Rick Mace  /  AP
In this photo released by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, a decaying carcass of a grizzly bear, which was wearing a radio collar, is seen about four days after it died in August, 2004, in Montana.
updated 12/28/2004 3:05:59 PM ET 2004-12-28T20:05:59

Seven were hit by trains or cars. Ten were killed illegally, often shot and left to die. Thirteen were killed by wildlife officials because they had menaced humans or had otherwise become a nuisance. One was killed in self-defense.

All told, 31 grizzly bears in and around Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, 18 of them female, died this year as a result of human actions — the most of any year since the bears were listed as a threatened species nearly 30 years ago and nearly double the number killed in 2003.

While the number of deaths was unusually high, state and federal wildlife officials say it is not cause for alarm — yet. The blame the rise in part on more people moving into bear territory and a poor berry crop that pushed more grizzlies out of the woods in search of food.

But some environmentalists are concerned — and not just about the grizzlies in and around Glacier National Park.

They are also worried about grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park, where run-ins with hunters accounted for nearly half the 19 grizzly bear deaths in 2004, and where a government proposal to drop federal protection for grizzlies could come as early as next year.

“I think we’re moving way too rapidly, given the warning signs on the horizon,” said Louisa Willcox, Wild Bears Project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont. “We should take heed and slow down and really look at, and solve, the problems.”

Hunting and habitat loss contributed to the bears’ decline in the West early in the 20th century, and in 1975 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

At that time, there were probably 200 to 250 grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem, situated mostly in Wyoming. Today, the estimate ranges from 550 to 600, maybe more.

Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont., calls those grizzlies “the greatest success in the Endangered Species Act.”

The move to drop Yellowstone grizzlies from federal protection would not affect the bears in and around Glacier, where the population is estimated at 500.

Servheen said the 19 grizzlies killed in the Yellowstone region as a result of humans in 2004 was comparable to the number in past years. But the nine females that died exceeded thresholds set in 1993 by federal and state agencies to aid recovery.

Environmentalists find the figure troubling, given how slowly grizzlies reproduce. Bears can be 5 or 6 years old before they have their first cubs.

Servheen said that the deaths would not affect the move to drop federal protection but that officials are studying what steps could be taken to address the issue.

Wildlife officials and private organizations work with homeowners and others in bear country, helping them take steps to keep bears away, such as using bear-proof containers for food or trash, electric fences and specialized bear dogs.

Hunters acting in self-defense accounted for at least seven of the 19 human-caused grizzly deaths in the Yellowstone region this year. Wildlife officials killed seven bears that rummaged through people’s trash and yards for food or otherwise came into conflict with humans.

“People in these communities will decide recovery in the long run,” said Heidi Godwin of the Sierra Club in Bozeman, Mont. “If they don’t coexist or have tolerance, bears are going to die.”

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