SALMON, Idaho - Conflicts between people and grizzlies in the Yellowstone National Park region are likely to rise this year as more bears try to recolonize areas now inhabited by people, wildlife managers said on Tuesday.
The news comes as federal and state agencies gathered in Montana to craft measures they hope will reduce the number of grizzlies they must kill in 2011 for threatening people and livestock.
Problems between Yellowstone area grizzlies and people reached unprecedented levels last year, with bear managers in Wyoming alone grappling with an all-time high of 52 grizzly captures.
But the estimated 600 grizzlies in the park and nearby Wyoming, Montana and Idaho won't be the focus of renewed efforts to contain conflicts.
"We can cope with the bears, now we need to work on the humans," said Gregg Losinski, a member of a federal and state task force on bear recovery.
Hunting and trapping of the outsized, hump-shouldered bears drove them to near extinction before they were added to the threatened and endangered species list in 1975.
The grizzly population in the Yellowstone region has climbed to an estimated 600,100 more than the recovery goal.
Bear experts say more conflicts are an ironic outcome of the steady recovery of the species.
"Conflicts are a natural result of the increasing number of bears; the two go hand in hand," said Chris Servheen, grizzly recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And scientists say those conflicts will climb as grizzlies venture into areas that made up their historic habitat.
"They used to live only in the park and wilderness areas; now they live right next door to where we live," said Chuck Schwartz, head of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
Delisting would open way to hunting
The comeback by Yellowstone area grizzlies is the chief reason the Obama administration wants the bears to be delisted, which opens the way for public hunting.
Dan Ashe, President Barack Obama's pick to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the bulk of imperiled species, told Reuters last month that the administration "will delist the grizzly" in the Yellowstone region, predicting final action within 18 months.
With delisting — and hunting — at least a year away, bear managers say they will be stepping up campaigns at campgrounds and in communities about safeguarding food and garbage that draw bears.
And some areas in national parks and forests will require campers and trailers instead of tents, a policy that stems from a deadly campground attack last summer.
On July 28, a mother grizzly killed a camper and injured two others at a campsite for tents in a national forest in Montana. That rampage came just weeks after a grizzly mauled a hiker to death in northwestern Wyoming.
An estimated 75 Yellowstone area grizzlies were killed in 2010, many targeted by wildlife managers because of problem behavior like raiding chicken coops, rifling tents or trash at popular campsites and preying on domestic livestock.
Schwartz is eyeing a link between last year and 2008, when grizzlies experienced record mortality at a projected 79, for conflicts and for a delay in the start of spring.
In both cases, a late spring with snow still in the high country pushed bears to lower elevations for food earlier and delayed or even destroyed the crop of fruit-producing plants like huckleberries which the omnivores favor.
Yellowstone area grizzlies were delisted in 2007. Sportsmen were eager to harvest the trophy animals but states had to put hunts on hold after environmentalists gained a legal victory in 2009 that relisted the bears as threatened.
Conservation groups successfully argued the government failed to analyze the impact of climate changes on Yellowstone area grizzlies, pointing to the dwindling supply of whitebark pines and cutthroat trout bears rely on.
Scientists say a warming West is the leading cause of a sharp drop in whitebarks, high-elevation trees under assault by diseases and pests. Climate changes also play a role in the decline of cutthroat trout, which depend on cold water.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)