Hunter & Outdoor Recreationist alert: Be Bear Aware
Fewer Whitebark Pine cones could mean increased bear conflicts this Fall
by Wyoming Game & Fish
August 25, 2010
Recent information provided by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) reports whitebark pine tree cone production to be poor this year which could mean an increase in bear conflicts this fall—especially for hunters.
The IGBST reported that of the 20 established whitebark pine tree transects examined, mean cone production was 5.25 cones per tree; all of the trees on one transect were dead from mountain pine beetle infestation. When available, the seeds of whitebark pine are high in fat content, and are an important fall food as bears prepare for winter hibernation. Near exclusive fall use of whitebark pine seed as food by grizzly bears occurs during years in which mean cone production exceeds 20 cones per tree.
However, with poor cone production, bears will be ranging farther this fall in search of alternative food sources. And, according to the study team, the alternative is generally meat. "What this means is that bears will shift their distribution from higher to lower elevation," said Mark Bruscino, bear management officer for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "A fact that berry pickers and hunters should take note of."
Bruscino noted that although whitebark pine cones may not be readily available, bears are adaptable to other food sources and that in his experience, the bears nutritional status based on percent body fat does not change significantly during poor whitebark pine cone production years. "Bears will not starve to death. They will merely switch to alternative foods, primarily meat and hunters should be extra cautious this fall," added Bruscino.
Both the study team and Bruscino state that bear conflicts do increase as bears move from more isolated habitats to areas with higher human use in response to a lack of pine nuts. Often, bear mortality increases as well as a result of management removals related to conflicts and human encounters. "Even so, the grizzly bear population continues to grow at a rate of 4-7 percent annually, regardless of these poor cone years," said Bruscino.
When asked about bear behavior, Bruscino stated that bears seem to get bolder around people while searching for food during low whitebark pine cone years, which increases the chance of human-bear conflicts. "Although I believe this to be true, I do not think bears behave more aggressively in encounters when whitebark pine cones are scarce," said Bruscino.
Both the interagency study team and the game and fish recommend that all recreationists mentally prepare themselves for a bear encounter and carry a bear deterrent. "As a matter of personal safety, we recommend that everyone, including hunters, carry bear spray as a deterrent against aggressive bears. Studies and anecdotal evidence has shown that bear spray is effective," said Bruscino.