Bear 399: Delisting the grizzly you know


(UPDATE: May 10, 2016 deadline to submit comments on delisting. Access all related documents and find comment link here.)

We humans don’t relate well to nonhuman animals at the population level–so goes the theory. But give us the particulars about a specific individual–tell us his or her story–and we get it: this is someone who has an interest in living. Someone with places to go…kids to raise…food to procure. Like us, this is someone who wants to avoid danger–while living the good life. This is an individual with a story–and a history.

If you can’t relate to the 112,126,000 pigs killed in the U.S. in 2013, how about just one–Esther the Wonder Pig, who has her own Facebook page (and 372,000+ likes)? Or Wilma (outgoing, talkative, loves apples), rescued from factory farming? Who can wrap their head around 8,666,662,000 chickens killed in the U.S. in 2014?!? But it’s easy to be drawn into Penelope’s story–saved from ritual slaughter, or that of Butterscotch, who saw sunshine for the first time with her one good eye (the other one covered in an infected mass) after her rescue from a factory egg farm. Animal activists have attempted to raise awareness about trophy hunting for years, but it took the death of Cecil, a well-known African lion with his own following, to virally propel the topic into public consciousness.

Then take grizzly bears. Here in the Northern Rockies, grizzlies frequently die unnatural deaths–struck by vehicles, shot by rural homeowners, killed mistakenly or defensively by hunters, executed by the state as “problem bears.” For many people, the death of the generic grizzly, while always lamentable, isn’t the same as the loss of the bear one knows. Witness last August’s anguish and outrage when Blaze, an oft-photographed mother bear with a fan base in Yellowstone, was executed for killing and partially consuming an intruding hiker.

After 40 years of protected threatened status, Endangered Species Act (ESA) delisting looms on the horizon for the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) grizzlies, and now bear advocates would like for you to get to know grizzly 399, “the most famous mother bear on earth” (photo, “The Matriarch”). Because if you know her, you’ll be more likely to go to bat for her.

T. Mangelsen photo; click image

T. Mangelsen photo; click image

First, a few details about 399, so named by researchers with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team: She’s 19, weighs nearly 400 pounds, and stands 6 feet, 2 inches on her hind legs. She’s a super-mom, having produced three litters of triplets; her offspring include 14 cubs and grandcubs. (Bear 610, her daughter, is famous in her own right and has a Twitter account.) Her home territory, covering hundreds of square miles, includes Grand Teton National Park–where she lives, and the Bridger-Teton National Forest–where she dens. Mama 399 and cubs hang out in the front country where they’re safer from male bears (who sometimes kill cubs in order to initiate a new breeding cycle in the female) and food is plentiful. While this exposes the family to adoring wildlife watchers and eager photographers, it’s important to note that 399 is tolerant of humans, but not habituated to us.

I learned these facts from two people who know 399 perhaps better than anyone when they came to speak at the University of Montana back in mid-November. World renowned photographer Tom Mangelsen (you’ve already seen his iconic Alaska bear photo) and environmental journalist Todd Wilkinson, along with the Sierra Club (Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies Campaign) brought their grizzly roadshow to Missoula to raise awareness about what–make that who–is at stake with delisting. This was also a book tour with a mission: the duo has produced a spectacular book of images and text, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An intimate portrait of 399.”

In a word, delisting the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies now would be premature. Key issues are changes in the food supply; habitat expansion and connectivity obstacles; and immediate trophy hunting in all three states (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming). With an estimated 717 bears–down from some 750 in 2014–conservationists advise a precautionary approach, particularly in light of the 55 conflict-related bear mortalities in the past year (and four orphaned cubs sent to zoos, bringing the loss of bears to 59), and the frighteningly low minimum population number of 600 proposed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, administrator of the ESA.

