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Trash Talk: Cooke City Cleans Up Garbage, Saves Bears

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Photo by Judy Tilly.

The press coverage of endangered species management tends to highlight conflicts. “If it bleeds, it leads.” All too rarely we read stories about people coming together to solve shared problems. But one such story related to the recovery of grizzly bears centers on the Cooke City area near the northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park.

In 1987 the Congressional Research Service dubbed Cooke City “a black hole for grizzly bears”—a place where bears entered but did not exit alive. That is no longer the case. Although some conflicts still occur, the Cooke City area has become a model for amicable coexistence between grizzly bears and people. What happened here? And what can we learn from the experience that might help us in our efforts to foster coexistence elsewhere in grizzly bear habitat?

What follows is my take on the history that led to this remarkable transformation of relations between bears and people around Cooke City.  I know something about this story because I played a bit part in it as a long-time advocate for wildlife in the Northern Rockies.

Of Garbage and Dumps: History of Bear Conflicts in Cooke City

Lying at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park, Cooke City has always been grizzly bear country, even when bear numbers were at their nadir during the early 1980s. With Wilderness rising in all directions, the Cooke City area is home as well to wolves, mountain goats, moose, and mountain lions — the full Monte of species that make Yellowstone famous. Montana’s highest mountain, Granite Peak, rises to nearly 13,000 feet a few miles north of town, part of the rugged and spectacular Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. In fact, you can walk about 350 miles through wilderness, all the way from Livingston Montana to Dubois Wyoming, and only cross three roads, one of which passes through Cooke City.

Although Cooke City supports an overwintering population of just 80 or so people, in the summer that number swells as thousands of tourists seek opportunities to hike, fish and relax.  For decades, the garbage generated by these legions ended up in open dumps that were exploited by both black and grizzly bears as a source of food. Bears that make a habit of eating any human food—including garbage—can become aggressive and dangerous. And, not surprisingly, these bears end up being killed by people at far higher rates than bears that forage exclusively on natural foods.

Starting in 1969, managers began to close the notorious open pit dumps that had fed multitudes of bears inside Yellowstone Park. But it took longer to close dumps outside the Park, including around Cooke City. But even after these closures, local restaurants and businesses continued to leave scraps out for bears. In fact, on my first trip through Cooke in the mid-1980s, I saw a grizzly bear rummaging through a trash can behind the local gas station.

Eventually, Cooke City’s residents cleaned up their act — mostly. Conflicts continued around bird feeders, but especially around the large green-colored metal bins that were used to collect the town’s garbage prior to being transported to a county landfill. These dumpsters, euphemistically called “green boxes,” offered little deterrence to scavengers – especially one as powerful and determined as a grizzly bear. Grizzlies that became professional dumpster divers had no problem climbing over the flimsy wire fence that surrounded the green boxes and deftly lifting their flimsy metal lids. As often as not, people abetted raiding bears by leaving the fence gate open, despite a mandate to close it. The knowledge of how to exploit the Cooke City dumpsite continued to pass from mother to cub for generations.

Bear managers struggled to make improvements, challenged by the fact that Cooke City is not an incorporated town, with no town government, and lies far from the Park County seat of government, a 2-½-hour drive away in good weather. Further complications arose from the fact that the dumpsite owner, the US Forest Service, had its headquarters over 3 hours away in Bozeman. Remoteness contributed to keeping Cooke City’s garbage problem “out of sight and out of mind.”

A Bear-proof Trash Compactor Comes to Cooke City

In 2002, the problem of managing the town’s green boxes was finally solved once and for all. Dan Tyers, the local biologist for the Gallatin National Forest, had the brainy idea of using funds allocated to mitigate impacts from reconstructing the highway passing through Cooke City to install a trash compacter inside a new, fully enclosed building. Park County matched the Highway Department’s contribution. Members of a local environmental group, Park County Environmental Council (PCEC), also chipped in. Once totaled, the new facility cost roughly $125,000.

On top of this, the compacter had the additional benefit of saving the county money by reducing the volume of the trash that had to be hauled through Yellowstone Park to the landfill near Livingston, the county government seat.

The fix at the Cooke City dump was one of those “win wins” for the environment and the community that you don’t see very often in real life. It was the result of a simple but special concatenation of factors, including resources, the mandate of the Endangered Species Act, and key leaders in government and the local community.

The Endangered Species Act’s Prohibition Against Killing

There is plenty of evidence showing that feeding garbage to wild animals is a bad idea. But without a clear legal mandate, provided in this case by the Endangered Species Act, the improvements at Cooke City’s dump would have been far from assured.

