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  • Louisa Willcox

Digging Under Grizzly Graves, Part 2: The Death of 760 and Lessons of 399's Clan

Grizzly bears bring joy to countless visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks each year – and none more so than Jackson Hole’s delightful clan descended from the photogenic grizzly bear matriarch that researchers gave the number 399.

This is the second part of my story about Grizzly 399’s family. Grizzly 399 herself is famous for tolerating people and for teaching her cubs how to live amicably near roads and developed areas. She settled into these human-impacted environments primarily to keep her cubs safe from aggressive boars that often prefer to hang out in more remote areas.

The Park Service embraces bears like 399 and works with visitors to ensure that everybody – bears and humans -- stays safe. But the state of Wyoming, that manages neighboring non-park land vital to the survival of these bears, has a less inclusive view. Later this year, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana hope to wrest management authority over grizzly bears from the federal government and allow a sport hunt, including on land where 399 and her family live.

At 20 years old, 399 is nearing the end of her reproductive life. Although she is an attentive and successful mom, she has only produced one cub, Grizzly 610, who in turn has produced cubs. Her life underscores how hard it is to be a grizzly bear, and how hard it is to bring grizzly bear populations back from the brink of extinction. The life of every mom matters to the recovery of this threatened species.

A close look at the tragic deaths of three of 399’s descendants raises questions about current grizzly bear management and what will likely happen after Yellowstone’s grizzly population loses Endangered Species Act protections. One of her cubs was killed by a poacher (Grizzly 615); one because of conflicts with ranchers over cattle on public lands (Grizzly 587); and a grand-cub because of compounded mistakes by government managers who later tried to cover them up (Grizzly 760).

The first part of my story, which covered the deaths of 615 and 587, can be read by following this link. Here I tell the story of 760 and conclude by drawing larger lessons from all of these deaths.

The Story of 760: Screw Ups and Cover Ups

Grizzly 760 was the grandson of Grizzly 399, and son of 610. He is one of the most photographed and famous grizzly bears in Yellowstone history.

Handsome and joyful, he was often described as “the perfect gentleman.” Wyoming Wildlife Advocates (WWA) said this: “With the possible exception of 399, there never was a gentler grizzly bear ambassador to the human race than 760.” Like the rest of 399’s clan, 760 had never been aggressive to people.

Grizzly 760 was killed by Wyoming officials in Clark, Wyoming, on October 27, 2014, after he ate a deer that a hunter had left dangling on a pole.

760’s final troubles began when he showed up in a high-end Jackson subdivision (think Dick Cheney’s back yard) and was removed for “public safety” reasons. According to records acquired by Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, this young bear had never obtained food from humans (link).

In other words, 760 never had committed an offense sufficient to prompt being trapped and hauled off to a far corner of his world. But he was drugged and moved anyway to be dropped off near Yellowstone National Park’s east entrance. In October, when he needed to pack on pounds for winter. In contravention of government guidelines designed to maximize the chances of a bear’s survival, Wyoming officials dumped 760 among a veritable hive of bears.

Why was 760 moved? His celebrity status 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. (link) It is important to note that “habituation,” as framed by state officials, is considered a sin even if the bear is neither conditioned to getting food from people nor aggressive.

More to the point, wildlife managers such as Thompson are probably uncomfortable with any intimate relationship between people and wild animals. If nothing else, when people care about individual bears it becomes more difficult for managers to dispose of them as expendable objects, whether under the guise of sport hunting or resolving conflicts with humans.

Not surprisingly, after being moved, 760 quickly made his way to a community of people that his life experience had taught him would be hospitable. Behind a home in Clark, he found the deer. In bear logic, a hanging deer quarter was, well, dinner.

The deer remains could just as well have been bait. The owner of the deer had not taken reasonable precautions to “bear proof” it. From 760’s perspective, the deer was not unlike the elk gut piles that hunters conveniently left behind back home – and indeed, throughout the Greater Yellowstone. After partaking of deer meat, 760 tried to guard the rest from its putative owner, who attempted to push him away with a truck. To 760, trucks were old hat. He was undeterred.

In response to 760’s behavior—impeccable by bear logic—Wyoming’s officials wanted to kill him. But they had to get permission from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Coordinator, Chris Servheen, whose job it is to protect grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. And, without any apparent second thought, Servheen readily agreed to offing 760.

So ended the life of 760, a bear who had never committed any one of the three cardinal sins that typically warrants death: depredating food that had been reasonably secured; displaying aggressive, non-defensive behavior; or injuring or killing someone.

It was not a little ironic that the man who trapped 760, Wyoming’s Large Carnivore Coordinator, Luke Ellsbury, had days before been sentenced in Park County Circuit Court for illegally killing a grizzly bear (link) and for shooting across a public road. He said he thought the grizzly was a black bear. Ellsberry should have known the difference. He had watched the bear for many minutes before shooting. And in the aftermath, Ellsberry kept his job, an employee of the agency that will be entrusted with managing grizzly bears after delisting. And the man responsible for educating the public about large carnivores in the state of Wyoming.

Within days, the officials involved in this fiasco predictably tried to rewrite 760’s history, painting him as a dangerous “food conditioned” bear. But over time his fans came to rescue his reputation, celebrating him with poems, video, testimony, and the truth.

