Kill That Bear: Anti-Grizzly Fever Hits Wyoming Again

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Anti-bear fever has again gripped Wyoming politicians in the wake of Judge Christensen’s restoration of endangered species protections for Yellowstone grizzlies. Last week’s press was peppered with hostile rhetoric from people in high places. Several inane bills are being debated in the state legislature that presume to strip federal grizzly bear protections and institute a grizzly bear hunt with the stated goal of “ensuring public safety.”

Brian Debolt of Wyoming Game and Fish further fueled public confusion by publicly claiming that the 59 grizzly bears captured during conflicts last year was “about normal,” when that number is, in fact, twice the 2005-2017 annual average.  And after only a few days in office as Wyoming’s Governor, Mark Gordon called for punitive management of grizzly bears by the state, saying to a group of reporters: “bears have no respect for us.” His statement fits squarely in the tradition of invoking violence and punishment as means of instilling “respect,” which is conservative shorthand for “fear.”

Last week’s antics build on widespread anti-bear vitriol in the “Equality State” that seems to be increasing since the Judge’s ruling.   Before getting into why this is happening, it’s worth first unpacking some facts, starting with Debolt and the 2018 Wyoming Game & Fish (WGF) report on grizzly bear conflicts.

Never have Wyoming wildlife managers killed so many grizzly bears in one year: 32, all outside National Park boundaries, almost all associated with conflicts over livestock. This toll is about half of the total 65 grizzlies that died ecosystem-wide. Moreover, the 2018 deaths are 30% higher in Wyoming than the previous record set during 2016. The only year when more bears were captured in response to conflicts was during 2010, when 65 bears were trapped. For Wyoming’s grizzlies, there was absolutely nothing normal about 2018.

Not apparently deterred by inconsistency, Debolt went on to make the opposite point, claiming that bears are causing intolerable problems because they are expanding beyond the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA) where they are less “socially acceptable.” But the map shows that almost all the captures — maybe 52 out of 59 – occurred inside the DMA, where you expect most bears to be. So, which is it Brian, a “normal” or “out of control” situation? You can’t have it both ways.

Second, the state legislature. A resolution and separate bill seek to strip federal endangered species protections from grizzlies and reinstate a hunt. Wyoming Senator Eli Bebout concedes that, if his bill actually required WGF to initiate a hunt, officials could be imprisoned for a felony crime so he made the language more permissive — filled with “mays,” not “shalls.”

A third proposal that sought to create a fund to compensate victims of bear attacks was killed last week in committee. The bill was a direct link to the tragic fatal mauling of hunting guide Mark Uptain last fall. While a recently released final investigation report by WGF on Uptain’s death made it clear that bear spray, if properly deployed, could have saved his life (more on that in an upcoming essay), regressive politicians are using the tragedy to fuel anti-bear furor. These measures have one aim: to amp anger and angst about bears so as to kill more.

Governor Gordon’s comment serves the same purpose: to hype the narrative that “bears are out of control, we need to hunt them.” A recent essay by David highlights other choice details from recent months of news. In the current climate, it doesn’t seem to matter that there are reasons for the conflicts, proven techniques to avoid them, and federal laws that supersede state authority. I would have thought that the boundaries of federal and state authority were definitively settled in the 1860s—after the Civil War.

Why Lie?

Grizzlies and public lands are owned by all of us. But to Wyoming’s elites in the ranching and outfitting industries who profit from the public domain, delisting bears is an ideological issue, but also yet another opportunity to make money at public expense. Dare we call it welfare? Certainly, outfitting grizzly bear trophy hunts would be big bucks, with one hunt going for $10,000 or more. And it would be the outfitters who profit most from a hunt, not any of the state wildlife management agencies that would be charging a relative pittance for grizzly bear hunting licenses. Ranchers too see the possibility of more profit with fewer restrictions on exploiting the public domain, hence the desirability of delisting. But profit is only part of it: the rest has to do with power. Industry has long benefited by wresting power from the federal government. Local officials are easier to intimidate, manipulate, and seduce.

State wildlife agencies are, in turn, cowed by the political, ideological, and financial masters they serve. Most potently, they are financed largely by sales of hunting licenses and taxes derived from sales of arms and ammunition. And the pervasive ranchers turned state politicians hold their leash as well. Amping up these dependencies, those who go into state game management agencies are invariably hunters and often wannabe cowboys. They see themselves not as regulators as much as bros.

