Image © Roger Hayden - all rights reserved
The Problem of Livestock-Related Conflicts
Wyoming's Upper Green
Black Hole for Grizzly Bears
The vast wilderness of the Upper Green River basin near Pinedale has been called “the Serengeti” of Yellowstone, yet this area has become Greater Yellowstone’s number one hotbed of conflicts between grizzlies and ranchers. 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 end up being 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 on the part of ranchers--not bears.
The commonsense proactive approaches to preventing conflicts that Charlie Russell, John and Debbie Robinett, Karl Rappold, and Maryanne Mott (link) have adopted apparently do not apply in the Upper Green—at least in the minds of those who run cows in this grizzly bear country. Here the tool of choice seems to be the telephone. Calls to Wyoming’s governor and high-level wildlife managers are the routine response to cow-bear conflicts, primarily as a means of pressuring agency officials to kill bears. Local ranchers have long resisted reforms that would otherwise foster coexistence with carnivores such as grizzlies.
There are many federal and some state employees who have tried for decades to prevent bear-human conflicts and subsequent deadly outcomes in the Upper Green. (I can say this because I worked with many of them, starting in the early 1990’s when my hero Barb Franklin of the Bridger Teton Forest first documented the recolonization of grizzly bears in that country and almost lost her job over the reaction of the ranchers and her bosses).
This map shows the locations of conflicts involving livestock and grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem during one emblematic year--2012. Each cow skull represents a conflict. Grizzly bear distribution is shown in green and orange, with areas recently occupied by grizzlies between 2000 and 2010 in orange. State boundaries and the boundary of Yellowstone National Park provide spatial references.
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.
Livestock husbandry in the Upper Green tends to be slovenly, even cynical, with sick calves left un-doctored so that when a bear kills them, the state of Wyoming pays them more than fair market value—a practice that some call “baiting.” Meanwhile, the involved bears get a bad reputation. Many get relocated or killed. Top to bottom, most of the ranchers in the Green River – some of them millionaires – are not making a serious effort to steward public lands they use or husband the grizzly bears they share this land with.
Bullying is a long-standing tradition among ranchers in the Upper Green, who parlay the myth of the cowboy into political capital. Hard working public servants are sacrificed on the altar of these selfish few who make money off of our public lands while sacrificing our few remaining grizzly bears on the altar of ideology and ego.
With a hotline to the governor’s office, ranchers like those who live in 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.
More than 60 years ago, Adolphe Murie raised an important question: why are cattle allowed in grizzly country and under what terms? The proverbial elephant in the living room. With all the advances in planning and GIS mapping, plus new laws on the books, are we coming closer to answers? Since Murie lived, the Endangered Species Act was passed by which we made a national commitment to preventing species extinction. With the emergence of the 6th great extinction, we know, more clearly than in Murie’s day, that we are agents of extirpation, and that with global warming the trend will continue.
Although people like Charlie, John, Karl, and Maryanne know how to coexist with bears, are others willing and able to parlay their hard-earned lessons into norms operating at the necessary scale? I think the answer to that question is a resounding no. A relative few, like the ruffians in the Upper Green, are willing and able to wreck a good thing for everybody. Which is why we need laws – here, continued ESA protections for bears -- to keep a minority of bad actors from undermining hard-fought progress towards grizzly bear recovery for the larger public interest.
Moreover, continued ESA protections also provide prospective leverage for obtaining resources that can be used to help other livestock producers upgrade and otherwise improve their husbandry. Since 1975, the ESA has served the vital role of bringing many millions of dollars to the challenge of recovery and boosting the commitment to keep bears alive among agencies and stakeholders who might otherwise kill them.
Coexistence, commonsense and compassion must be the norm rather than the exception when we get around to removing Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.