February 25, 2024
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Grizzly Bears are Migrants to the Lower 48 iStock-1281962973

The grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states of the United States is the deadliest population of bears in the world. From 1975 to 2023, a population of under 2,000 grizzly bears has killed more people than all the grizzly/brown bears in Alaska.

The current population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states has grown to about 2,000 bears from the low of about 700 to 800 bears estimated in 1975.  If the population has grown at a constant rate over the last 48 years, the rate of growth would be about 2%, and the average population over the 48 years would be about 1300 bears. Grizzly bears were declared a threatened species in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act.

 In 1975, grizzly bears in the lower 48 were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The listing required recovering the species to a self-sustaining population, and it became illegal to kill, harass or harm grizzlies except in self defense.

Legal hunting of grizzly bears ended in the lower 48 states in 1975. The bears are concentrated in three states, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, with three or four dozen divided between Idaho and Washington State in the Selkirk ecosystem, which extends into Canada. Northwest Montana had a very limited season on grizzly bears until 1991 when a federal judge stopped the hunt.

All of the fatal grizzly bear attacks in the lower 48 states since 1975 occurred in places where it was illegal to hunt grizzly bears.

The other population of grizzly/brown bears in the United States is in Alaska. The population of grizzly/brown bears in Alaska has remained stable from 1975 to the present. Most Alaskan grizzly/brown bears are subject to hunting pressure and may legally be killed if they threaten life and/or property in Alaska. The population of grizzly/brown bears in Alaska has remained at about 32,000 for the last 48 years. Some of the grizzly/brown bears in Alaska live in national parks, wildlife refuges, and United States military bases, where grizzly bears may not be hunted. Most of the Alaskan bears live in territory where they can be legally hunted.

When people are killed by bears, it makes the news. Fatal bear attacks are collected by websites. The numbers are well known.

More people have been killed by the average population of 1300 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states than by the average population of 32,000 grizzly/brown bears in Alaska.

From 1975 to 2023, 24 people have been killed by wild grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. During the same period, 19 people were killed by wild grizzly/brown bears in Alaska.

What is the reason a population of bears in the lower 48 states, which has averaged only 4% of the population of United States grizzly/brown bears, has accounted for 56% of the humans killed?  When grizzly/brown bears are hunted, they change their habits and learn to avoid people. Bold bears that initiate confrontations with humans are selected from the population. In Alaska, sows with cubs that initiate confrontations with humans are preferentially eliminated from the population. This is a classic selection process. In Alaska, bears willing to initiate conflict with humans are less likely to survive. Cubs that survive when their mother attacks a human and is killed are likely to learn to avoid confrontations with humans.

In the lower 48 states, outside of national parks, the same dynamic applied until a national law was created in 1975. Grizzly bears had learned to avoid humans in order to survive by the late 1800s.  The avoidance of humans by grizzly bears was well documented in the memoirs of Montague Stevens, Meet Mr. Grizzly, about his experiences with grizzly bears in the 1890s.  A similar phenomenon has been observed in Europe, with European brown bears (the same species as American brown/grizzly bears). After being intensely hunted, remaining brown bear populations became adept at avoiding confrontations with humans.

Since 1975, grizzly bears in the lower 48 states found that humans are not a threat. They have been rewarded for confronting humans. Human hunters are subject to serious fines if they defend their kill from being stolen by grizzly bears.  Grizzly bears quickly learn threatening humans pays dividends in easy meals.

The existing evidence indicates brown/grizzly bear populations which are subjected to regular hunting pressure with firearms, are selected for and/or learn to avoid confrontation with humans.

Grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states have met the population goals set in 1975. They have been taken off the threatened species list twice, and have been reinstated by activist judges.

Once bear populations are subjected to hunting, defense of life and property kills drop as the number of bear-human confrontations drops. In Alaska, the number of grizzly/brown bears killed in defense of life and property is only 5.1% of the total harvest of bears.  The population of grizzly/brown bears has been stable in Alaska for nearly 50 years.


About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten

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