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Can we live with grizzlies?

Are parks for people or for bears? This question is under serious discussion around Yellowstone National Park--grizzly bear country. Maulings and a fatality last summer have heightened concern about visitor safety and overall management of the bears.

Most debate focuses on the so-called Yellowstone Ecosystem, an 8,200-square-mile region that includes the park. Last year, 2.4 million visitors crammed into the park itself, mostly in summer, the bears' most active season--making encounters inevitable.

Grizzlies are intelligent, self-assured, and big--as adults they can stand up to 8 feet tall and weigh nearly half a ton. They're omnivorous, with a diet that includes rodents, fish, berries, even grass. Their behavior is unpredictable: encountered in the wild, a grizzly may turn and run; or, if it feels threatened, it may charge forward at up to 30 miles an hour.

We talked with those closest to the question--from National Park Service rangers to sportsmen in West Yellowstone, Montana. At present, certain key issues emerge in discussion. Among them:

How many bears are left? Outside of Alaska, most remaining grizzlies in the lower 48 roam in Montana's Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness and around Yellowstone. Experts estimate that only 600 to 900 bears are left, with fewer than half of them females. In the Yellowstone area, where just 200 bears live, human-caused mortalities are now a greater threat to the population than the bears' already-slow reproductive rate. The species, Ursus arctos, is classified as "threatened."

Tempest in a garbage can. When Yellowstone's garbage dumps were shut down in 1970, bears lost a prime--though unnatural--source of food, a shock that may be one reason for lesser numbers today. Yet garbage is still a major cause of run-ins between man and bear.

In West Yellowstone last summer, residents were urged to keep refuse in proper areas and not to feed bears. Even so, scavenging grizzlies were regularly seen in town, and camping nearby was permitting only in hard-sided vehicles. This year, Montana has offered $70,000 to bearproof the dumpsters--provided the town and conservation groups raise matching funds.

To hunt or not to hunt. Montana is the only state with a season on grizzlies. The total limit is just 25 bears, but with the dwindling population and continued poaching, many observers think hunting should be banned. Others feel that without hunting, grizzlies would lose their fear of man and become a threat to people and livestock. The state is reconsidering.

Minimizing man-bear conflicts. Several popular camps in the Yellowstone Ecosystem are in major bear-movement corridors. The mosdt controversial is Fishing Bridge, the only RV campground with full hookups in the park.

Located smack-dab in the heart of prime grizzly habitat, the site has accounted for most of the confrontations within the park in the past 15 years. The Park Service wants to put RV facilities in less sensitive areas, but local businesses and recreation groups have so far thwarted change.

Fortunately, solutions to these and other problems may be in the offing, thanks to the Grizzly Bears Recovery Plan, written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its goal is to provide appropriate habitats, with adequate limits on human activities there, to ensure survival of a wild grizzly population. Habitat surveys, bear tracking, temporary road and trail closures, and many other means are being agreed upon to bring about more peaceful coexistence.
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Date:Jun 1, 1985
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