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How much are Yellowstone’s grizzlies worth? Here are the numbers

Wildlife » Researchers say the animals are worth the hassle to rangers.

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Officials stopped all artificial feeding in the 1970s and the grizzly population dipped. With programs enacted through the Endangered Species Act starting in 1975, grizzlies became more numerous and visible. As the backcountry filled up with grizzlies, they began using roadside habitat they had previously avoided.

In the 1980s the park didn’t let grizzlies hang out along Yellowstone’s 300 miles of roads where people could readily see them. Managers worried bears would be fed, come to associate people with food, and therefore become unnaturally dangerous. Or they might get hit by cars.

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"We initially tried trapping and moving those bears," Gunther said. "That’s more of a Band-aid approach."

Bears would return, faithful to their home turf. Or they would be chased out of a foreign neighborhood.

"A lot of people like to think there’s this big happy valley where we can move bears," Gunther said. But no; "The park’s full."

Hazing — including shooting rubber bullets — didn’t work, either. Olaus Murie had learned that as early as 1944, Gunther said in a 2008 article in Yellowstone Science.

"Experience has shown that the bear learns to recognize the particular person or car that administers the shock or other punishment, and he simply avoids that person or car in the future, but does not fear other persons or cars," Gunther quoted from a Murie park file.

Plus, bears’ natural food occurs alongside highways. Those include ungulate carcasses, elk calves, whitebark pine seeds, clover, biscuit root, pocket gophers, yampa roots and rose hips, Gunther wrote. "It would take more than rubber bullets and cracker shells to change centuries of bear evolution."

Managers sought another tactic, Gunther said. "Let’s manage people.

"It started small — a few dozen bear jams a year," Gunther said. "It worked very well. The public loved it. Today, we easily have 1,000 bear jams a year."

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Bears, too, became used to the scene. They became habituated to people and cars, but not conditioned to associate traffic jams with an opportunity to run off with a picnic basket.

"Habituation of bears to humans in YNP allows them to access and utilize high quality habitat in areas with high levels of human activity without incurring the energetic costs of fleeing every time a park visitor appears," Gunther wrote in Yellowstone Science.

One option Yellowstone and Grand Teton have would be to let the bear-jam scene play out without ranger supervision. "We don’t know what would happen if we just said ‘let it be,’" Gunther said.

Given human nature and past experience, the probability that somebody would break no-feeding rules or get too close is high.

"Eventually the bear gets in trouble and gets removed," Gunther said. "Also, if somebody gets hurt, that can be a setback not only to the individual bear but to the bear population as a whole. It just builds fear of bears in people."

Managers are wary of an Arizona lawsuit against wildlife officials that was settled for $2.5 million after a girl was mauled by a black bear known to have been a problem.

"So we also have to look out for the taxpayers’ money from a lawsuit point of view," Gunther said.

Allowing visitors to see bears up close in the natural world stirs awe and inspires an appreciation for conservation of the species, biologists say.

Not all bear jams can be staffed today. "There are currently more ‘bear jams’ on Park roads than Park rangers to manage them, causing a strain on existing Park personnel as well as increased concern for visitor safety," Gunther and his colleagues wrote.

Where rangers are present, things have gone well.

"We’ve never had a person hurt by a bear at a bear jam," Gunther said. But, "we’ve had a few people injured by vehicles."

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