In 1975, grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Section 9 of the Act prohibits killing and harassment of protected species. This provision prompted an immediate ban on trophy hunting of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

The fact that the refuse disposal site was owned by the Forest Service meant that the agency was violating the law by allowing bears to continue to feed on garbage and be subject to the greater resulting risks of death.

Furthermore, such practice set a poor example for the public. How could the Forest Service expect the public to comply with requirements to secure food from bears in nearby wildlands when the agency itself made food easily available to bears in town? Especially embarrassing was the fact that 5 miles down the road, the Forest Service’s sister agency, the National Park Service, had cleaned up its act by the 1980s.

Effective Leaders Matter

Without key leaders inside and outside government, progress towards recovery of endangered species is sluggish — if it happens at all. Progress in this case benefited from several important players, most notably Dan Tyers and local residents, Jim and Heidi Barrett.

Dan is anything but your run of the mill Forest Service biologist, even though he looks the part: tall, blonde and fit. His dad was a Yellowstone Park ranger who imbued his son with a deep sense of responsibility to the land and wildlife. Many who exhibit talent for management tend to take jobs that boost them up the agency ladder, but not Dan. He preferred to stick closer to the land he loved. Cooke City held a special place in his heart, as the study area for his PhD research on moose, and the site of a family cabin.

I got to know Dan during my years as a wildlife advocate in Greater Yellowstone. I have always seen him as a straight shooter, and as someone deeply curious about what was happening in the natural world. One of the early projects I remember him discussing at a grizzly bear manager’s meeting was a field survey of sanitation practices among big game hunting outfitters on the Gallatin National Forest. Outfitters tend to be a loud and pushy lot, who believe that the goal of public lands management is to benefit them personally. They typically don’t like the government checking up on them.

The point here is that you don’t pursue a project like that if you aim to win a popularity contest in the Forest Service, with the potential of becoming a Forest Supervisor someday. But Dan is not in government simply to advance his career. He unambiguously prioritizes serving the broader public interest.

Dan is also knowledgeable, thoughtful and honest, qualities that are increasingly endangered in government. He is, hands down, one of the most experienced and skilled bear managers in the GYE. So, it was just like Dan to come up with a novel idea about how to fix the Cooke City dump problem.

Here, the challenge related more to money than technology. The Gallatin Forest is far more strapped than its neighbor, Yellowstone Park. Dan’s idea of using mitigation funds from the Highway Department was a stroke of genius. Typically funds are used to restore habitat that has been damaged in the course of building highways.  I have never heard of another instance of highway funds being used for managing garbage.

Meet The Barretts

Artist Jim Barrett and his wife Heidi were also vital to the success of this project. Living part-time in Cooke City, they had emerged as the local leaders in a high-profile campaign to prevent a gold mine from being built on the doorstep of Cooke City and Yellowstone Park. They succeeded not only in securing permanent protection of their environs from all mining activity, but in restoring a site that had been degraded as a result of past mining activity. In 1997 Jim received the National Parks and Conservation Association’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas award for effective advocacy.

Jim went on to take the reins of a local conservation group, Park County Environmental Council. He and Heidi tackled the community’s local garbage challenge with the same skill and tenacity they showed fighting the proposed mine. After failed attempts at bear-proofing the fence around the green boxes with barb wire, electricity, and metal siding, Jim, Heidi and others were in the market for a more durable solution.

I remember attending a public meeting Jim and Heidi convened at the Cooke City fire hall in the summer of 2002, after two local garbage-eating grizzly bears had been killed by managers. The place was packed. With characteristic poise, Jim chaired the meeting that featured bear managers Kerry Gunther and Dan Reinhart with Yellowstone Park, Kevin Frey with Montana Fish and Game Department, and Dan Tyers with the Forest Service.

It seemed that nearly everyone who attended the meeting had a story to share of a hair-raising encounter with a “problem” bear that summer. The problem was old, and people were cranky. Something had to change. I was relieved when no one suggested indiscriminately gunning down bears as a solution.

Jim had the foresight to invite Park County’s Commissioners to the meeting. Ed Schilling, a key Commissioner, came. The county mattered because of its legal authority over refuse management.

In this case, the critical issue related to funding.  As fate would have it, Park County had recently received a large settlement from a lawsuit against the regional railroad company. Many years of train repairs at the local railyard in Livingston had polluted the town’s aquifer, and most of the funds were obligated to clean it up. But some money was left over, constituting a slush fund of sorts for the County.

As a member of the Beartooth Highway mitigation team, Dan was able to come up with $60,000 for a trash compactor facility, and at Ed’s urging, Park County matched this amount. PCEC members chipped in too. In what seemed like record timing, the facility was completed in a matter of months.

