Badger Bulletin

A Conversation with Dr. Cecily Costello on Grizzly Bears and Climate Change

Badger Bulletin

A Conversation with Dr. Cecily Costello on Grizzly Bears and Climate Change

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Climate change has already altered grizzly bears’ food availability, denning behavior, and movements. Climate-related impacts have contributed to increased conflicts with people and cast a shadow over sustained grizzly bear recovery in northern Montana. In the next installment of this year’s Two Medicine Voices Speaker Series, Dr. Cecily Costello, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks grizzly bear biologist, will discuss these and other impacts climate change is having on grizzly bears in northern Montana, as well as what these effects may portend for the bears’ future. Her presentation is Friday, June 23rd at 7 p.m. at Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Park. The talk is free and appropriate for all ages.

Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance’s Jordyn Steele recently sat down with Dr. Costello to learn more about her background and her views about grizzly bears and climate change. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

JS: Would you please tell us a little bit about yourself, including where you were raised and went to school.
CC: I was raised in south Florida, but have lived in all four corners of the country since then.  I went to Florida State University for undergrad, then left for more seasonal environs in upstate New York where I attended SUNY-ESF for my masters.  That is where and when I started working on bears.  I spent 8 years working on black bears in New Mexico and came to Montana in 2000.  I got my PhD from Montana State in 2008.

(In addition to my love for bears), these days I’m a big birder, I love the outdoors. I also enjoy working around the house and decorating the house. I love reading when I find the time.

JS: How did you decide to study bears professionally?
CC: When I started my master’s program, I did not have a project lined up.  I got it in my head that I decided I wanted to study black bears in the Adirondacks.  My advisor, Dick Sage, had an interest in understanding the impact of beech bark disease, an introduced disease, on availability of beechnuts for wildlife.  My reaction was “bears eat beechnuts!” so we decided to study both.  Once I started on bears, I just kept going, eventually transitioning to grizzly bears.  They just fascinate me and there is always more to learn.

JS: This year's speaker series explores how climate change is affecting the environment and people here in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem and various efforts to enhance ecological or social resilience.  How does climate change appear to be affecting grizzly bears in the Crown?

CC: Grizzly (aka brown) bears are generalists and are capable of subsisting in a variety of habitat types with various foods.  That is why they have the largest global range of any species.  So, I expect that habitat-wise, short of complete loss of forested habitats, grizzly bears are going to be capable of weathering changes in food economies in this region.  But, as always, their continued presence will be contingent on humans permitting bears to share our landscape.  Over the next century, if climate change negatively impacts human food production, it is very likely to exacerbate human-grizzly bear competition for land and resources, and unfortunately, history seems to show that bears generally lose in that competition.  In some ways, the question is not whether bears will find enough to eat in the future, but will humans?

JS: What are the implications of these effects on the continued recovery and conservation of grizzly bears here in the Crown?

CC: I think all of this signals a need for humans to recognize that we are not separate from natural systems but are firmly part of them.  The need to address climate and to conserve species like grizzly bears are both in our best interest.  A diverse world is only going to help, not hurt, humans as we try to adapt to changing conditions.

We’ve done work looking at human attitudes about bears and what we’ve seen is people tend to want to see bears as something that lives away from us. We cannot expect them to live in remote areas especially if we want to have more connected populations.

JS: In light of known and predicted climate impacts, what should we as managers and citizens be doing to help foster a more resilient grizzly bear population?

CC: I think that taking personal and community responsibility to reduce human- bear conflict is going have the best impact.

In a recent study, the vast majority of Montanans reported that grizzly bears are part of what makes Montana special.  So, to make this a place where they can thrive, the best thing we can all do is take personal and community responsibility for reducing human-bear conflict in the backcountry and frontcountry.  I encourage everyone to carry bear spray and follow food storage measures when recreating.  Do an assessment of your home and community.  Are there attractants that have or could invite bears to linger near you?  What steps can you take to secure or remove those attractants?  And finally, do whatever you can to help engender an atmosphere of acceptance.

It’s good to realize that bears are really a part of Montana and we are capable of coexisting with them.

JS: Is there anything you wanted to add about this topic that hasn’t been covered?

CC: Whenever I get asked about climate and grizzlies I’m reminded that Grizzlies are not a poster child for climate affects because they can persist in all types of habitats. They are flexible. There are a lot of species that are specialists, including polar bears, that are going to be more acutely affected.

When it comes to bears, it comes down to their relationship with humans not their own ecology. When looking at how do bears use the landscape, we see that bears and humans like the same areas. We are competing for the same spots. Which is why we end up in a lot of conflict.

The series continue monthly through August. Next month, Dawn LaFleur, vegetation program manager for Glacier National Park, will discuss the impacts of climate change and invasive plant species on Glacier’s native plant communities. Dawn’s talk is Wednesday, July 12h, at 7 p.m. at the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier.

Your support makes a difference.
This lecture series is made possible thanks to the financial support of individuals like you. Donate today to support Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance’s work to protect native species and wild lands.
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