As US bears die, hunters and climate change blamed

Bozeman, Montana (AP) – Hunters are killing grizzly bears in
record numbers around Yellowstone National Park and researchers say
the once-endangered predator is expanding across the region.

Bears are being seen – and killed – in places where they were
absent for decades. Researchers suspect climate change is wiping
out one of the bear’s food sources and they worry the trend will
continue as the animals roam farther in search of food.

Yellowstone’s 600 grizzlies were removed from the endangered
species list in 2007, following a recovery program that cost more
than $20 million. If the death rate stays high for a second
consecutive year, that would trigger a review of the bear’s
endangered status.

“Last year may have been one of those fluke years,” said Chuck
Schwartz, a bear biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Last
year could be the beginning of a trend.”

Federal officials say 48 bears were killed by humans last year,
out of 71 total deaths. At least 20 of the bears died at the hands
of hunters who shot in self-defense or after mistaking them for
other animals.

“It’s kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. All you see is a big
bear coming at you full speed,” said Ron Leming, a Wyoming elk
hunter who said he survived an attack from a 500-pound
(225-kilogram) male grizzly after his father shot it dead with an
arrow.

“If you play dead he might sit there and eat you,” Leming
said.

Schwartz and other biologists who study grizzlies insist the
population in the 15,000-square-mile (38,850-square-kilometer)
Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming remains strong for
now, growing on average 4 to 5 percent a year.

Yet they acknowledge climate change could prove the wild card
that puts that growth in check. An epidemic of beetles in
Yellowstone’s high country has laid waste to tens of thousands of
acres of whitebark pine trees, which have seeds that some grizzlies
rely on as a dietary staple.

Beetle epidemics are cyclical in the Northern Rockies. The
latest one has been prolonged by several consecutive winters in
which subfreezing temperatures did not last long enough to knock
back the infestation.

If a warming world leads to less whitebark pine,

environmentalists fear grizzlies will become more aggressive
in

challenging hunters – contests that bears usually lose.

“The prospect is that every year is going to be a bad food year
because of what’s happening to whitebark,” said Doug Honnold, an
attorney for the group Earthjustice.

Citing dying pine forests as a major threat, Honnold’s group
sued the federal government in an attempt to get Yellowstone
grizzlies back on the endangered species list.

Christopher Servheen, bear recovery coordinator with the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, said his agency is closely monitoring
the population and already crafting a plan to stem the death
rate.

Meanwhile, conservationists are trying to encourage hunters to
use mace-like bear spray as a non-lethal alternative to keeping
them at bay.

Other measures being considered are stepped-up public education
efforts and restrictions on livestock grazing, to prevent bear
attacks on sheep and cattle.

Gregg Losinski, an education specialist with Idaho Fish and
Game, said promoting the possibility of future grizzly bear hunts
might convince more people to buy into bear conservation.

Even with those measures, researchers say bear deaths are
inevitable as the animals return to a different landscape than that
occupied by their ancestors.

Before early European settlers drove bears to near extinction,
there were an estimated 50,000 grizzlies in the western half of the
United States.

Yellowstone’s bears are among about 1,500 that have since
repopulated the Northern Rockies. They must compete for space with
several million tourists, and property owners.

“Some people say, ‘This is terrible, there’s more bears killed
now than in many years,” Servheen said. “Well, there’s more bears
now.”

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