and socially acceptable to people.
Even members of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee, which meets next week to discuss the bear during its biannual meeting, may disagree on the topic.
While some committee members advocate for expanding grizzly habitat and educating people on how to co-exist with the bear, others say the animal has already ventured far enough.
“We’re not interested in grizzly bears occupying new habitat except in areas where they already are,” said Brian Nesvik of Wyoming Game and Fish. “Socially acceptable habitat would be areas where grizzlies already occupy. We’re not interested in expansion. We’re maxed out on grizzly bears already.”
Nesvik said some areas within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem already provide both biologically suitable and socially acceptable habitat for the bear.
They include areas of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, the Gallatin National Forest in Montana and the Targhee National Forest in Idaho, along with adjoining wilderness areas.
“I think those are places people would expect to encounter and tolerate bears, though there are questions over density,” Nesvik said. “If they expanded into the Bighorn Mountains, that wouldn’t be socially acceptable, or south into the Wind River Range.”
Mark Bruscino of Wyoming Game and Fish placed last year’s grizzly population within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem at 604 bears.
Wildlife officials also completed the Grizzly Bear Occupancy Proposal, which looked at Wyoming land-use practices surrounding the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, along with the quality of bear habitat.
“For long-term conservation of the bears, we don’t see any need to expand the current range,” Bruscino said. “They’re in good, quality habitat right now, and it’s at or near carrying capacity.”
Some believe grizzlies still have room to expand, but Bruscino believes the bear’s wouldn’t do well in surrounding areas, primarily due to existing land-use practices, such as sheep and cattle grazing on national forest lands.
“It’s pretty well guaranteed that grizzlies wouldn’t do well if they tried to recolonize those areas,” Bruscino said. “There’s some land uses that simply aren’t compatible for having a high number of bears.”
Wherever grizzlies are deemed to be socially acceptable, biologists and wildlife advocates will work to build a foundation of tolerance to reduce conflicts.
Losinski cited a new sanitation ordinance in Teton County, Idaho, as a step in the right direction. In Park County, Wyo., a “bear-wise” effort is also under way to increase public education and reduce conflicts with grizzlies.
“Based upon the bear’s recovery and the way the bear is expanding its population, we’re confident the population goals have been met,” Losinski said. “Now we need to work on the human aspect.
“That’s the key for all the agencies involved in this — to figure out what we can do to make sure the bears have socially acceptable habitat.”
The Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee will meet at the Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson on April 20. Members will discuss habitat and white-bark pine, among other topics.