Whether you’re hunting whitetails, trapping wolves, or simply potting blackbirds to protect your strawberry patch, you notice when your prey changes its behaviors and movements to avoid death or capture.
Can hunting also “scare grizzlies straight,” making the bears less likely to cause conflicts with people and their property? After grizzly bears were temporarily removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 2018, Wyoming proposed a tightly regulated hunt with a maximum kill of 22 grizzlies.
The hunt never occurred, of course, because a federal judge soon returned grizzlies to the ESL. But in the meantime, some grizzly hunting advocates claimed the hunt would ultimately benefit grizzlies and the public by restoring or reinforcing the bear’s fear of humans. Presumably, those fears would make grizzlies avoid people, and thereby reduce grizz-on-human attacks, livestock depredation, and other damage to property.
Others, however, doubt grizzly hunting would change the bear’s behavior. Skeptics note that little or no scientific research documents hunting pressure causing grizzlies to avoid humans, their dwellings, or livestock. Yes, Montana’s 1986 environmental impact statement on grizzlies said hunting seasons might reduce “problem bear” numbers, make grizzlies more wary, and moderate bear/human conflicts, but most biologists consider those claims more possibility than fact, given the difficulties of studying and verifying animal behavior.
Jon Swenson at the Agricultural University of Norway wrote in 1999 that North American research indicates unhunted grizzlies become less wary of humans. Swenson, however, found those studies provided “little empirical evidence of this” except for 1985 data showing human injuries inflicted by grizzlies were “greater in national parks than outside them.” Therefore, he considered earlier conclusions “a working hypothesis.”
Facts or Beliefs?
None of the claims or counter-claims surprise Ed Bangs of Helena, Montana. Bangs spent 23 years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rocky Mountains. Even though he retired in 2011, Bangs still monitors the region’s wildlife disputes.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about grizzlies, what they’ll tolerate, and whether their behavior changes if they grow more wary of people, but most speculation is based on what you want to hear,” Bangs said. “We’re all clingers to information that supports our beliefs.”
Chris Servheen, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana in Missoula, served as the USFWS’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator from 1981 through 2016. Servheen helped remove the Yellowstone grizzly population from the ESL in 2007. He doesn’t oppose grizzly hunting, but he doubts it would alter bear behavior enough to reduce conflicts.
“The only way you reduce bear conflicts through hunting is to reduce their numbers significantly in specific areas where depredations occur,” Servheen said. “A normal hunting season won’t reduce conflicts. You’re taking out just a few bears across large areas, and a lot of the bears you remove probably weren’t causing problems. Hunting is too random to ensure the ‘right’ bears get shot. The best way to solve depredation is to capture, recapture, and remove individual problem bears.”
Dave MacFarland, formerly a large carnivore biologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, reported similar challenges with black bears: “Most bear management zones are too big to solve human/bear conflicts, which are more local. Plus, many factors affect conflicts one year to the next, such as permit levels, success rates, and natural food abundance. The village of Grantsburg [northwestern Wisconsin] had a long history of bear problems. We never got ahead of it with trapping and transferring bears. We didn’t reduce the problems until we reduced local bear numbers.”
The Wisconsin DNR reduced conflicts, at least temporarily, by drawing a 2-mile radius around the village and issuing nuisance bear tags to landowners, who shot 23 bears in the small zone from 2016 to 2017. Complaints dropped from about 35 per year to one.
Servheen also said grizzlies are unlikely to learn from hunter-caused mortality because they’re not social animals. Unlike pack animals, like coyotes or wolves, or herding animals, like elk, deer, and other ungulates, bears typically work alone.
“A solitary bear that gets shot has no effect on other bears,” Servheen said. “Other bears can’t learn anything from its death because in most cases they weren’t there. You might remove some [problem] bears with a limited hunt, but you’ll see no real behavioral changes in the population.”
Bangs isn’t so certain. He said wolves quickly detect hunting and trapping pressure, and alter their behaviors and movements to avoid hunters and hunting/trapping tactics. Still, he thinks bears are intelligent enough to observe and understand human behaviors better than science can currently prove.
“Individual bears don’t learn from being killed, but another bear could sense what happened based on human scent on or around where the other bear died, and figure it out,” Bangs said. “I give animals credit. The stupid and the unlucky get killed, but the smart ones probably clue into things we might never know, and live long lives. We might not recognize all the little alarm calls going off in the woods, but I bet jays pay attention when a hunter is sneaking through the woods, and I assume other animals do, too.”
