By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Last year was tumultuous for Yellowstone-area grizzlies both politically and literally, with the bears facing a high rate of often-lethal conflicts, a new report shows.
A Wyoming Game and Fish Department report published last week shows that on 59 occasions grizzlies in the Equality State were captured in the aftermath of having killed livestock, pillaged fruit trees, pet food or garbage, or acted too boldly around people.
While 2018 adds up to the second-highest number of captures on record, the trapped bears were killed in greater numbers than previously recorded in the era of grizzly recovery.
State carnivore managers and wildlife activists gave divergent interpretations of the data.
“Overall, our total number of conflicts were pretty standard,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore conflict coordinator Brian DeBolt said in an interview Monday. “We’ve definitely had worse years than this.”
High-profile incidents, DeBolt said, created the appearance of a bad-conflict year.
“Everything, I think,” he said, “was accentuated by … listing, delisting, the hunting season, the human fatality we had with Mr. Uptain.”
At least in Wyoming’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 2018 trailed only 2010, when 65 grizzlies were trapped, in terms of overall numbers of conflict bears captured, according to a data set that goes back to 2005. The 32 grizzlies euthanized last year exceeded the previous record-high year, 2016, by 10 animals.
Game and Fish’s report, which DeBolt authored, is required by the state Legislature annually because of worries about where conflict grizzlies are being relocated. The state statute requiring the report, which dates to 2005, says it must be published by Jan. 15.
“I think there was a really strong misconception about where we put bears,” DeBolt said of the law. “I guess there was enough influence within the state Legislature that we now make all of our relocations public in very short order.”
“We don’t want to pick on one county or another,” he said. “We sure try to even it out.”
The report is limited in scope. It doesn’t delve into the raw numbers and types of conflicts that led to grizzly captures and trapped “repeat-offender” bears being killed, nor does it touch on conflicts that resolved themselves in noncontrolled scenarios, like hunters shooting bears in surprise encounters. The geographic focus of the report is also limited to Wyoming, which contains only about 60 percent of occupied grizzly habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Yellowstone region’s 700 or so grizzlies made major headlines in 2018, a year that a U.S. District Court judge’s decision reverted the population to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and, in doing so, blocked planned hunts in Idaho and Wyoming. Montana opted to hold off on hunting before the September judicial decision, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Wyoming and hunting advocacy groups are appealing.
Longtime grizzly bear activist Louisa Willcox sees the conflicts as a serious problem and a trend that’s likely to get worse.
“I’m astonished that all governmental agencies haven’t really pointed out, in a clear way, this problem of a climate-driven shift to meat,” Willcox said. “It’s what bears are doing to survive in the wake of declining whitebark pine and cutthroat trout: They’re shifting to meat. Garbage is no longer the leading cause of conflict and death — it’s conflict over livestock and with hunters.”
One reason for the high numbers of Wyoming grizzlies that were euthanized in 2018, DeBolt said, is because the population is drifting away from the Yellowstone region’s core and into areas where conflicts come easier.
Seventeen of the 32 bruins caught and killed last year were captured outside the 19,270-square-mile demographic monitoring area, often called the “DMA.” One euthanized grizzly family was caught in Bighorn County, farther east than grizzlies have ever been documented in modern times, he said.
“Every year we’re seeing more and more conflicts outside the DMA,” DeBolt said “Inside that suitable habitat line, people are vigilant and generally tolerant of bears. But once you get outside that line people haven’t dealt with bears, and conflicts tend to be severe.”