Grizzlies are omnivores with wide-ranging tastes, but their primary foods are whitebark pine seeds, spawning cutthroat trout, army cutworm moths, and ungulate meat. The whitebark pine forest, according to Wilkinson, is already 70-80% gone in the GYA due to non-native fungal disease and climate-driven bark beetle attacks, while cutthroats have been all but wiped out by exotic lake trout (a deep-water fish unavailable to bears). Moths, which grizzlies eat by the pound (up to 40,000 a day!), are subject to climate change and pesticides at lower elevations. This leaves meat–primarily elk–which bears shift to as other food sources disappear. “Because grizzly bears reproduce so slowly,” writes the Sierra Club, “it takes a long time to discern trends (i.e., population trends), but we already know that more bears are dying as they increasingly use meat (livestock and hunter-killed carcasses) to replace traditional food sources, and come into more conflict with ranchers and hunters as a result.”

The GYA grizzlies are an isolated “island population”–presenting an obstacle to expansion and genetic diversity. According to the Sierra Club,

This should means more protection for bears–not less–especially in linkage areas, and the freedom to expand into suitable habitat without an increase in human-caused mortalities.

But it’s the immediate onslaught of trophy hunting that produces the most visceral reaction from bear advocates. Keep in mind that Grand Teton National Park “deputizes” hundreds of citizens as ranger-hunters to kill elk inside the park–they proposed issuing 650 licenses this past season (late October through mid-December)–for the so-called elk reduction program. Both Mangelsen and Wilkinson emphasized the danger of park hunting to bears: hunters kill elk, leaving behind gut piles–with human scent all over them–which attract bears. They told of one hunter who killed a bull elk, but because he didn’t possess a bull permit, he left the carcass. Bears found it and fed on it–concentrating bears and hunters on the same landscape. What could possibly go wrong?!? Worse still, grizzlies now equate gunshots to a dinner bell–a tragic set-up when the great bears become targets themselves.

While the interagency grizzly bear partners have done a great job reviving the population, praised Mangelsen, and while many delisting metrics have been met–Wilkinson cited the number of females and females with cubs–both agreed that this isn’t enough, that ALL variables must be considered. If this is a political move to protect the Endangered Species Act–i.e., a pressing need to show a success story–it comes at the expense of grizzly bears. In strictly economic terms, nature-based tourism is soaring and bears are worth more alive in wildlife-watching revenue than they are dead in trophy hunting license fees.

But for bear advocates, grizzly lives can’t be measured in economic terms–if they can be measured at all. Grizzlies are essential and priceless members of our community of life, today occupying less than 2% of their historic habitat in the lower 48. So when the delisting rule is issued, please defend 399, her daughter 610, and their kids and extended family. These are the bears you know.

Learn more:

  • “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” book trailer; don’t miss this 3:50 minute video!
  • “What’s next for Yellowstone’s grizzlies?” – by Todd Wilkinson in National Geo.
  • “USFWS letter indicates grizzly bear delisting proposal coming soon,”here
  • “Grizzly counting methods face scrutiny as delisting decision nears” – Missoulian, 12/9/15
  • – a petition to the director of the US Fish & Wildlife Svc.; links to info
  • Grizzly Times links to latest science – here
  • How will 399 and other grizzlies survive U.S. trophy shootings? – podcast
  • Mangelsen’s image of 610’s cubs play-dancing in the Tetons (Apr. 2012) is here
  • “The changing world of Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears” – watch at least from the 4 minute mark to 13:29 (you’ll probably want to watch more!), here.

King-size coyote fur comforter: Price vs. cost

Wile E Coyote

Looney Tunes/Warner Bros. – click image

From Killing Coyotes 101: “Don’t be squeamish about killing juvenile coyotes,” advises the text beneath a photo of a grown man grinning over a dead pup. “They will be practicing their hunting skills on your turkey poults, deer fawns, pigglets [sic] and livestock if you let them. so [sic] kill them when you can.”

