Grizzly bears such as 399 that adopt a strategy of hanging out near us can be quite successful. Up to a point. It is when they step outside the boundaries of National Parks that everything changes.
1. The Saga of 615: a Hunter and His Gun
Bear 615, a female cub of 399, was shot illegally by Stephen Westmoreland on September 19, 2009, as he was out hunting on National Forest land close to Jackson, Wyoming. She had stood up to look at Westmoreland as he walked by about 40 yards away. She was feeding on the remains of a moose that had been killed by another hunter. Westmoreland was not carrying bear spray, despite the fact that bear spray has proven to work in over 90% of the cases where it has been used to non-lethally deter bears (link). Instead, he shot 615 in the chest and abdomen with his rifle, later claiming self-defense.
Photo Credit: Gary Schocky
The interesting thing about this case is that it went to trial. An extreme rarity with grizzly bears and almost unheard of in Wyoming.
For the grizzly bear, this was the OJ Simpson case of the era, only recently supplanted by the widely publicized illegal killing of a grizzly bear in British Columbia by Clayton Stoner, a famous hockey player (link). Fans of 399, of 615, and of bears everywhere were enraged. Described as diminutive and shy, 615 up to the point of her death had made thousands of decisions to avoid barbeques, birdfeeders, and people who were not paying attention. Dubbed “Persistence”, the one thing 615 could not persist was bullets at close range.
Justice was done, in that Westmoreland was convicted by his peers of “malicious killing,” i.e., poaching. Veteran news reporter Angus Thuermer reflected later that the message from the prosecution was clear: “if you shoot a griz in Teton County without a solid self-defense alibi, I’m coming after you.”
In the end, however, we were reminded that, in the eyes of Wyoming’s judicial system, she was “just” a bear; and that her threatened status seemed irrelevant. Westmoreland paid a $500 fine and walked away. He could have been fined $10,000 and spent considerable time behind bars.
Even Jackie Skaggs, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, tried to downplay the importance of 615’s death, claiming that her connection with the famous 399 did not mean she was “more [nor] less than any other bear in the region.” (link)
Teton County attorney Stephen Weichman, the lawyer who had prosecuted Westmoreland, followed up this trial with legislation that would have required all users of public lands in the county to carry bear pepper spray (link). But the idea fizzled. Pressured by Wyoming outfitters who, according to federal data, include some of the leading grizzly bear killers, the Forest Service continues to balk at requiring the use of bear spray, even though grizzly bear mortalities caused by elk hunters are mounting.
The young female, 615, will not be the last beautiful, innocent grizzly bear whose death reminds us that many hunters are too often ill-prepared to deal with encounters with bears and too quick to pull the trigger. Alive, 615 could have enriched the legacy of the 399 clan and indeed, boosted the population. As we all know, a few good moms make all the difference.
2. The Story of 587: Bears and Cows
On July 7, 2013, a cub of 399, numbered 587, was killed in Wyoming’s upper Green River area. He was killed by Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF) officials because he had developed the habit of eating livestock.
The vast wilderness of the Upper Green has been called “the Serengeti” of Yellowstone, yet this area has become a hotbed of conflicts between grizzlies and ranchers because of the livestock that ranchers are grazing at public expense. Former Bridger Teton Forest lead biologist Timm Kaminski has called the Upper Green an “ecological trap” – a place that attracts bears and wolves because of an abundance of natural prey and secure habitat, but, where they tend to be killed because cows (an easy alternative prey) are dumped on the landscape with little oversight. The heart of the problem is ignorance and resistance to change, not bears.
Many ranchers in other areas peacefully work out their differences with grizzly bears without much fanfare. They employ livestock guardian dogs, riders and commonsense husbandry practices. That is not the case in the Upper Green. The tool of choice seems to be the telephone. Calls to Wyoming’s governor and high-level wildlife managers is the routine means to pressure agency officials to kill bears. They have long resisted reforms that could otherwise allow ranchers to better coexist with carnivores.
The celebrity status of 587 and the label “habituated” were marks against him in the eyes of Wyoming. “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of,” said Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson. He wrote in an article on 587’s death, “It’s obvious that they may be prone to getting into trouble in the future.” (link)
Senior Biologist Steve Cain of Grand Teton Park responded, “Being habituated to humans and acquiring a taste for livestock are two different things. No information or studies connect a habituated, non-food conditioned bear with a higher tendency to kill cattle.”
Cain is correct. State managers did not respond to the larger issue of livestock husbandry that is the root engine of conflicts that enmesh Teton Park’s roadside bears, and other bears who roam into places such as the Upper Green. The state agencies hope that delisting will make the problem of conflicts between people and grizzlies “go away.” The solution they promote is killing more bears.
There are some federal employees who have tried to prevent bear-human conflicts and the subsequent deadly outcomes in the Upper Green. Most recently, Gary Hanvey of the Bridger-Teton National Forest proposed requiring cowboys tending cattle to carry bear pepper spray. The affected ranchers responded by appealing to his higher-ups. They squelched his sensible efforts. Shortly after, Gary transferred to another National Forest.
Bullying by ranchers is part of a long tradition here. Hard working public servants are sacrificed on the altar of a selfish few who are making money from our public lands, while degrading the land itself. This outright greed further imperils threatened species such as grizzly bears. Because ranchers in the Upper Green are so resistant to any constructive change, conservation groups felt they had no option but to litigate to somehow force the matter.
Allotments in the Upper Green River stand in stark contrast to many others in the Greater Yellowstone and elsewhere in the Northern Rockies where ranchers are working hard to coexist with grizzly bears. By contrast, ranchers throughout much of Wyoming—including the Upper Green—are counting on Yellowstone’s grizzlies getting delisted. Their quick fix hope is that a sport- hunt will purge the landscape of grizzly bears; cattle killers or not.
Beware any relative of 399 -- or any other carnivore -- who ventures there.