I went to what qualified as a ribbon cutting ceremony, at least according to the funky standards of Cooke City.  Steve Leibl, the facility’s first manager, powered up the compactor and amidst the din, smashed some trash. Dan Tyers, Jim and Heidi Barrett, and Ed Schilling looked on as proud parents.

Since that day, very few grizzly bears have gotten into trouble around Cooke City, and almost all of that trouble has been in places other than the garbage disposal site. “It was like night and day,” says Heidi. “You just don’t see grizzlies wandering around town anymore.”

This is an unambiguous ESA success story. It is the antithesis of what you hear from the radical right about ham-handed government officials punishing hard-working citizens in the name of obscure species.  It involved capable and dedicated people inside and outside the government, working together to solve a common problem.  At the end of the day, there was plenty of credit to go around, especially since no one posed as the hero protagonist.

From Trash Site to Social Center

One of the unanticipated consequences of Cooke City’s trash building is its evolution into a community gathering place, an informal art gallery, lending library and Good Will. Steve Liebl and his successors routinely high-grade the trash to select for interesting and usable items for others to take. Local artwork is tacked up on the walls. Books are left in boxes for the taking. “People come to the site to hang out and visit, check out the art,” says Heidi.

Who would have thought that Cooke City would succeed in making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

A Grizzly Tragedy at the Soda Butte Campground

The events surrounding Cooke City’s dump did not signal the end of human-bear conflicts in the area. Just eight years later, Kevin Kemmer would be drug out of his tent by a mother grizzly bear on the night of July 26, 2010 while camping in the nearby Soda Butte Campground. He was killed. Two other people attacked by the same bear were hospitalized for injuries. The involved grizzly had three yearling cubs with her who had not yet shed their winter coats, even though summer was in full swing. The government responded by killing the mother, and sending her cubs to a zoo.

Investigations showed that the mother bear was not a garbage-eater, and had never been trapped before by wildlife managers. Kemmer’s camp was clean, as were all the others in the campground that night.

There was no ready explanation for her behavior, other than perhaps extreme hunger and the related need to feed her dependent cubs. This seems to have been one of the very, very rare incidents when a grizzly bear has preyed on a human.

Because Soda Butte campground lies on the Gallatin Forest, Dan Tyers served on the team that investigated the fatality. His conclusion, that the campground had been located in a heavily trafficked grizzly bear corridor, prompted the Forest Service to close part of the campground and prohibit tent-camping.

As a result of the Soda Butte fatality, Dan undertook an ecosystem-wide investigation of all National Forest campgrounds in grizzly bear habitat to evaluate whether changes needed to be made at other sites. The task was huge. The Forest Service responded to the findings with a number of recommended changes in management of other campgrounds, but a scarcity of resources limited what that agency could do.

Dan went on to embark upon a new partnership with another non-governmental organization, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), to install bear resistant dumpsters on Forest lands.  By the end of 2017, as much as $900,000 will have been spent by GYC and the Forest Service to improve sanitation on National Forests (link).

More to the point, as long as grizzly bears are forced to live in human-dominated world – and indeed, their world is getting smaller each year as the numbers of humans increase – some bears will challenge and even, at times, injure or kill us. The best we can do is reduce the odds of tragic outcomes.

Adapting to a Changing World 

We may never be able to rest on the laurels of past efforts and accomplishments. We must be ready to adapt to changing conditions and new information. That includes irrefutable scientific evidence that climate change is wreaking havoc on key bear foods, forcing bears to forage nearer people.

For the past ten years, the top causes of mortality have not been conflicts over garbage or other foods near human residences, but conflicts resulting from depredation on livestock and encounters with big game hunters (link). This does not mean we can relax our vigilance when it comes to our management of garbage. It means we need to invest even more in efforts to address newer sources of conflicts.

Recovery of endangered species requires people with skill, energy, and dedication inside and outside of government – people like Dan Tyers and Jim and Heidi Barrett. But such people cannot work in a vacuum. They need the support of laws that protect wildlife and the natural world, as well as the resources needed to implement these laws.

If Yellowstone’s grizzlies lose their Endangered Species Act protections, as is being proposed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we may be left with good people who have good ideas, but little authority and fewer resources to implement them at a time when the demand for redoubled efforts is mounting. The last decade has witnessed record-breaking numbers of grizzly bear deaths that have led to what now appears to be a declining population. Still, according to grizzly bear managers, most bear deaths are avoidable.

We have the opportunity to learn from our experiences with fostering coexistence between humans and grizzly bears, including histories in places such as Cooke City. Let’s take advantage of this rich resource to chart a sensible course that accommodates both bears and people. It’s not rocket science. More importantly, harvesting lessons from past successes is about motivation born of generosity, commitment, and compassion.

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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