Within short order, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates issued a report, “The Short Life and Unnecessary Death of Grizzly 760” (link), to address the “rumors, grief and questions” swirling around the bear’s death.

Among other questions, WWA asked: “Why did not Wyoming Game and Fish follow guidelines for relocations and killing of a protected species?” WWA found that the decision to move and later destroy 760 failed to follow a coherent process. This is of particular concern because after delisting state management will be even more discretionary -- just a handshake agreement with other agencies (link).

Midst the controversy and the many questions, 760’s fans reminded us that he started out with two siblings and a fab mom. Getting his picture taken by the paparazzi, often with the stunning backdrop of the Grand Tetons. He was a famously happy bear, check out this cool youtube video. His fan club and face book site are still going strong. He even had a memorial service last spring on the shores of Jackson Lake (link). How many people could top that?

It is up to us to decide whether 760’s death was the unlucky result of multiple government screw-ups, or the consequence of an institutionalized worldview intent on purging the landscape of large carnivores, or perhaps both.

People are still trying to make sense of 760’s death and prevent such mistakes from happening again. Formed in grief, the group “Friends of 760” has been talking regularly to government officials in the hopes of achieving better outcomes for all Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

Not Grizzly Goldilocks

In the end, what can we make of the stories of these three dead grizzly bears? They are certainly not foils to that lily-white golden-haired Goldilocks foisted upon us by our European ancestors.

We should never forget how inherently vulnerable grizzly bears are and the difference that one good mom can make, provided we let her and her kids live. The entire Yellowstone grizzly bear population could be built on as few as 50 fertile females alive during the early 1980’s. Every mom matters. A female such as 399 is an Olympian.

The debate about the 399 family reminds us that the term “habituation” hurts more than it helps. Here, “habituation” simply means that these bears have come to see us as a benevolent part of their world. No more, no less. Is that so wrong? It is a life-giving strategy for the bears that adopt it, not cause for a death sentence.

If state managers haze or kill roadside bears after delisting, as they have said they will, mayhem will ensue on multiple fronts. The bears themselves will be displaced and confused; some killed by other bears; and many others killed by people.

Grizzly 399, along with all of the other grizzlies in Yellowstone, has been caught up in rapid dietary shifts driven by potentially catastrophic environmental changes. This dietary revolution has led, in turn, to dramatic increases in the numbers of bears being killed by people.

Yellowstone’s grizzlies, including 399’s clan, have been seeking out more meat during the last ten years to compensate for human-driven climate-driven losses of whitebark pine and native trout, which were previously critically important foods (link). The problem of big game hunters killing grizzlies during accidental (or other) encounters, as in the tale of 615, will undoubtedly worsen if federal protections are removed, as will conflicts over livestock, like those leading to the death of 587. Moreover, grizzlies themselves will almost certainly be hunted for sport after delisting.

The dramatic increase in grizzly bear deaths directly or indirectly caused by ranchers and hunters during the last decade has likely contributed to declines in the Yellowstone population (link). In fact, data from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team show that the grizzly bear population could have been declining since 2007 (link). This downward trend will likely escalate when grizzly bears are hunted and with foreseeable declines in efforts to catch and prosecute poachers.

More specifically, prosecutions as occurred with 615’s poaching will be increasingly unlikely.

Also looming over 399’s family--along with many other bears--is the question of how the states

will manage roadside bears, especially after delisting. This goes to the heart of differences in worldviews held by state and Park Service wildlife managers – and by different members of the public as well.

For years, it has been the policy of Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks to allow grizzly bears to live near roads – which gives thousands of park visitors the pleasure of seeing a bear in the flesh. While many may wish for Wyoming wildlife managers to just deal with that fact, they probably won’t, given their devotion to dominating, controlling, and using nature (link).

Unless the whole approach of states to managing wildlife is reformed – not likely in the near-term -- roadside bears may be beloved inside parks, but will almost inevitably be aggressively “managed” (and killed) beyond park borders. That is why so many citizens, conservationists and independent scientists have reservations and questions about state management of grizzly bears.

State managers are clearly pissed off about the intimate relationships that people are able to develop with roadside grizzly bears. If nothing else, people who are invested in the welfare of individual grizzlies make it more difficult for the state’s wildlife managers to kill these bears with impunity. State managers want to return to the era of unexamined, dehumanized connections with nature, wherein wild animals are mere objects, at best, part of quotas to be filled during a hunting season.

Meanwhile, in Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks, people are giving grizzly bears names, taking their pictures, telling their stories. Who is related to whom. What bear was just seen and at what mile marker. What they were eating – dead bison, biscuitroot, berries.

These stories, conveyed often in twitter and on facebook, are not unlike the ancient tales of bears and humans, which are centered on our connectedness. For humans and bears have long shared much: dietary preferences, fierce mothering qualities, problem solving ability, intelligence, and resilience. We have shared the same habitat across the northern Hemisphere for thousands of years, for the most part amicably.

Just a few weeks ago, the superintendents of Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks, David Vela and Dan Wenk, spoke up on behalf of the members of the public who love the parks’ roadside bears, and expressed concern about the impacts of a sport hunt (link). This courageous act represents a direct challenge to the ethos of death so prevalent among state managers, and deserves our support.

399 has made the risky choice to invite us into her life and trust us with her fate and those of her cubs. Will we betray this trust?

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