Given all of these corrupting influences, it is no wonder that WGF officials lie and prevaricate in service of promoting removal of ESA protections and instituting a trophy hunt. Debolt and others reserve special animosity for those who oppose divesting authority over managing of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears to the states — especially those who are half-way successful in their opposition, including my husband David and yours truly.

This truly astounding and unseemly behavior by state wildlife managers is a long-standing tradition. I recently reviewed my notes taken at meetings of grizzly bear managers during the last 30 years and was reminded that Wyoming’s aggressive promotion of delisting and demeaning comments about adversaries go back decades. It is probably no coincidence that Wyoming’s wildlife managers are pretty much all men.

In this regime there is no place for the broader public interest, or even Judges who are often called upon to defend it.

The Changing Face of Grizzly Conflicts

Nonetheless, reports periodically produced by state wildlife managers include some good information on grizzly-human conflicts. Along with the ecosystem-wide compilations maintained by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), state reports provide a window on the drivers and dynamics behind conflicts. The specific nature of the conflicts has changed over the past few decades, but one fact has not: most are avoidable, even according to government officials.

Until the 1990s, attraction to human food and garbage was the leading cause of human-bear conflicts and resulting bear deaths. Managers routinely killed bears that had become hooked on human foods and, because of that, more aggressive. But starting in the 1970s, the National Park Service and US Forest Service instituted programs requiring people to store food away from the reach of bears. These mandates paid off. Conflicts related to food conditioning have plummeted. The point is that, if we put our minds to it, we can reduce conflicts with bears without resorting to bloodshed.

So why the recent spike in conflicts?  The government mantra is that the population of grizzly bears has been relentlessly growing and, because of that, spreading inexorably out. But according to IGBST data, that is simply not true. The size of the Yellowstone population more or less stopped growing over 15 years ago. But grizzly distribution has expanded by threefold (Map 3). Why? The most plausible explanation is the collapse of a key food, whitebark pine, from an unprecedented climate-driven outbreak of mountain pine beetles that peaked between 2003 and 2009.

Not only do whitebark pine seeds efficiently fatten bears for survival of hibernation’s winter famine, but the trees also grow at high elevations in some of the most remote backcountry in the ecosystem. Healthy whitebark pine forests nourish bears while keeping them safe and securely away from conflicts with people.

Over time, grizzlies responded to the loss of whitebark pine by spreading out more widely, which brought them more often into contact with people under circumstances that were a recipe for trouble. It did not take long for ever-more bears to dial into beef as a high calorie food–to the dismay of cattlemen. Wyoming’s 2018 report on conflicts is testimony to the shift that has occurred. Only about 7 out of 59 captures in Wyoming were related to attractants such as dog food, apple trees, and a corn maze, whereas almost all the rest related to conflicts over livestock – mostly cows.

Interestingly, 2010 pops out as the other blockbuster conflict year, with, as I mentioned earlier, 65 captures in Wyoming alone. Why? A plausible answer is that this was right after the bottom had fallen out for whitebark pine. In 2009 I was part of a team with Dr. Jesse Logan, Wally Macfarlane, and the US Forest Service that conducted the first-ever comprehensive aerial survey of whitebark pine health. An astounding 70% or so of mature whitebark were dead by then, in the relative blink of an eye. You can just imagine bears’ shock: “oh crap, where do we find dinner now?”

In addition to cows, grizzlies have also turned to eating more elk, both vulnerable calves during early summer, and hunter-killed elk during fall. Interestingly—and perhaps revealingly—state conflict reports do not include incidents involving hunters, perhaps because state officials are typically not present where and when these sorts of conflicts occur, and perhaps because such conflicts pose an inconvenient challenge. Today, big game hunters and livestock conflicts—not garbage—are the leading causes of bear deaths in the Greater Yellowstone, in large measure because bears’ have shifted to eating more meat to compensate for losses of whitebark pine.

Parenthetically, the only rich natural food that does not draw bears closer to people is the army cutworm moth. Moths, whose small bodies are 40-70% fat, live on nectar of alpine tundra flowers on the remote eastern flanks of the Absaroka Mountains. Not surprisingly, bear use of this food has increased dramatically during recent years. But not only are moths unable to fully compensate for lost foods, they will likely be gone in the not too distant future, as climate warming drives tundra off the tops of the highest peaks.

Hunting Grizzlies is Not the Answer

The Thermopolis-based legislator who introduced the grizzly bear hunt bill seems to be under the impression that hunting grizzlies is an effective way to reduce conflicts. Similarly, Governor Gordon seems to think that hunting or otherwise more often killing grizzlies will instill “respect” (i.e., fear) of humans in bears.

