(US MT) Ecologist teaches trekkers grizzly tips August 01, 2005 4:05 PM
By ALLISON BATDORFF
Gazette Wyoming Bureau
CODY, Wyo. - Chuck Neal was charged by a grizzly bear two weeks ago. It was the seventh time in 30 years.
The retired ecologist was off the beaten track and on foot, looking for glimpses into grizzly bear life.
The Cody resident treks along the nearby North Fork corridor, home to high rates of human-grizzly conflicts. This time, he happened upon a sow and her two cubs.
Not a threat
"It was a hot morning, and I was miles off the highway when I heard this huffing and jaw popping," Neal said. "I started talking in a monotone, saying, 'It's just me, bear,' so she could identify where I was, what I was and that I wasn't a threat."
After a second bluff charge, she lumbered off with her cubs, huffing and "chastising" Neal all the way, he said.
"Grizzlies demand to be treated with respect," Neal said. "These bears are serious."
Neal led a teaching hike Saturday into his favored backwoods, accompanied by a dozen wildlife enthusiasts from around the state. Wyoming Wilderness Association organized the five-mile trip.
There were no bear sightings this time - the topic was grizzly bear habitat and changing diet. In the Shoshone National Forest, bark beetle and blister rust are killing the whitebark pine trees, the nuts of which are the grizzly's fattening fall food source.
The bears can survive the change if all suitable habitat is left open to them, Neal said.
"I don't think they're doomed. Bears are intelligent enough to find something acceptable if they are given the room," Neal said. "This means keeping roads out of roadless areas. That gives bears the flexibility to find another option."
Currently, 450 to 600 grizzly bears are estimated to live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem spanning parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The comeback of the large predator has prompted the pending removal of the grizzlies from the endangered species list. The grizzly was listed 30 years ago after the population fell to less than 200 bears.
But the bears aren't out of the woods yet, Neal told the hikers. They are "captive" to unfriendly politics, he said. Wyoming's management plan to delist the bear is an example, he said.
"The state plan draws a line and wants to hold the bears around Yellowstone National Park; otherwise they can be shot or removed. This is the state looking backward instead of forward," Neal said.
Neal subscribes to the "top-level carnivore" theory, which says that a good predator population keeps the ecosystem in check.
"When you remove top level predators, you have an explosion of prey species, much to the detriment of biodiversity," Neal said.
"How many (bears) is too many?" asked Bryan Todd, of Sheridan, Wyo.
That depends, Neal said. He estimates that a nationwide contiguous population of 2,000 bears would be enough to withstand a catastrophic event and maintain healthy genetics, environment and demographics.
That will be a hard sell in the current political climate, he said.
"Wolves and bears are bringing the ungulate populations back into stability. Now, elk hunters and outfitters are finding the competition keen," Neal said. "Also, people have an irrational fear of bears. They think they are going to get torn limb from limb as soon as they go out the front door."
Ruth Winzenried of Casper, Wyo., remarked that she feared Wyoming's wildlife was in danger.
"People come here because they are amazed at the wildlife, then they move here and have problems with their wild 'neighbors,' " Winzenried said. "They want to change the wild into the suburban place they came from."
Neal has spent 30 years studying grizzly bears. His book, "Grizzlies in the Mist," chronicles his experiences and issues facing the bears.
Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.
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