Threatening and threatened, grizzly bears and mankind encroach on one another
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Tourists bundled in jackets against the brisk, chilling wind sit on wooden benches awaiting the next eruption of Old Faithful, the nation's most popular geyser.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As always, the ever-smoking geyser does not disappoint. First there is a little puff of water, then another, then nothing for a few more minutes. The crowd is expectantly quiet. Now a few more low squirts, then higher ones.
And now the full works, an awesome display of nature.
But on Sept. 9 this year, another awesome display of nature forced tourists to back away rather quickly from Old Faithful.
It was a creature that once roamed freely through much of the Old West, but whose existence is now threatened by man - a creature that has inspired legends, fear, and respect, and whose very name gives pause: ursus arctos horribilis, best known as the grizzly bear.
The grizzly walked calmly by Old Faithful, even timing the visit to coincide with an eruption. Perhaps it was curious about the fuss day after day over a geyser. More likely it was attracted by food smells.
For years, visitors to Yellowstone used to watch black bears come out on the roads and wait for handouts from tourists anxious to snap pictures of a wild creature so close. But even then, grizzlies were a much rarer sight. Today bear feeding is prohibited, and sighting a grizzly is rare.
But some are still out there, although only a few compared to the 100,000 or so that once lived in the Western states. There may be no more than 700 to 900 left in the lower 48 states - squeezed into about 1 percent of their historic range, according to Christopher Servheen, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Grizzlies are federally designated as a ''threatened'' species, only one step away from ''endangered.''
The government would like to keep the grizzly population at least at current levels. Some federal officials, including Mr. Servheen, say they are ''cautiously optimistic'' that their efforts are beginning to turn around the long decline.
Still, they cannot be sure. Counting grizzlies is not easy. They don't just line up. Other experts on grizzlies believe their numbers continue to decline.
The leading cause of grizzly deaths continues to be man. About 135 grizzlies have been killed by man since 1980, according to federal estimates. And hunters, whether legally (Montana still has a grizzly hunting season) or illegally, are not the only ones responsible.
About half the grizzly bear deaths in recent years have been accidental deaths caused by federal officials, says Stephen Mealey, supervisor of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.
Officials kill the bears after they injure someone or become ''addicted'' to human garbage and return one too many times. When there is room in zoos for the grizzlies, they are sent there. But often there is no space.
One grizzly was killed when a sling on a helicopter being used to relocate the bear broke, according to park officials. Others die accidently due to tranquilizing drugs given them during the relocation, Mr. Mealey says.
At the same time, development pressures on the remaining habitat of the grizzlies is increasing.
All but about one percent of their habitat is on federally owned land. National forests account for about two-thirds of that. But these forest lands are seeing continuing oil and gas exploration, timber cutting, road building and recreational use. Bear experts say the activities push grizzlies back to ever more confined areas.