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Year of the grizzly: how 2021 conflicts might shape our perspectives on bears
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Year of the grizzly: how 2021 conflicts might shape our perspectives on bears

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OVANDO - Which grizzly bear defined the summer of 2021?

Was it Monica, the aging sow on the northern edge of Glacier National Park who had to be killed by game wardens after she and her subadult cubs of the year went on garbage-raiding sprees at cabins along the North Fork of the Flathead River?

Or Felicia, an equally prolific female with cubs who became a traffic hazard on Togwotee Pass east of Grand Teton National Park, inspiring a posse of volunteer bear patrollers who tried to keep the peace between camera-slinging tourists and bears trying to make a living along a federal highway?

Or was it the unnamed 4-year-old male grizzly that killed a bike-camper in her tent in Ovando, roughly halfway between Glacier and Grand Teton, in the middle of what’s fast become one of the most contentious Endangered Species Act debate in the nation?

The July 6 mauling death of Leah Davis Lokan, 65, made international headlines.

To say the incident happened in downtown Ovando overstates the size of the ranching center along Highway 200 that’s grown equally popular with trout anglers and long-distance bike tourists. But looking at where Lokan pitched her tent, a dozen feet from the Brand Bar Museum, next door to the post office and across the main street from a grocery, café, and fly-fishing store, puts the attack squarely in the center of human habitat.

The details of the other two grizzlies, including the names “Monica” and “Felicia,” illustrate how humans have pushed the other way, into places grizzlies used to dominate. When Lewis and Clark made their Voyage of Discovery at the opening of the 19th century, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears inhabited the Lower 48 States west of the 100th meridian – the longitudinal line running roughly from North Dakota to Texas.

A dozen decades later, the bear emblazoned on the flag of California was nearly extinct throughout its natural range. Systematic destruction of its habitat and numbers, by ranchers, farmers and government agents, removed the grizzly bear from virtually every place except the preserves of Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

Remarkably, the grizzly’s attractiveness to tourists spared it from National Park Service predator culls. An 1895 Yellowstone superintendent’s report mentions the “bears had increased notably” after the U.S. Army put out garbage to feed them, while other bounty hunters were eradicating the wolves, mountain lions and coyotes in the park.  

When the grizzly bear became the eighth animal given protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, somewhat fewer than 600 individual bears remained between Canada and Mexico. Over the next 45 years, two numbers changed: Grizzly populations grew from 600 to an estimated 2,100 in the recovery zones of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. And humans in the same space expanded from 1.9 million to 3.4 million.

What didn’t change was the size of the landscape. Put another way, people in the Rocky Mountain West went from 5.9 per square mile to 10.3 per square mile between 1975 and 2020. Grizzlies went from .002 to .006 per square mile.

Monica the North Fork grizzly was about 20 years old when Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks killed her and her three yearling cubs in early September. In her lifetime, annual visitation to Glacier National Park’s Polebridge entrance went from 31,000 to 89,000, data shows.

“While she often spent time near homes and was observed by residents, she did not cause conflicts that we knew about until the fall of 2018 when she had just two of her three yearlings with her,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Tim Manley noted in a report to the North Fork Preservation Association. “The initial reports we had were that the family group had ripped into a yurt, damaged two vehicles, got into unsecured garbage and had pushed on a trailer.”

Wardens captured Monica’s two yearlings, who were suspected of causing the most trouble, and killed them. She gave birth to three more cubs in 2020, but had no reported conflicts. Things stayed quiet until this summer.

Manley said in late August, Monica and her triplet yearlings got into trouble all over the Polebridge vicinity. They knocked over barbecues, broke into improperly closed bear-resistant trash cans, pulled garbage out of a horse trailer, broke windows out of a pickup topper to get food, damaged a car that didn’t have any food, and tore the wall out of a camper trailer to get a big food reward.

The sow and all three of her yearlings were captured and killed.

