More grizzly bears in northwestern Montana have died because of human activity, compared to this time last year, but a federal official said that’s not necessarily cause for alarm.
“Sometimes, there are just a spate of mortalities,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I don’t think it’s a crisis or disaster.”
Six grizzlies, most of them males, have died in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem because of human activity, compared to two at this time last year, Servheen said.
Janet Barwick of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that group is “incredibly troubled” by the rise in deaths. “I don’t think we’re on the right path,” she said.
Of this year’s deaths, two were killings by wildlife officials after grizzlies had run-ins with livestock. There was a case of a hunter mistaking a grizzly for a black bear; a killing by a landowner; and two illegal kills that remain under investigation, Servheen said.
Another grizzly bear was recently shot by poachers near Priest River, Idaho Fish and Game Department officials have announced.
In 2004 as a whole, human activity led to the deaths of 31 grizzlies in northwestern Montana. Officials said that is the highest number recorded since grizzlies were listed as a threatened species in 1975. Research to calculate a population estimate for bears in that part of the state is under way.
“I don’t want you guys to think we’ll have twice as many dead bears this year,” Servheen said. “It could just be we have more this year, early.”
Grizzly bears are classified as a “threatened” species and are protected by both state and federal laws.
Nevertheless, Idaho Fish and Game Department officials said last week that the illegal killing of grizzlies accounts for more than 90 percent of known mortalities within the Selkirk Mountains, and remains a major hurdle to recovery for the bears.
Heidi Godwin, an associate regional representative for the Sierra Club, said that although the number of deaths is high for this time of year, it is too early to draw conclusions. What happens this summer with key food sources for bears will play a big role in overall bear mortality for 2005, she said.
“As food sources crash or are not available to them, they run into conflict with people,” she said.
Servheen said conflicts have occurred as grizzlies expanded their range and human presence in bear country increased. Five of the six bear deaths this year came on the ecosystem’s periphery, and that is where officials must focus efforts to educate people about bears, he said.
“Illegal mortalities are really unacceptable, because we have methods in place to deal with bears if people have concerns, and we can respond very rapidly to help them out,” he said.
Barwick believes there should be a greater emphasis on the cleanup and proper disposal of garbage and on the storage of other things that attract bears to places people inhabit.
“It’s important to teach people how to live in these communities and still have wildlife and not attract them into their cities,” she said.
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