Dr. Valerius Geist, a Canadian zoologist and retired professor at the University of Calgary, thinks grizzlies fear stealthy, self-confident humans. He said grizzlies most often harm humans and their property when sensing someone is fearful and harmless.
Geist said, however, that his observations as an “animal behaviorist” come from a science not well understood by wildlife managers. When Geist worked as a field biologist in Wells Gray Provincial Park in British Columbia in 1959-1960, he reported the park’s grizzlies were “very well-behaved,” unlike those in Banff National Park in Alberta.
“The significance is that grizzlies at Wells Gray met only very confident men who weren’t afraid of bears, which was totally unlike unarmed hikers,” Geist wrote in an email. “Our confident walk and our brashness protected us. The bears fled and hid. It was not hunting that spooked them, and not bullets flying or guns going off. It was our confidence, being armed. Grizzlies were thriving but hidden from view.
“In contrast, at Banff I was treed, wardens were treed, and my students were treed. Bears entered camps and research facilities and trashed them. Wardens killed bears secretly just to keep them down.”
Geist said such problems occur when grizzlies are “habituated,” that is, made accustomed to people. He said habituation occurs accidentally or deliberately, typically by hikers “frightened to the core of meeting a grizzly” and photographers who “habituate every grizzly available.”
‘Freedom of the Woods’
In a 2016 speech at the University of California-Davis, Geist presented his “Freedom of the Woods” hypothesis, which holds that large carnivores can be conditioned to avoid humans by tapping into their innate fears of being stalked. Geist thinks even large, mature male grizzlies fear being stalked or followed, given that all grizzlies grow up in constant danger of being killed by older, larger bears. He said adult grizzlies so fear being stalked that they regularly circle back to check their tracks, and enter hibernation during snowstorms to make their dens difficult to find.
By systematically reinforcing that fear through long-term “inefficient hunting,” humans can make grizzlies so wary they won’t take people lightly. “We can make bears shun humans if they systematically encounter people who stalk and follow them,” Geist wrote. “Ironically, we can use our human innate capacity for stalking to generate innate panic in predators, for the lasting benefit of both.”
Joe Kondelis, president of the Western Bear Foundation, a hunter-based nonprofit organization, said it’s difficult to say with certainty if hunting would change grizzly behavior, given that they haven’t been hunted in the Lower 48 since 1974. He assumes, however, that several generations of grizzlies might have to experience hunting pressure before researchers can document behavioral changes.
Then again, based on his recent bear hunt in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where grizzlies have long been hunted, Kondelis remains uncertain. “Our outfitter encouraged us to keep the carcass of our kill by our tents,” he said. “He said grizzlies wouldn’t come near it if humans are around. It’s a whole different thought process up there.”
Either way, researchers continually report varying reactions by different species to hunting pressure. A 2003 study monitored the movements of three grizzlies, seven wolves, and three cougars to big game hunting near Yellowstone National Park’s northern border.
Wolf movements varied little before and during the big game hunt, while the family of three cougars generally stayed outside the park until elk season—probably following their prey, which moved into the park to avoid hunters. In contrast, the study’s grizzlies left the park once hunting began, presumably to feed on gut piles and wounded/unclaimed elk.
Daniel Thompson, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore section supervisor, avoids blanket statements about any aspect of bear management.
“I don’t believe in black-and-white answers,” Thompson said. “Humans see color for a reason. Telling people they’re wrong, and bludgeoning them with scientific facts won’t change personal beliefs. We can cite unique situations where hunting can be used as a management or mitigation tool, but it’s generally difficult to resolve problems unless you lower the population.”
Could a grizzly hunt eventually resolve conflicts by altering bear behaviors regionally? Thompson said there’s one way to find out: resume hunting grizzlies.
“We’re in a unique situation,” he said. “We can evaluate impacts of hunting on grizzly bears, if it ever occurs. That would include studying behavioral adaptations and/or alterations in movement patterns based on the initiation of hunting. We have over 40 years of data from an unhunted population, and more fine-scale data from recent decades on the daily lives of grizzlies. We can also compare fine-scale movements and behavioral aspects of unhunted bears in our National Park System with those that occur elsewhere.”
But until the courts and our political institutions allow grizzly hunting in the Lower 48, such data will remain dormant in science’s limbo of untested hypotheses.
Feature image via Tony Bynum.