CODY — Grizzly bear country is growing.
Game and Fish Large Carnivore Sectional Supervisor Dan Thompson said while good efforts have been made recently to decrease certain conflict types, more issues are popping up as bears range farther from the most suitable backcountry habitats.
“Grizzly bears aren’t relegated to the remote backcountry stretches over previous decades, they have successfully recolonized suitable habitat and expanded beyond those areas,” he said. “Having bears in certain habitats isn’t good for either (bears nor humans).
“Almost a third of the range is outside of the suitable area. That’s a big factor.”
So far this year, he said incidents have been high, but over the last few years that’s become expected.
One of the key factors is the success of the state and local communities in helping to rehabilitate the population of Yellowstone area grizzlies, which the department numbers at over 1,000.
Thompson said a 2010 count shows the grizzlies occupying roughly 19,000 square miles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In 2020, that had expanded to 27,000, meaning in 10 years the range of grizzlies expanded about as much as the state of Massachusetts.
More than 4,600 square miles of that land is private. Thompson said this is 750 square miles larger than Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway combined.
And with the growth of cities in the region, there are now more people – and since the pandemic more people outdoors – in those areas the bears have inhabited.
“There’s more recreational use of areas in grizzly habitat, a lot more people recreating in areas that have been grizzly habitats forever, and they’re new to the notion of what you have to do,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize the potential for running into grizzly bears.”
Thompson said he’s heard of people hiking in the state park near where he lives in Lander being teased of for carrying bear spray.
“There needs to be a realization that when you’re recreating, there’s the potential to run into all kinds of wildlife species,” he said.
With new people moving into areas near grizzly habitat, G&F staff have educated people on ways they can reduce conflicts, such as fencing in chicken coops.
Staff have also done a lot of relocating recently, especially for bears committing livestock depredation, sometimes on the South Fork and often near Pinedale. Many of those bears killing livestock near Pinedale have been moved to the Five Mile Creek drainage north of the North Fork of the Shoshone. Thompson said it’s an area relatively easy for G&F to access, but far from livestock and human habitation.
Although, he said the growth of the grizzly population is making bear transfers tougher, as there are fewer areas that don’t already have substantial populations and, with more people in the region, fewer areas far enough away from people.
G&F is also a target of the bitterness many in the region have for the federal government and the placement of grizzlies back on the Endangered Species Act list.
Thompson said they understand, and he shares the frustration of helping see a species recover, then seeing the meaning of the word change.
“That’s a frustration shared by many people, the overall idea of what it means to be recovered has changed, used as a weapon against certain things,” he said. “We understand those frustrations, we get chewed on a lot.”
The state is planning to submit a request to U.S. Fish and Wildlife to once again remove the grizzlies from the endangered species list, which would again enable state management.
But on the ground, G&F is simply trying to make sure adverse encounters are kept to a minimum. If they can’t be avoided, Thompson refereed to a phrase frequently uttered by former Bear Wise coordinator Dusty Lasseter.
“The best form of defense in any aggressive wildlife encounter is between your ears,” he said. “It’s knowing how to react in those situations because it happens fast, having a defense ready bear spray, gun or both.”
He said the elk hunter who was attacked last week by a sow defending her two cubs put that on display, as he quickly used the defense he had most handy.
While the hunting season is underway and opportunities for conflict in the backcountry remain possible, one issue has been resolved. After a number of grizzly and black bears were hit and killed by vehicles over the summer, that hasn’t happened for awhile.
Thompson said it was tied to the summer chokecherry plants blooming, a lot of which grow along the North Fork, which over the summer was filled with record numbers of visitors to Yellowstone.