JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Togwotee Pass has become the place to see a grizzly bear in recent weeks and that has posed problems for wildlife managers and put them at odds with some members of the public who are also worried about the bears’ wellbeing.

“It’s become somewhat of the Wild West up there at times,” said Sarah Walker with Friends of the Bridger-Teton. “It is definitely an issue. People are getting way too close. And it has become more than just two or three vehicles stopped at these bear jams.”

Incidents this spring in the Black Rock Ranger District area near Hatchet Resort have highlighted the need to perhaps adopt a strategy for managing bears that make a habit of frequenting roadsides. Ensuing clashes over roadside attractions like grizzly bears have become a real headache for everyone.

Soon after a grizzly sow known to Game and Fish as 863 began hanging around just off (and sometimes sitting directly on) Highway 26 during the first week of May, trouble started brewing. Many less enlightened tourists have been observed using poor judgment and making bad choices that put a grizzly and themselves in a dangerous spot. When reprimanded by local photographers, conversations have become heated to the point of fist-a-cuffs.

By the time Game and Fish wardens show up to haze the bear, they unwittingly play the role of the heavy, accused of running off the grizzly sow in an insensitive and unnecessarily aggressive manner. When they do nothing, they are criticized for that as well.

Doug McWhirter, one-time Wyoming Game and Fish Department Cody wildlife biologist, was inducted into the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) 2016 Wild Sheep Biologist’s Wall of Fame. (WGFD)

“We’re both after the same outcome. We all want the same thing,” said Doug McWhirter. Jackson/ Pinedale, wildlife management coordinator for the Game and Fish. “Maybe it’s corny to say but our mission is ‘conserving wildlife—serving people.’ We try to do that every day, and in this case, it would best serve people…and protect wildlife, to have these bears away from the highway if we can.”

Deidre Bainbridge has been a particularly vocal member of the public that hasn’t cared for the way Game and Fish personnel have handled the Togwotee bear jams so far. She alleged an initial incident to be “aggressive,” “excessive,” and the reason 863 was separated from her two cubs-of-the-year (COYs).

Sometime around May 15, the sow was observed with just one of the two cubs at her side. The other has presumably been killed or died.

“The hazing of a mother sow looking for her cubs without any investigation of her status and after being forwarded information confirming a sow with cubs on the pass was mismanagement of our treasured natural resource and a violation of the public trust,” Bainbridge stated.

Bainbridge has also passed along hearsay evidence of less-than-compassionate treatment by some Game and Fish officials. “There is a huge controversy that the photographers, called ‘paparazzi’ by the Black Rock Chief Ranger, are the problem. It’s all a management mess,” she said.

On May 14, Game and Fish again responded to a scene on Togwotee Pass but were reluctant to act, according to eyewitnesses. Eventually, 863 and her cub were frightened off with cracker shells by a warden.

At one point this spring, 863 had two COYs. One is now presumed dead. (Courtesy)

Why do some bears keep near roads?

It’s not a new phenomena but it is becoming a more frequent occurrence probably due to the sheer number of grizzlies on the landscape right now. Some cagey sows, beginning most notoriously with Grand Teton’s 399, have found that raising their cubs in the public eye, along more trafficked, high-profile areas of the park, is a way to ensure their young’s survival from aggressive boars. Male grizzly are known to harass and kill cubs in order to mate with a sow that would otherwise not be receptive while playing momma.

A 2013 study by Mark A. Haroldson and Kerry A. Gunther titled Roadside bear viewing opportunities in Yellowstone National Park attributed much of the behavior to the influence of one of the bear’s favorite food sources: whitebark pine.

“The annual proportion of bear-jams for both species occurring after the week of 13–19 August were 3–4 times higher during poor cone crop years than good. We suggest that native foods found in road corridors may be especially important to some individual bears during years exhibiting poor whitebark pine crops,” the study’s authors said.

Whatever the reason, these ‘asphalt bruins’ are becoming more commonplace to the delight of wildlife viewers and the irritation of wildlife managers.

Since 1990, the National Park Service has instituted a bear management strategy of ‘habituation tolerance’ since 1990—meaning roadside attraction bears are mostly left alone, and bear jams are monitored and managed on a case-by-case basis. So far, it’s working as a win-win. Visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton are treated to close encounters with the furry kind and the bears have enjoyed a safe haven so long as they don’t exhibit any negative behavior.

Amy Caesar caught this shot of 863 on Togwotee on May 14. (Amy Caesar Facebook)

Poster child bear 863

Game and Fish doesn’t always have the luxury afforded Park Rangers and the like. They certainly don’t have the manpower to have someone of official capacity in place at every incident throughout the state. Also, in the case of a bear jam on Togwotee Pass as opposed to a park road, motorists are often traveling in excess of 55 mph on Highway 26 and not necessarily expecting to see a bear sitting down in the middle of the road nursing its cub—a sight witnessed just weeks ago on Highway 26 near Black Rock Ranger Station.

