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The Truth About Bears: The Maps

Bears in the lower 48 have rebounded from decades of declining populations and shrinking habitat. Also improving: your chance of seeing a bruin in the wild. By Ted Alvarez
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Black Bears Everywhere

The North American black bear population dropped significantly in the early 20th century, perhaps as low as 200,000. Today? It approaches a million. And bears aren’t just thriving in remote wilderness. “They’re returning to places where they were displaced by people,” says Chris Servheen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and adjunct professor at the University of Montana. “Places like New Jersey.” That’s not a misprint. The most densely populated state, home to Atlantic City and Snooki, hosts nearly 2,000 black bears. As recently as 1995, just a few hid in a northwest slice of the state. Since then, protections have enabled Jersey bears to spread far and wide, with sightings in every county by 2009.

“Bears are increasing in both numbers and range, particularly in the Lower 48,” says Servheen, who has managed continental grizzly bear recovery for 31 years. The Lower 48 alone supports about 375,000 black bears and 1,700 grizzlies (Alaska has about 100,000 and 30,000, respectively). Why the boom? “A big reason is careful management, coupled with the fact that they’re very adaptable and very successful in a wide range of habitats,” he says.

Much credit goes to strategies like preserving habitat, limiting hunting, and encouraging public education and the use of bear-resistant food storage systems (in the backcountry) and trash cans (in the frontcountry). And we’ve also ceded some of their territory back to them, a remarkable milestone given the relentless human expansion across North America in the last 500 years.

“As marginal farmlands have been abandoned, black bears have moved back into those habitats,” says Stephen Herrero, a leading bear researcher at the University of Calgary and author of the required-reading Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. “The expansion means many new opportunities for enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of bears,” he says. “But it also poses many new management challenges.”

You can see why in suburbs coast to coast. Neighborhood black bear antics are well documented on YouTube—in places like Boulder, Colorado (where the town’s famously focused cyclists have collided with bears at least twice since 2008), but also in surprising locales like the Atlanta ’burbs. City wildlife managers across the country now apply the lessons of the bear frontier (keep pet food indoors, don’t leave trash outside, etc.) to McMansion country in hopes of keeping the peace between the species. It’s mostly working, but even New Jersey introduced a six-day bear hunt in 2010 to help manage the growing population.

Grizzlies Gain Ground

The outlook is even sunnier for grizzlies. While they won’t ever occupy much of a former range that stretched from California to Kansas to Mexico, they’ve established thriving populations in the Rockies. In greater Yellowstone and Glacier, where 95 percent of Lower 48 grizzlies live, populations are growing two to three percent per year, with some 1,600 bruins total in 2012.

That’s astounding, given that they almost vanished outside of Canada and Alaska in the last century. By 1930, as few as 150 to 200 grizzlies remained in each of the Glacier and Yellowstone regions. Eventual listing as an endangered species came in 1975, and in 1981, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created an official post to direct research and begin the long, tenuous road to recovery. Servheen has held that post since its inception, and grizzlies today represent one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act.

“In Yellowstone and Glacier, the populations rival the density before the white man arrived,” says Servheen. “I’ve heard people say: ‘Trails are smoothed out every morning by the number of bears traveling through at night.’” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but with 608 grizzlies in 2012, the Yellowstone region now supports three times as many bears as it did 30 years ago. “Yellowstone’s at carrying capacity,” says Servheen. “We measure that by looking at the survival of subadults: It declines in a place with high density. They’re starting to regulate their own numbers.”

This increased density, says Servheen, means hikers’ chances of seeing a bear are better than they’ve been in a very long time.

What’s Next for America’s Bears

With the Yellowstone and Glacier populations likely secured for the next 500 years, the USFWS hopes to move forward with delisting grizzlies in those areas, and redirecting resources to help preserve and augment other recovery zones. That could be the key to future grizzly survival. “More occupancy in ecosystems increases the resiliency of the population as a whole,” says Servheen. “Genetic diversity is valuable, of course, but the real threat to grizzly bears was demographic collapse when populations got so small and isolated, as they were before 1980.” Grizzly bears reproduce more slowly than almost any other land mammal in North America: Mother bears typically produce a litter of two cubs, raise them for two years, and may not produce another litter for three to four years after that. The vast potential home ranges of males (as much as 500 square miles) can make simply finding a mate difficult. If a system with too few bears doesn’t produce enough female offspring, it could collapse completely.

When officials first pursued delisting in 2007, environmental groups sued, arguing bear populations were still too fragile. Federal courts agreed, citing climate change as a threat to key food sources like the whitebark pine, which pine beetles have ravaged. But while Servheen acknowledges the risk, he believes bears are uniquely predisposed to handle changes—and could adapt successfully to climate change.

“Grizzly bears and black bears are very adaptable species; they live in a wide range of habitats, and they’re not specialists on particular foods,” Servheen says. “Some animals, like wolverines, require snowy habitats. If snow conditions decline, it may have dramatic impacts. While climate change may affect the seasonal distribution of foods, some might actually have longer growing seasons, and bears could change the timing of their denning to accommodate the new food situation. We’re monitoring for baseline data now, but so far, bears are doing pretty well.”

Expect More Bear Encounters

That same extreme adaptability leads to trouble where bears intersect with humans on the fringes of their expanding habitat. Grizzlies’ success means outcompeted subadults are pushing beyond the Rocky Mountains into historic territory on the Montana plains, where they haven’t been seen for generations.
“A few weeks ago, we had a report of a grizzly sticking its head in a dog door,” Servheen says. “Bears become opportunistic if they come upon a bee shed or turkeys—and that’s not viewed kindly. There’s a limit to human tolerance.”

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the game, work with the communities on ways to coexist with bears as this expanding population moves into its native grassland habitat,” says Mike Madel, a Montana state field biologist. There’s conflict, of course, but Madel says, “The majority of ranchers enjoy seeing grizzlies—they accept bears on their land.” The government reimburses ranchers for lost livestock, removes problem bears, and gives free bear spray to landowners who provide habitat. The most recent surveys in two key states, Montana and Wyoming, peg public support for Ursus arctos horribilis at about 70 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

For hikers, the chances of spying a bruin are better than ever—but so is a (possibly violent) encounter, which means you must be vigilant about using appropriate bear-country skills. But don’t worry about bloodthirsty bears run amok. They’re not getting more aggressive; biologists speculate that the growing populations of both humans and bears simply increase the chances for interactions across the board. Bottom line: Your odds of becoming a victim remain exceedingly small.

“We have a responsibility to be stewards and take care of other life forms,” says Servheen. “People think of bears as huge, omnipotent creatures. But really, they’re very vulnerable, and they’re not so resilient that they’re always going to be here no matter what. I want my grandkids to go see grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the Bob Marshall Wilderness years from now. Where bears live is a special place, and what we do there should be special.”

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