“I have said it many times before, killing bears is the worst part of my job,” Manley told the homeowners. “We try to avoid having to do it, but when bears become very food-conditioned and start causing property damage and breaking into vehicles, trailers and cabins, those bears are removed.”

Outside Grand Teton, the opposite problem developed. People wouldn’t leave Felicia alone.

Wildlife biologists call the bear by her number, 863, which means she was the 863rd bear to be caught and affixed with a telemetry collar in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. On social media, she became Felicia.

Either way, the female with cubs who likes to munch on grass and clover near Highway 26/287 in western Wyoming has become one of the most famous grizzly bears after fellow Grand Teton Bear 399. And her propensity to be near traffic – and apparent nonchalance about hordes of people gathering to take pictures – helped make her into a bit of a social media sensation. She also created a traffic hazard, according to Wyoming wildlife and law enforcement officials, not to mention the daily possibility that one of those photographers will inch just a little too close before everyone remembers too late that grizzly bears on the side of the road are still grizzly bears.

Grizzly 863 traffic

Wildlife watchers pull off along the side of U.S. Highway 26/287 east of Moran, Wyoming, to catch a glimpse of grizzly bear 863, known as Felicia.

“We’re trying to alter the bear’s behavior but also trying to fix people’s behavior, and that’s where the big challenge is,” said Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “From a human psychological standpoint it’s been fascinating to be involved with.”

Draw a line about 25 miles to the south and the human behavior aspect of the story changes.

Ranchers say they’re struggling against an increasing number of grizzlies preying on their cattle. Problem grizzlies must be managed, and often lethally removed. Their ranching livelihoods depend on it. Conservation groups are suing to stop those killings, and leasing in general. Grizzlies and cattle don’t mix, they say, among other things.

At the same time, new homeowners are buying houses and property, often sight unseen, throughout the stretch of land bordering Yellowstone National Park on any side. The buffer has long been a place where grizzlies could wander with minimal impact, with its human residents long-ago trained in the art of keeping food away from bears. Wildlife managers worry the flood of new residents may not be so “bear wise,” and that conflicts will only increase.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Highway Patrol and Forest Service tried placing flashing signs telling people not to stop on the side of the road. They threatened tickets to those standing in traffic, ignoring oncoming vehicles. Eventually, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to spend a couple of weeks hazing the female with cubs to make her leave the road and move further into the mountains.

Jack Bayles understands that some people behaved irresponsibly. Watchers started a live video stream from Togwotee Pass to alert anyone following them when she appeared. People from as far as Montana, Salt Lake City, Utah and Colorado came to the area, and some approached her and her cubs far too closely.

Grizzly 863 and cub

The grizzly sow known as Felicia and her cub of the year saunter down the highway on Togwotee Pass in 2019. A multi-agency effort has begun to haze the grizzly away from the roadside due to regular traffic jams.

But the best reaction wasn’t to shoot the bear with rubber bullets and bean bags, he said. Instead, Bayles said he believes officials should have managed the human side of the situation.

“They have no problem when that section is a parking lot in the weekend in the winter and people are dragging trailers 90 mph down icy roads,” Bayles said. “It’s not the land of many uses, just the land of uses we approve of.”

Bayles is one of countless guides in the Yellowstone region and across bear country stretching from Jackson to Katmai National Park in Alaska that take people out to watch bears and other wildlife. He started his business in 2015 with his wife, Gina, and named it Team 399 after the region’s other famous bear.

“The accidental ambassador of her species, she is representative of a new age in human – wildlife relationships where coexistence and understanding are the new way, where a love of the wild is foremost in our hearts and minds,” their website reads.

He wants to raise awareness for conservation issues. He wants to give back to the “wild places and wild creatures that have given so much to us.” He also knows that most people coming to Yellowstone or other areas with grizzly bears are there, at least in part, for the chance to see a grizzly bear.

