BILLINGS – Yellowstone’s grizzlies are going to be particularly hungry this fall, and that means more dangerous meetings with humans in a year that is already the area’s deadliest on record.
Scientists report that a favorite food of many bears, nuts from whitebark pine cones, is scarce. So as grizzlies look to put on some major pounds in preparation for the long winter ahead, scientists say, the bears will be looking for another source of protein – meat – and running into trouble along the way.
Wildlife managers already report bears coming down off the mountains and into areas frequented by hunters, berry pickers and hikers.
“Pack your bear spray: There’s going to be run-ins,” said grizzly researcher Chuck Schwartz with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Two people have been fatally mauled by grizzlies so far this year in Wyoming and Montana. Experts said that’s the most in one year in at least a century for the Yellowstone region, which also includes parts of Idaho.
The bears in both instances were later killed.
Full-grown Yellowstone bears can stand 6 feet tall and top 600 pounds. They have been known to peel off a man’s face with a single swipe of a massive, clawed paw.
In the latest attack, a Michigan man was killed and two others injured when an undernourished bear and her three cubs marauded through a crowded campground near Cooke City, Mont., on July 28. A month earlier, a botanist from Cody, Wyo., was killed by a bear shortly after the animal woke up from being tranquilized by researchers.
And it’s not just humans at risk.
Yellowstone’s grizzlies were recently ordered back onto the threatened species list by a federal judge who cited in part a decline in whitebark pine.
Beetles, apparently surviving winters in larger numbers due to less frequently freezing temperatures, have decimated vast stands of the high-altitude trees. In some areas studied by researchers, more than 70 percent of trees have been killed.
While bears aren’t starving, the loss of whitebark is driving increasing numbers of conflicts with humans.
“Every year is now a bad year for whitebark pine,” said Louisa Wilcox with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can expect more conflicts, and we are getting it.”
While fatal encounters remain rare for humans, it is not so uncommon for bears to die after they run into people.
Twenty-two grizzlies are known to have died or been removed this year in and around Yellowstone National Park. Most were killed or relocated by wildlife officials because they had attacked people, acted aggressively or destroyed livestock or property.
The record number of bear deaths, 79, came in 2008 – another poor year for whitebark pine.