Federal biologists say the threatened Yellowstone grizzly bear population is healthy and increasing. This year, biologists counted 42 females with cubs in the grizzly bear recovery area, which encompasses Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas for a total of 9,202 square miles, according to biologist Mark Haroldson. Last year, they counted only 35 bears with cubs.
"The increase points to the fact that in a large portion of the ecosystem, the population is fairly healthy," says Haroldson, a member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
But environmentalists fear the bigger numbers obscure long-term risks to the population. Louisa Willcox of the Bozeman, Mont.-based Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project points out that food resources are diminishing and bears are losing habitat to development. She adds that the annual count could be an "unreliable measure."
Haroldson acknowledges that increased sightings could be due to greater research effort. Since the 1970s, he says, there has been about a 30 percent increase in the range where biologists found females with cubs. "Part of that is due to increased effort on our part," he explains. "But our effort followed the bears."
Conflicts with people also seem to follow the grizzly. This year, 17 bears were killed by people. Fourteen of those were killed by wildlife officials who classified them as "problem" bears - animals that prey on livestock or otherwise threaten human livelihoods. At least six of the bears were females, the highest number of adult female deaths since the 1980s.