A picture might be worth a thousand words, but is it worth the life of one of the nation’s rarest mammals?
That’s the question wildlife experts are asking after a 2-year-old Selkirk grizzly was shot by Idaho Fish and Game officials Oct. 4, when rubber bullets, noise-making shotgun shells and a live-trap relocation failed to keep the bear from returning to easy food sources in the tiny lakeside community of Nordman.
The bear couldn’t be persuaded to stay away, but biologists say the animal is hardly at fault. Its death warrant was effectively signed by those who got the young bear hooked on a steady diet of cracked corn and sunflower seeds, according to wildlife experts, including Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This is a senseless mortality. It’s due to carelessness on the part of people,” Servheen said. “When they do something stupid, like feeding animals, they will get bears killed.”
Although the bear had found several reliable sources of food in the area – including pet food, gardens, apple trees, bird feeders and piles of corn – officials say they were particularly frustrated with the feeding conducted by Nordman-area wildlife photographer Tom Holman. Idaho law does not restrict backyard wildlife feeding, but the Fish and Wildlife Service is looking into the case to determine whether Holman’s actions violated federal law by creating a situation that resulted in the avoidable death of an endangered species, Servheen said.
“People like that might as well just shoot these animals right out,” he said. “But the management agencies end up doing the dirty work.”
Holman denied intentionally feeding the bear and said stories circulating about his alleged role in the incident are false. He declined to speak extensively about the bear’s death, other than to say he has retained an attorney and intends to sue both the Idaho Fish and Game Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service for slander.
“I was not luring the bear in,” Holman said. He said state Fish and Game officials had knocked on his door before the bear’s death to ask him to stop providing a food source for wildlife. He acknowledged putting out corn for deer.
“Simply feeding deer didn’t kill the grizzly,” he said, adding that state officials have also discouraged other residents from keeping gardens or feeding pets outdoors. “It restricts the use of private property up here.”
If anything, wildlife management agencies have put local residents at risk by suppressing information on the expanding population of Selkirk grizzlies, Holman said. “The grizzly bears are everywhere up here, and they’re not telling people about it. They try to keep it a secret.”
Holman declined to answer further questions. “I’m not going to say any more, I’m sorry,” he said, adding moments later, “All I’m looking for is an apology from Idaho Fish and Game and the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Among the photographs selling for $40 a print on Holman’s Web site were several images of black bear and deer. There were no photos of grizzlies, but messages posted by admirers of Holman’s work indicate that he had previously posted images of grizzly bears on the site. One person wrote, “Really enjoyed seeing all the grizzlys (sic). Guess they really like eating the corn.”
Because grizzlies can be dangerous and they typically inhabit remote, rugged terrain, it’s not uncommon for wildlife photographers to use bait piles to lure the animals for a close shot, said Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of the Missoula-based Center for Wildlife Information. Bartlebaugh condemns the practice as unethical, not to mention potentially deadly for the bears being photographed.
Several years back, officials had to use a bulldozer to haul away the huge bait piles outside a wildlife photographer’s home near Glacier National Park. A magazine run by a national conservation group even published an image from the photographer of a grizzly bear that had birdseed stuck to its nose, Bartlebaugh said. The bait piles eventually led to at least one grizzly being shot.
“We don’t need any more grizzly bear photographs,” Bartlebaugh said. “We need more grizzly bears.”
The Selkirk grizzlies are among the most endangered bears on the continent, with only about 40 believed to be roaming the Panhandle mountain range. Idaho Fish and Game biologist Wayne Wakkinen said the bears appear to be making a slow recovery. There’s also increasing evidence of the bears migrating and breeding with populations in the Cabinet and Yaak areas. But with the Selkirk population so small, even a single death represents a setback.
Wakkinen said repeated efforts were made to keep the bear alive, including trapping the animal in August and moving it to the most remote spot possible while still within the Selkirks. Within weeks, though, the bear had returned to Nordman, where it wandered amongst cabins and homes without fear, occasionally “woofing” at people. In the two months between the time it had been trapped and shot, the grizzly gained about 50 pounds. Wakkinen said this is evidence of its rich, high-caloric diet of sunflower seeds and cracked corn.
Because the bear was young – summer was its first time alone – teaching it new feeding habits was even more difficult, Wakkinen said. The bear effectively learned to survive on human-provided sources of food.
“He wasn’t an aggressive bear, but he was obviously a food junkie,” Wakkinen said.
The bear also stood its ground when people were near. It was only a matter of time before a mauling, Wakkinen said, adding that the decision to kill the bear has weighed heavily on him.
“I’ve been up here almost 20 years trying to recover bears. Now we’re making a conscious decision to kill one. Yeah, it was a horrible decision,” he said. “We ran out of options.”
An older male grizzly trapped recently near Priest Lake appears to have learned to stay away from garbage and other easy eats, Wakkinen said. The older grizzly was relocated but has since returned to the Nordman area. Officials have used a tracking collar to keep an eye on the bear. To their relief, the bear’s scat piles are filled with grass, not corn and sunflower seeds.
“He doesn’t seem to be returning to his old habits,” Wakkinen said.
Teaching old bears new tricks is probably not the best long-term strategy, though. Wakkinen and other wildlife experts say officials need to be given the ability to halt feeding in problem situations.
Wakkinen pointed to a case in the Lightning Creek area near Sandpoint, where for years a resident has put out food for bears, including piles of old doughnuts. A dozen or more black bears at a time have been spotted in the man’s yard this fall. Meanwhile, the conservation officer is “running ragged” trying to respond to bear complaints from neighbors, Wakkinen said.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “We don’t have any options from an enforcement standpoint as far as dealing with people who are creating nuisance animals.”
The carcass of the young grizzly killed near Priest Lake went to a taxidermist. Months from now, the mounted bear will be hauled around to schools and sportsman’s groups as an example of what can happen when man attempts to tame nature’s wildest creatures.
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