If that seems harsh, keep in mind that it’s all in God’s design:

But even despicable creatures have their price. A king-size coyote fur comforter (comforter–oh the bitter irony of that word!) is offered for sale at the special price of $5495.00, reduced from $6495.00. The luxurious fur of 20-some animals (my estimate from photo) cascades to the floor, starkly illustrating how Canis latrans is valued by some (punctuation/capitalization as appears on the website):


Click image for Facebook page

While pricey fur bedspreads are an elite niche market (as well as flagrant commercialization of wildlife), they’re far removed from the ranks of varmint hunters and trappers out to kill “yotes.” No love is lost on predators–especially wily ones like coyotes–judging from the number of predator “derby” competitions. It’s as if there’s a special, intense hatred of coyotes because they dare to be smart–perhaps smarter than their stalkers. So the killers turn to decoys and technological gadgetry–electronic calling devices (video)–and even bait to lure them in. Don’t forget that principled advice from Killing Coyotes 101: never be afraid to hunt them in what we would normally think of as an “unsporting manner.” They deserve to die!

While killing competitions are nothing new–they’ve just been skulking in the shadows like other morally-challenged pursuits–they’re coming under increasing scrutiny and media attention. So now organizers often attempt to legitimize the bloodlust as necessary:


Click image for larger graphic

But this goes against current scientific knowledge about coyote social structure and reproduction. Research suggests that:

This is also why bounties don’t work. I impulsively picked up a free copy of the “Montana Hunting & Fishing News” for December and found a poorly-written piece titled “Predator control works in Utah: More states should follow.” It’s not available online so I can’t link to it, but the gist is this: Utah’s Predator Control Program offered hunters and trappers a $50 per animal bounty, reaping 7160 coyotes in the program’s first year. The blood money incentive resulted in an estimated 3000 to 4800 more dead coyotes than normally would have been killed. Here’s the take-away, according to Hunting & Fishing News:

You can always rely on the Dynamic Duo of speciesism and capitalism to value animals’ lives solely on their perceived disadvantage or benefit to humans and their ability to cash in. Ka-ching!


Project Coyote – click image

If you were naive, you’d think that state wildlife management agencies would put an end to killing contests–not only because they’re indiscriminate, unscientific, and ineffective, but also because debasing native wildlife species is nothing to promote and creates a vigilante mindset. Surely the resulting malice exacts a societal cost. Says conservative author Matthew Scully: “Cruelty is less a vice in its own right than it is a cost exacted by other vices — greed and arrogance, just to start with. Victims of cruelty are the wreckage left by selfish desire.” (A 70-year-old coyote defender was allegedly assaulted by a killing contest sponsor in Modoc County, CA just a few days ago. Violence begets violence.)

But science and sanity don’t prevail, as Utah’s bounty illustrates. In Idaho, two wilderness wolf packs were recently exterminated by the state to increase elk production. New Mexico’s “game” commission chair kills for cash. Here in Montana, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) condones gratuitous slaughter, offering guidelines on a page sickeningly titled, “Recreational Shooting of Predators.” (Coyotes can also be trapped/snared year-round–no license required for state residents.) If one wonders how this self-serving system sustains itself, here’s just one glimpse into how the deck is stacked: according to his “about” page, the purveyor of that coyote fur comforter serves on his regional FWP Citizens Advisory Committee.

But listen for rumblings of change. California’s Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to consider a ban on hunting contests (Dec. 2014: done!), with one commissioner commenting that contests “seem inconsistent both with ethical standards of hunting and our current understanding of the important role predators play in ecosystems.”

While the price of a king-size coyote fur comforter is high–not only to the purchaser, but especially to those who suffer in traps and pay with their lives–the cost is much broader and weightier and can’t be measured in anything so concrete as dollars. There’s the cost to ecological integrity. On the human front, there’s the cost that results in a diminished ethical bank account: dwindling stores of compassion and justice, depleted funds of morality–a hemorrhaging of simple generosity and accommodation. It’s a shared account, and we all bear the cost.

  • Two published, scientific papers on the biological mechanisms for why killing coyotes doesn’t work can be found here.
  • “Killing Coyote” High Plains Films, 83 min. documentary; watch trailer here
  • “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal” by Matthew Scully is here
  • “The ecological role of coyotes, bears, mountain lions, and wolves,” Predator Defense
  • “Coyote hunting ‘dirt naps’” – watch this and tell me who the “ruthless, heartless, killing machines” are.

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