What’s with all the bear conflicts, and what is Game & Fish doing about it?

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Bears have been all over the news in recent weeks. Their typical fall feeding frenzy usually accounts for an increase in encounters with humans but there may be something more at work.

Eastmans’ blog is calling it a “Grizzly Crisis in Wyoming.” Cody Enterprise reported “Eight grizzlies killed in past week and a half” on October 8. Days later, Powell Tribune reported on October 11: “Nearly a dozen grizzlies euthanized since September.”

In Jackson Hole, we lost a community member to a grizzly mauling. And two black bears were put down by wildlife managers within a week.

So what’s going on? What is Game and Fish doing about the bear population? Why are they seemingly relocating so many Cody bears to Togwotee? Are we starting to experience the effects of too many bears on too little landscape?

We asked Game and Fish Large Carnivore Section Supervisor Dan Thompson some questions we see pop up every time we post a bear-related story. Here is what he had to say:

Buckrail: A common theme this season has been the same old story: Bear gets into trouble in Cody area, bear relocated to Togwotee. What’s going on?

Thompson: If you are in Cody, you are thinking, ‘Why is this happening to us?’ And if you live near Moran, you are wondering why all the bears are going there. And I understand that.

I understand people are very passionate about bears and there’s been a lot of things happening recently and people don’t want more bears in their backyard, but we wouldn’t be moving a bear to an area if we didn’t feel it had a chance to be a successful relocation.

Buckrail: But these griz have to be just piled up on top of each other at this point in places like Togwotee Pass. Take us through the thought process and checklist when relocating a bear.

WGFD’s Dan Thompson

Thompson: Sure. When relocating a bear we are trying to get them as far away from where they were caught and away from the same conflict potential. Actually, let me back up.

The first thing we try to do is to determine the reason for the conflict. Maybe we can secure an attractant or deal with it without ever having to set a trap. That’s what we would prefer to do. Sometimes we have to capture a bear. When we do capture a bear then we have a decision. Well, we have a bear here. Can we leave it where it’s at? Do a hard release there? Do we move it? Do we put it down?

As far as relocation, we are trying to move an animal as far as we can from the nature of the situation it got into. For instance, this last one we moved caused some property damage at a residence trying to get into a root cellar. So you move it to an area that is secure that doesn’t have that conflict potential.

[By the same reasoning] that’s why if we have a bear that has killed livestock—as long as it is not a repeat offender or a chronic depredator—we will move it to an area that doesn’t have active grazing.

Buckrail: Are there certain types of bears—age, gender, etcetera—you give preference to when deciding on relocation or euthanasia?

Thompson: It’s all about the type of conflict that the bear was involved in and previous history of doing so. We do have bears that come back and basically begin doing the same thing.

We had some bears this summer that had become habituated. Where we tried a lot of different aversive conditioning, multiple different things, and eventually that behavior escalated. Basically, when they are trying to seek food through humans, they are a lot more dangerous then. This type of behavior is not going to be tolerated on the landscape. It doesn’t happen a lot. We do everything we can to prevent that and there are success stories no one ever hears about.

Buckrail: Did you have more success stories 20-30 years ago than you do today?

Thompson: As you probably know, we are trying to move bears into the core of the population, back into that recovery zone, but we’re forced to look at a dense population of bears.

Things have changed in the past several years. We used to have more success [moving bears], particularly subadult bears that find their own way after relocation and never come back. But we do see recidivism in certain bears.

Twenty years ago you could move a bear to an area and there was less likelihood, even in the core of the population, of ever seeing that animal again. That’s obviously changed through time.

Buckrail: Is this because there are more bears than the landscape can tolerate, or there are more humans and encroachment of habitat than ever before? Or both?

Thompson: We’ve definitely seen an increase in conflict between bears and humans over the long-term. We’ve obviously seen an increase in bear population through time. We’ve also seen a slight increase in human population—I pulled census data from Park, Teton, Hot Springs, and Sublette. The largest increase is in Teton County, unsurprisingly, but still not a substantial increase to affect data.

We’ve actually seen a decrease in elk hunters—three to five thousand less than there were in the early 2000s. A lot of different factors are at play but what we have seen is a change in the distribution of grizzly bears. While a lot of people are against the notion of having us determine what is and what is not suitable habitat for grizzly bears, as they move into more human-dominated landscape there is more potential for conflict.

What we’ve seen is that footprint of not just where grizzly bear move through but where they live now, has expanded. So that conflict potential further away from the recovery zone has increased. That’s what we are seeing. It’s not made up. It is real.

And we are seeing, in the last few years, an increase in the aggressive behavior from bears toward people. It’s a trend we don’t want to see increase anymore.

Buckrail: Is moving a bear this time of year particularly hard on them? They are in a feeding frenzy to pack on weight for hibernation. Suddenly plopped into new surroundings might be somewhat stressful.

Thompson: This time of year we are very reluctant to move a bear. Because there are a lot of people out enjoying the mountains. Those things are considered before we ever set a trap to begin with. There is no data that suggests moving a bear this time of year impacts their future ability to survive. But, yes, we’ve heard the argument. There definitely are people that are against everything we do that are going to say that.

Buckrail: Hunters are very active this time of year. By nature they stalk the woods quietly. They also leave gut piles and carcasses for bears. It’s a bad combination. New research suggests not only are grizzlies taking advantage of elk hunting by responding to shots fired, they are beginning to associate hunters with food right from the trailhead.

Thompson: Grizzlies have definitely been keying in on the remains—gut piles and carcasses—as a potential food source this time of year. The whole ‘dinner bell’ hypothesis, I don’t know that they necessarily hear a gunshot and go to it. But they know that once hunters are active there is that potential for food. They are adaptable animals, obviously.

Buckrail: Has anyone thought about what would happen if a hunting season on grizzlies was in effect, how the bears would react? If they are becoming aggressive toward humans now, would that increase once they figured out they were being shot at? Or would a hunting season help push the animal out of residential areas like it seems to have done to some degree with wolves?

Thompson: It’s a very hard question to answer because of how highly regulated the hunting was going to be. You are talking about a generally solitary animal and there is not going to be a high level of harvest. You could argue, genetically, that if you remove through time the bears that are more aggressive you might see less of those but that’s a question that can only be answered further down the road.

I think we could have been in a great place to start to address and answer some of those questions, but I guess that will be something we will look at in the future if we do hunt them. It’s not going to be a silver bullet or a black-and-white solution but I was excited to be able to look at that again.

Buckrail: Is there any one thing you would like the public to know or remember?

Thompson: A couple. First off, we never relocate a bear that we would consider an imminent threat to people. Human safety comes first.

And secondly, we are put in a tough spot. We could do nothing, which is not an option. We could kill every bear we capture, which is not an option. We could move every bear we capture, which is not an option either.

We know we are going to get beat up and called names no matter what we do. It is always somewhat interesting reading the comments after the story. You know, we wouldn’t choose headlines like, “Another problem bear relocated.” How about, “Further conflict potential temporarily averted and adult female grizzly’s life was spared.”

At the end of the day, we are just trying to use our expertise and experience to do what’s right for the bears and for people. We are trying to resolve and reduce conflict potential and give a bear another chance to survive on its own.

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