“It’s the only place in the world where the common middle class person can see a grizzly bear in the wild,” Bayles said. “You could say over the course of our life, bear 399 is a billion-dollar bear to the Wyoming economy.”

Exchange Famous Grizzly

Grizzly bear No. 399 and her four cubs cross a road as Cindy Campbell stops traffic in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Nov. 17, 2020. Many people watched and followed the travels of the well-known 24-year-old bear and her cubs right up until they denned for the winter. 

“There is going to be conflict between bears and people,” Thompson said. “We will have to lethally remove grizzly bears for the greater good … there’s the potential for humans to be injured and even killed, and that’s the reality of it. The notion of a future of bears and humans together without conflict is very naïve.

“As far as the future? I don’t think it’s going to get any easier.”

In Ovando, the future holds a lot of work.

While complete details surrounding the death of Lokan await the release of a Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Board of Review report, a big part of the small town was on the scene that night, trying to staunch the camper’s fatal wounds and wondering what had triggered the attack.

For many, it was a replay of “The Night of the Grizzlies,” the famous book chronicling the 1967 tragedy when two women in two separate campgrounds were attacked and killed by two separate grizzlies on the same night in Glacier National Park. At the time, resort managers in both Glacier and Yellowstone national parks deliberately left garbage out to attract grizzly bears for tourist viewing. Some Yellowstone hotels even set up bleachers to watch the evening “show.”

That food conditioning combined with growing popularity of backcountry camping put two 19-year-old hotel workers in the path of two predators in a place marketed and managed for recreation.

The grizzly that killed Loken had also raided a chicken coop nearby the same evening. Two nights later, a game warden staking out another chicken coop spotted it with night-vision goggles and shot it to death. The entire time, strings of long-distance bike riders kept pedaling into Ovando, often off-the-grid and bewildered by the swarm of armed agents, helicopters, culvert traps and law enforcement vehicles infesting their vacation itinerary.

“This is one of those absolutely very rare and extremely unfortunate events, like a lightning strike,” said Seth Wilson, the executive director of the Blackfoot Challenge, whose office sits about 75 feet from where Lokan was killed. “This is not a time where we say ‘Let’s throw our hands up and go home,’ but ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to improve our work.’”

The rural region south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex where the Blackfoot Challenge works has endured many economic lurches, from the collapse of logging and mining to the rise of tourism and the ever-volatile agriculture sector. It also sits on the southern tip of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem – the most productive grizzly bear recovery area in the Lower 48 States with about 1,000 resident bears.

Location of story: Ovando, Montana

Ovando is located right outside of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, but within the current known distribution of grizzly bears in that area. (Ovando marked by bear paw)

Ranchers who grew up rarely seeing a grizzly in their childhood now fear for their grandchildren when they visit favorite fishing spots or hunt pheasants in thickets. Ovando and nearby Lincoln both sit in the middle of major wildlife corridors, and bears as well as elk and deer and wolves make a constant presence. That means new costs and hassles in damaged fencing, plundered crops, harassed cows and frightened workers.

Among the most effective changes the Blackfoot Challenge has helped instill has been a carcass pickup program that’s overwritten the old practice of “boneyards” – dumps for dead livestock on the far edge of a ranch. Those boneyards were regular feeding grounds for grizzlies and wolves. But as the numbers of both predators increased, Wilson said ranchers started to see that getting free meat off the menu discouraged big scavengers from hanging around herds.

On the human side, Ovando residents quickly raised several thousand dollars to upgrade protections for chicken coops, buy bear-resistant trash cans for landowners, create a stockpile of bear spray for residents to use and install four new food storage lockers for bike tourists moving along Highway 200. The plan is to first increase Ovando’s “bear-awareness,” and then work with the visitors whose behaviors are harder to influence, Wilson said.

“We’ve come to expect some level of bear activity in these small towns,” Wilson said. “We’re located in the middle of prime grizzly bear habitat.”

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