The reality is that hunting bears will likely increase conflicts with humans, in part by disrupting the social ordering among bears. The same principle holds true for other large carnivores, most definitively for species such as mountain lions. Because of aggressive competition among adult males for breeding opportunities, the killing of resident boars by hunters will create openings likely to be filled by younger, often more troublesome, males. Such males will predictably attempt to kill the cubs produced by the deceased male. Their aim? To accelerate the onset of estrus among neighborhood females. The consequence? A younger, more rambunctious population comprised of proportionately more bears that are learning less from other bears about how to live with people and, as a consequence, more often ending up in conflicts.

Don’t take my word on this. State-of-the art research on the topic has been done over the last few decades by Scandinavians, led for many years by Jon Swenson who once worked for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Also, you might want to listen to my podcast (Episode 29) with large carnivore scientist Dr. Rob Wielgus who has done impeccable research on the impacts of hunting on large carnivores. Hunting, Wielgus and others conclude, exacerbates rather than ameliorates conflicts.

Could it be that Debolt, the state’s lead grizzly bear “expert,” had not read this relevant scientific research when he said last week: “Data on how hunting impacts conflicts is not that abundant?” There are, in fact, over 40 peer reviewed publications on the topic of how disproportionate mortality of males adversely impacts conflicts and survival of young for not only bears, but also other large carnivores such as mountain lions and wolves. And the weight of evidence overwhelmingly supports concluding that hunters out killing males will make problems worse, not better. So we are supposed to trust these guys with management of our imperiled grizzly bears?

A Better Way

There are better ways to deal with conflicts. The first step is to take a comprehensive look at the data: where, when, and why problems occur. That means systematically evaluating all relevant data, including the details surrounding incidents such as specific landscape or habitat features, husbandry practices, and seasonal factors that may configure conflicts. State reports provide a start, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. I have fought for many years to get these details, with only limited success. At this point, all of us would benefit from transparency and inclusion in a public dialogue about what is really going on.

A second step is to examine efforts in the northern Rockies that have led to successful coexistence between grizzlies and livestock producers, such as in the Madison Valley and Tom Miner Basin of Montana. I have written about enlightened operators, including some in Wyoming such as Jon Robinett of the Diamond G Ranch near Dubois. Much has been written about ranchers in the Blackfoot Challenge south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness who have reduced grizzly bear conflicts by over 90% through a mix of carcass removal and composting, electric fence, and a phone tree that provides an early warning system when grizzlies are in the neighborhood. Many commonsense lessons can be harvested from successful coexistence efforts that would likely work in Wyoming’s troubled rangelands.

A third step involves prioritizing interventions according to which are most practical and would give the biggest bang for the buck. The government took some steps in this direction by evaluating conflict and mortality data in five different reports, the first of which dates back to 1991. Over two thirds of the government’s recommendations emphasized the need to: 1. Improve handling of livestock and big game carcasses, 2. Carry bear spray, and 3. Ensure that big game hunters were prepared to hunt in grizzly country.

What progress has been made? Precious little, which helps explain why conflicts keep reoccurring in the same landscapes at the same times. None are more glaring and chronic than conflicts densely clustered in the Upper Green River area near Pinedale, Wyoming, where roughly 30% of last year’s grizzly bear captures occurred. Here, wealthy politically connected cattlemen have successfully resisted even modest precautionary measures such as requiring range riders to carry bear spray, even though they are grazing on public land to the current detriment of a national treasure—the grizzly.

Kill That Bear

The fight over grizzly bears might as well be about Muslims or Hispanic immigrants. All are convenient scapegoats. You could replace “build that wall” with “kill that bear.” Such slogans divide us and distract from developing insight into real problems and, from that, coming up with practical and humane solutions.  Political cant and inflammatory rhetoric are fundamentally destructive to people, animals, and a civil discourse.

The old “frontier” west may be dying, but the will to kill and dominate is very much alive among power elites who are threatened by change. A “New West” based on reverence and respect for nature is still being born, although the involved labor is prolonged and often painful.

I thought Governor Gordon was part of the New West when I met him decades ago during our fight to protect Wyoming’s wilderness. But his recent quips about disrespectful bears harken to the state’s brutal past.

Restraint, honesty and a dose of reality would help right now. Grizzlies are not going to be delisted anytime soon, so let’s roll up our sleeves and do something constructive for not only grizzly bears, but also for all of us who are affected by and care for these animals.

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