How Would Like Your Grizzly?
Sow, boar, or cub? Full body mount or rug? Baked, stewed, or fried? As an occasional grumpy neighbor that only comes to visit when they need something, or as a nighttime guest of your dreams? Federally protected or delisted?
Black Hills residents do not currently have to deal with that question. But after viewing an excellent visual prepared for the pubic by the USGS called the Grizzly Expansion Map, a person can see how strongly the grizzly protection act has expanded their range. Now that the recovery program started 42 years ago has been ruled a success, the states will be tasked with managing their own populations.
Grizzlies, the largest land predator in the lower forty-eight, have slowly expanded their territory and population under federal protection. Growing from a remnant of less than 200 hundred individuals, they have tripled in number to more than 700 and spread their home range at approximately five miles a year. Grizzlies are not like wolves, they have few young at a time and are a slow growing species. Even historic estimates of their original population never climb over 50,000 below the Canadian border.
I pulled out the map and started to speculate how old I will be before the first Ursus arctos horribilis returns to the Hills; the lands were George Custer and his scouts managed to shoot one of the few grizzlies roaming South Dakota at that time.
My totally unscientific estimate has Grizzlies returning to the Black Hills by 2062. My 102- year old grandpa proves that there is a possibility of my being here, but he says that I’d better be eating my carrots if I want my vision to hold out long enough for the spectacle. According to our Canadian neighbors who have much more experience managing them than we, there are a few steps that the states can implement that would accelerate the expansion and bring bears before my vision fails.
For many, this type of speculation holds little credibility, too many people, and too much livestock for bears to be able to make a living without being removed or coming in terminal conflict with the bumper of a SUV. Those folks said the same thing about mountain lions and wolves and both of those species have proven the skeptics wrong.
One of the most counter intuitive ways of accelerating population expansion is targeted hunting. Bears, in the same fashion as mountain lions, are opportunistic cannibals. Sows go out of their way to keep their cubs away from boars or they can be eaten. As a young outfitter, I distinctly remember when Wyoming bumped their lion quota along the South Dakota border. Hunters used dogs to target cats with the biggest tracks and the population of cannibals was reduced. The total lion population dramatically expanded until South Dakota opened its own season with a more liberal female harvest.
In Alaska, one study of four bear populations showed that the two units that were hunted, had stronger numbers of cubs surviving and larger numbers being born than in the national parks were hunting was prevented.
Canada currently estimates their grizzly numbers at nearly 26,000 with an added half a million black bears. British Columbia alone is home to nearly 17,000 of that total and harvests 350 bears per year through hunting. While bears are expanding eastward from Yellowstone, their northern cousins are more than holding their own and are also in expansion mode. Which way they come first is anyone’s guess.
I would prefer my bears like my wolves, infrequent and distant neighbors. Most of America is in love with the thought of more wild places, and wildlife. But only a few will be asked to live with grizzlies.
My sole encounter occurred in the Lamar Valley nearly five years ago on a morning hike. A sow and her grown cub stepped out of the sage within striking distance, saw me as neither threat nor food, and continued by on their hunt for hidden elk calves. My knees jellied and my heart skipped a couple of beats. It was open prairie and there were no trees for me to climb nor car to hide behind. We were close enough to have played a game of catch, but I’m grateful they declined, seeing as how I would have been their ball.
I’m so glad I got to see them, but even more glad that I had to travel that far to do it. But the distance appears to be closing.