Grizzly deaths spike in Yellowstone area

BILLINGS, Mont. —Grizzly bear deaths neared record levels for the region around Yellowstone National Park in 2010, but government biologists said the population remains robust enough to withstand the heavy losses.

An estimated 75 of the protected animals were killed or removed from the wild, according to a government-sponsored grizzly study team. That equates to one grizzly gone for every eight counted last year in the sparsely populated Yellowstone region of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The deaths were blamed primarily on grizzlies pushing into inhabited areas, where bears get into trouble as they search out food in farmyards and from the big game herds also stalked by hunters. Despite those conflicts, researchers recently reported the population topped 600 animals for the first time since grizzly recovery efforts began in the 1970s.

"The population will continue to grow with the mortalities we're seeing now," said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Trapped and hunted to near-extermination last century, grizzly numbers have slowly rebounded since they were declared a threatened species in 1975.

An estimated 1,500 of the animals now roam woodlands and mountain ranges in the northwestern U.S. and the adjacent Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The Yellowstone-area population is one of the largest concentrations of the species in the lower 48 states.

In 2008, an estimated 79 Yellowstone-area grizzlies died or were removed — the most since they were listed as threatened. Deaths declined in 2009 before spiking again last year.

Most of the bears were killed by wildlife agents or hunters after attacking livestock, acting aggressively toward humans, damaging property or seeking human food.

Only three natural deaths were recorded.

"In general, if you were going to make a bet on whether a bear died because of people versus natural causes, it would be people," said Chuck Schwartz, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist. "Eighty-five-plus percent of independent bears that die, die because of people," he added.

Hunting grizzlies remains illegal, but at least 15 were killed this year by hunters who shot them in self-defense or after mistaking them for black bears.