POWELL — Education is the top priority in Wyoming’s $55 million, decades-long battle to recover and conserve grizzly bears.
The success of the Bear Wise program — the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore educational outreach program — has helped keep both bears and people safe, according to state officials. But the department is at a crossroads: Its goal of building tolerance among landowners and residents is in jeopardy of wearing thin as conflicts continue to increase.
“Tolerance goes down as conflicts go up,” Brian DeBolt, large carnivore conflict coordinator for the department, told the Game and Fish Commission in April.
In many ways, DeBolt and the rest of the large carnivore team find themselves in a tight spot. The federal government calls all the shots while the species is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Despite being deemed recovered for years by a federal conservation governing body, efforts to delist the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzlies have been unsuccessful, while bears keep spreading out into areas fraught with conflict.
At the same time, more visitors from outside the Yellowstone ecosystem — many who haven’t seen the messaging from Bear Wise Wyoming — are pouring in, hoping to get a glimpse of the charismatic critters.
DeBolt and large carnivore team supervisor Dan Thompson — considered the state’s top experts — outlined the pressing issues of livestock depredation and aggressive bears in residential neighborhoods at the commission’s April 22 meeting. They also heralded recently improved removal rates and educational opportunities seized despite the pandemic.
“A huge component of having large carnivores on the landscape is managing conflicts,” Thompson said.
There were 208 conflicts with grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2020, with 50 percent occurring on private property.
Thompson and DeBolt spoke to the Game and Fish’s governing body as the first grizzly attack of the year was hitting newsstands. Carl Mock, a backcountry guide from West Yellowstone, Montana, was mauled by a grizzly bear during a solo fishing trip on the Madison River just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The 40-year-old Mock died two days later, on April 17.
The bear is believed to have been defending a nearby food cache — a natural defense mechanism for the species — as a moose carcass was located near the scene of the attack.
The bear was later killed as it charged a large contingent of officials responding to the scene.
Bear spray residue found on Mock’s clothing suggested he tried to ward off the attack, The Associated Press reported. Mock usually carried a pistol in addition to the spray, but didn’t that day. By the time rescuers reached him, he was propped up at the base of a tree with his canister of spray in one hand and his other hand missing — lost in the battle with the bruin.
Mock wasn’t just a statistic to be bantered around in the constant debate over management protocols, Thompson said. Nor was Mark Uptain, a guide killed in the Teton wilderness in 2018, or any of the deaths and injuries that have unfolded in recent years. They were family members and friends.
But the attacks, hyped in big headlines in some publications, also become ammunition used by some to demonize the species, the recovery efforts of the state and federal government, and predator management as a whole.
“I understand their frustration,” Thompson said. “It is very tough, because we’ve asked the public to trust in us. And we’ve done everything we can to recover and prove that we’ve recovered grizzly bears. But we’re still dealing with a listed population.”
He said tolerance is impossible to quantify, but when a person gets injured or killed, “it obviously impacts the general thought process of a lot of people about grizzly bears in the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem).”
Wyoming’s large carnivore team walks a narrow line between protecting humans and protecting the predator species unique to our ecosystem.
“There’s international interest and scrutiny on what we do,” Thompson said.
Wolves, mountain lions and bears have all been misunderstood while being displaced by the fragmented habitat of progress, he said. There were still bounties on mountain lions deep into the 20th century in the U.S., offering hard currency to anyone willing to shoot the species, with no limits or regulations.
Thompson told commissioners that the department’s proactive measures to inform and educate the public are “very critical” to large carnivore management. The Game and Fish’s large carnivore team started with just a few people, he said, but has expanded to 10 full-time employees and several temporary hires, “just to be able to deal with these things as the population expands.”
The official estimate of grizzlies within the Demographic Monitoring Area — an area deemed as suitable bear habitat — is about 730 bears. However, drawing from population data presented by the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, Thompson said there are likely more than 1,000 of the predators in that area, “and have been since 2015.”
Officials refuse to give an educated estimate as to how many additional bears have moved outside the monitoring area, but based on the growing footprint of the bear, many guess there are hundreds more; reported grizzly conflicts outside the boundaries of the DMA span a region the size of New Jersey.
However, critics question such population “guesstimates” and some claim higher estimates will result in more grizzly deaths, including eventual hunting of the species. While grizzly bear hunts have become a flashpoint in debates over delisting, Thompson points out that the state manages the hunting of black bears, wolves and mountain lions, all of which are steadily increasing in population.
“Without the public buying in, without public support and tolerance for these species, we can’t move forward,” he said. “That’s why we make a huge effort to understand all the different perspectives from the public — from those who adore (predators), to those who hate them.”
The Bear Wise and loss mitigation programs remain important parts of building tolerance, Thompson said. The department has paid millions in compensation for livestock lost to predators and is constantly looking for ways to get its messages out to residents and visitors. The program is seeking to expand bear spray giveaways and educational efforts as COVID-19 vaccinations make it possible for officials to schedule live events.
“My message to the public is to do everything you can to be safe, and do everything you can to protect yourself,” Thompson said. Despite the many critics from communities in grizzly habitat and around the globe, he considers all opinions valid as the debate rages. “I’ve always said that we can use [the passion for the species] to our advantage,” he said. “I’d rather have interest than apathy.”