Game and Fish officials pointed out they also have to tread carefully when it comes to bears on the highway, for instance. Multiple jurisdictions are involved and each has its own agenda. Walker and the Friends of B-T have been working to get signage up from WYDOT (reduced speeds and message boards are now in place) and from the Forest Service (regarding bear observance safety tips).

Photo taken around May 21 shows 863 with cub at her side making her way along the highway. (Allen Sphatt)

Bottomline, according to Game and Fish, is that state highways and bears don’t mix well.

“Bears that feed close to roads can become habituated to humans and vehicles,” said Dan Thompson, large carnivore specialist for WGFD. “Having bears frequent highways increases the opportunity for them or their offspring to be hit by a vehicle. It also increases the chances of a bear becoming bolder and approaching people or frequenting areas where access to human food can cause bears to become food conditioned, requiring further management actions.”

In the case of 863, it would appear the department is taking an approach that indeed factors in the bear’s checkered past. As a two-year-old sub-adult, the precocious griz first got in trouble with humans on the Shoshone NF near Muddy Creek in 2015. Her and a sibling were trapped and relocated to the Bridger-Teton near Bailey Creek.

On July 17, 2016, the sow was trapped again in Blackrock Creek where she now makes her home. That was a routine research trapping where the griz was fitted with a radio collar.

Now, the bear is 5-6 years old and mother of her first litter. She is a candidate for continued human conflict and possible euthanasia for her background. Bears like 863 that are relocated for repeated conflicts and habituation have a high rate of recidivism. And research shows a habituated bear is three times more likely to be human killed than a non-habituated bear.

Photographers regularly observe 863 to be a mellow bruin with little to no signs of agitation when humans are around.

Steve Franklin was there when one of the hazing incidents occurred on Togwotee. He observed, “She approached us by the roadway and sat down in the snow. She looked at all of us and seemed to indicate, ‘I need you folks here to protect me and my babies, thank you for caring, I am a highway grizzly and I go where you are, to keep those marauding boars away from me.’”

Franklin said the bear was agitated only after a game warden “threw M-80s at her.” The cracker shells frightened the sow from the highway and into the woods. “Now she trusts man less,” Franklin challenged.

Bear biologists say this is precisely why the bear needs to be run off when near roads or other areas of frequent human presence. Tolerance of humans or trusting of humans is something game managers don’t want to see happening.

“Game and Fish cannot respond to every roadside bear occurrence. But, when the safety of the bear and the public is in question, we try to move the bear away from the road,” Thompson said. “We primarily do this by honking horns on our vehicles and using cracker shells, a practice common for wildlife managers across the country. Encouraging bears to move away from roads is for your safety as much as the bear’s.”

863 with cub as captured in a recent shot by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. (Courtesy JHMR)

Aversive conditioning and hazing

Aversive conditioning is practiced by nearly all game management organizations. It’s a form of learning that takes place when an animal is punished for an undesirable behavior. Put simply, bears that associate vehicles, for instance, with a picnic basket handout are likely to seek out more of this reward in the future and get bolder about wanting to see what sandwiches mom packed.

Conversely, bears that are negatively rewarded by horn honking or other loud noises like cracker shells and sirens, usually associate the road with a bad place to be. These methods are most successful when employed on younger more impressionable bears, and when they are done in a consistent manner by a trained professional.

A way forward

Local photographers and wildlife seekers have been more helpful than not when 863 shows up. They have directed the less informed on how they should behave around bears, and they have assisted with traffic congestion.

Wildlife specialists from the Game and Fish insist they are aware of the situation when they come in, and are trying to do what’s best for the bears and the public, even if that’s sometimes hard to watch.

Walker said there are serious talks underway to perhaps one day employ a part-time volunteer who can be on-location when and where bear jams happen.

If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, Bainbridge thinks it will start with more open dialogue so each side learns where the other is coming from.

“Communication is key, “Bainbridge said. “Game and Fish cannot operate in a vacuum and hopefully they will learn local photographers are not the enemy.”

Griz 863 with club heads further into the forest where she is safe from vehicles but some worry should be at increased risk for attacks from male grizzly. (Buckrail // Nick Sulzer)

See a roadside bear? WGFD recommends doing the following:

  • Don’t stop in the road or block traffic.
  • Watch for warning signs and reduced speed limits due to wildlife presence.
  • Stay in your car and stay at least 100 yards from bears.
  • Use binoculars or spotting scopes for safe viewing.
  • If a bear approaches your car, honk your horn to discourage the bear from becoming too familiar with humans.
  • Never feed bears or leave food accessible to bears.