Both cow carcasses had been reduced to bone piles by the time Brian Mays returned Sept. 5 to the kill site, hidden among thick brush within a boggy, 300-acre private pasture he leases about 2 miles southwest of Henry's Lake, Idaho, near Yellowstone National Park.
"So this is where 1537 met her demise," Mays said, studying an ear tag among the remains.
Mays has no doubt as to who — or what — the culprits were. He estimates grizzly bears have killed at least 14 of his cows during the past four years, including four this season.
He's been frustrated, however, that wildlife managers haven't proactively helped to keep his herd safe from the federally protected predators — or set traps to remove bears immediately following confirmed livestock kills.
He considers the conflicts on his ranch evidence that grizzly bears have met their Endangered Species Act recovery goals, and it's past time to take the Greater Yellowstone area population off the list of protected species.
"We need to have methods to protect our livestock," said Mays, who also raises forage in Howe, Idaho, and trucks cattle and agricultural commodities. "This is my livelihood."
Mays discovered four missing bred heifers on Aug. 28. That same day, he found two fresh carcasses, which Idaho Wildlife Services staff quickly confirmed as grizzly kills.
Mays initially sought the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's help with grizzlies when they surfaced in his pasture in early June. Policy, however, prevented wildlife managers from acting prior to a confirmed attack.
Even after kills were confirmed, Fish and Game carnivore biologist Bryan Abert explained the swampy topography and the sheer number of bears frequenting the area made setting a trap and capturing the correct bear too difficult. Wildlife Services is responsible for trapping problem grizzlies in Idaho, and Fish and Game is tasked with relocating or destroying the bears. Abert said it's vital to capture the correct bear because killing cattle is a learned ability that few bears possess. Abert said other cattle ranchers in the area have avoided grizzly depredation simply by checking on their herds daily.
For Mays, who visits the ranch every couple of weeks, the bears have been undaunted, and he disagrees trapping wasn't a viable option. On the morning of Aug. 29, rather than walking into a trap, two bears were photographed by Mays' motion-activated trail camera feeding on the carcasses.
"This particular kill we investigated last week was two or three days old at the least, and they needed to set their traps that day to get the right bear," Mays said.
With no recourse to protect his cattle, Mays moved them 30 miles to a safer pasture. The decision cost him.
"I've got way more grass out there than I've ever had and could have made it until the middle of October," Mays said.
AN ESA SUCCESS STORY
Given that grizzlies are still a federally threatened species, Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Gregg Losinski said his department must coordinate all management actions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Losinski said Fish and Game's official position is that the grizzly population is recovered and should be delisted. He said the most current population estimates place bear numbers in the ecosystem during 2014 at between 757 and 1,150 grizzlies, compared with a recovery goal of 500 bears. Bears were briefly delisted from 2007 to 2009 but were restored to the list in response to a lawsuit by conservation groups, alleging inadequate regulatory mechanisms and that the delisting analysis failed to adequately assess the effects of climate change on white bark pine trees, which produce nuts that are central to grizzly diets.
A federal court ruled against both arguments about a year and a half ago. Though leaders from the three states have been planning for delisting since then, Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there is no current proposal to go forward with the process, which would require the introduction of a new rule and a public-comment period. Delisting would commence at the discretion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director.
Losinski argues that the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population and its threats have been extensively studied, and the bear's recovery is one of the great Endangered Species Act success stories. If the grizzly can't be delisted, he fears there's little hope of declaring success for other listed species.
"It's an important test because it either shows the Endangered Species Act works based on science or it doesn't," Losinski said. "It's important for the sake of the process to show the process works."
Even leaders with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition — a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit over grizzly delisting — agree the population has grown and is enjoying wider distribution. But Kathy Rinaldi, GYC's Idaho conservation coordinator, emphasized that grizzlies are extremely slow to reproduce. She considers it imperative that sound management plans be implemented if the species is delisted to prevent the population from losing ground again.
Rinaldi said GYC has focused on protecting core habitat, maintaining habitat connectivity and preventing conflicts with grizzlies to aid in recovery. Toward reducing conflicts, she said GYC will cover the costs of range riders for ranchers to monitor livestock. The group also funds voluntary grazing permit buyouts on public land.
REIMBURSEMENT FOR LOSSES
Shortly before moving his cattle to a safer pasture, Mays and his son-in-law, Todd Sharp, and his ranch hand, Wayne Scoggin, searched the boggy pasture using four-wheelers for the final pair of missing cows.
They carried shotguns and pistols in case of a chance encounter with a grizzly — the law prohibits firing at threatened grizzlies for any reason other than personal safety.
About a half hour into the search, Sharp discovered a burial site within a thicket of trees. He explained grizzlies bury their prey and wait for it to start decomposing before they return to eat it. They found a second burial site nearby.
Mays anticipates Defenders of Wildlife will reimburse him for full market value of the first two kills, given that they were assessed for wounds before bears stripped the carcasses clean. The final two carcasses, however, were too decomposed to prove bears were responsible, and weren't simply scavenging.
Todd Grimm, director of Idaho Wildlife Services, said additional funding to compensate ranchers for livestock losses by grizzlies is available under the farm bill's Livestock Indemnity Fund. Grimm said grizzly attacks have never been a problem for ranchers in Northern Idaho, but they sometimes occur near Island Park, a busy corridor for the species.
From 2010 to 2014, Wildlife Services investigated 23 grizzly bear depredations of livestock, with predation confirmed in 19 cases.
By comparison, during the same period, Grimm said the state's 20,000 black bears committed 34 confirmed livestock depredations, its 2,500 mountain lions were linked to 44 confirmed depredations and its 770 wolves committed 507 attacks.
In Idaho, Grimm said 2015 has been a slow year for grizzly depredations, with just a couple of livestock attacks reported and a hunter reporting minor wounds following an Aug. 31 attack near Sawtell Peak in Fremont County.
"For us, it had been no grizzly problems here until (recently)," Grimm said. "My counterpart in Montana has had more grizzly problems than he's had wolf problems."