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Action Jackson: Of Poachers, Grizzlies and Coexistence

by Louisa Willcox

In a new Grizzly Times podcast, Bob Jackson shares stories of his fascinating 30-year career as a backcountry ranger in Yellowstone Park. He was dubbed “Action Jackson” for his work contributing to a record number of convictions of poachers in a remote southern area of the Park known as the Thorofare. As Bob and I swapped stories about a particularly fraught period during the early 2000s -- Bob while employed by the Park Service and me with Sierra Club and later Natural Resources Defense Council -- my blood boiled again at the pattern of unnecessary conflicts between hunters and grizzlies that each of us worked hard to address, each in the ways we could.

The chronic conflicts that Bob highlighted involving dirty hunter camps and poor handling of game carcasses have receded in public consciousness with an increasingly obsessive focus of the debate about grizzly bears on whether or not federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections should be removed for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Even the tragic but avoidable mauling of a hunting guide named Mark Uptain by grizzly bears in the Teton Wilderness last fall has not produced a shift in focus by those cynically promoting removal of protections. This essay not only explores but also provides necessary historical context for the wide-ranging conversation that Bob and I recorded for the podcast.

Bob bumped into grizzlies often during his near 70,000 miles of travel in Yellowstone’s backcountry, but never had to shoot a bear or even once deploy the capsaicin-based bear spray that he carried with him. He recalls his problems were not with grizzlies but with poachers who sometimes gunned down big game inside the Park. Guides who outfitted big game hunters also routinely and illegally dumped salt blocks just outside the park boundary to lure elk onto adjacent national forest land where they could be shot – like “shooting fish in a barrel,” Bob quipped.

And, while managers worked hard to keep human foods out of bruin’s reach inside the Park, outside park boundaries hunters often carelessly disposed of food, garbage, and big game carcasses, wasting an estimated 370 tons of elk meat each year according to one government estimate—despite state laws expressly prohibiting the practice. The result was—and continues to be—an unending illegal supply of anthropogenic foods that lure grizzlies into conflicts with humans.

Enforcing the law is particularly challenging in the Thorofare, which is further from a road than any place else in the lower-48 states. In a land he calls “lawless”, Bob was far more often threatened by criminals, thugs, and corrupt politicians than by the grizzly bears he helped guard.

At some level, human greed is at the heart of the chronic conflicts between people and grizzlies in the Thorofare. Guiding hunters in this mecca for big bull elk is huge business. During the fall, hundreds of elk migrate out of the sanctuary of the Park to the lower elevation wintering grounds in Jackson Hole, WY, passing through a gauntlet of hunters along the way. A single permit to outfit hunts in the Bridger-Teton Forest’s Teton Wilderness can sell for $400,000 or more. And since out-of- state hunters are required to be guided in designated Wyoming’s designated Wilderness areas—a scam in its own right—outfitters have a captive market.

Maximizing profit means running as many clients as possible into the backcountry during hunting season and cutting ethical corners if need be. In the view of Craig Sax formerly of Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF), the agency that permits outfitters, demands of hunters contribute to the problem. He says that: “People now come into hunting unwilling to put in time and effort. They want immediate gratification.”

It is no surprise that WGF often looks the other way when hunters break the laws protecting grizzlies, which are seen as competitors for big game and a symbol of federal restrictions imposed by the ESA. Importantly, the agency is financed primarily by hunting license fees and federal grants based on taxing arms and ammunition, which is why it caters almost exclusively to the interests of hunters. And in the case of Yellowstone elk, whose historic southern migration route has been severed by the town of Jackson, state officials want hunters to kill as many as possible before they reach their wintering grounds on the National Elk Refuge where they are fed at taxpayer expense until spring.

All of this spawns plenty of food in the Thorofare available to grizzly bears during their late-season hyperphagic feeding frenzy. Garbage in a hunter camp is food, as is an elk carcass left on the ground. To a hungry bear, the sound of a gunshot has become a dinner bell, and hunters object in predictable ways if a bear attempts to take possession of their quarry. Thanks to humans, bear food is often abundant, but deadly. “The Killing Fields,” Bob calls the place—not just for elk, but for grizzly bears as well.

In his early years, the Park Service showered praise on Bob for enforcing Park laws. Yellowstone Park’s Superintendent, Bob Barbee, said this: “Action Jackson is the genuine article, a great backcountry ranger with a deep love of the park.” But when Barbee and his similarly laudatory replacement, Mike Finley left, support from Park higher-ups vanished under pressure from well-connected outfitters.

Bob’s investigations became especially inconvenient in the run-up to US Fish and Wildlife Service’s first attempt to remove ESA protections for Yellowstone’s threatened grizzly bears in 2006. Then as now, agencies were invested in happy talk about the status of grizzlies, and any criticism of management was--and still is--unwelcome. The high-profile national news stories about Bob’s work raised questions about the adequacy of grizzly bear management, especially if responsibility over grizzlies outside Yellowstone Park were returned to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

Embarrassed, WGF officials and their powerful political allies hoped Bob would shut up or go away. Under pressure, the Park Service gagged Bob and then tried to get rid of him.

Meeting Action Jackson

Our paths first crossed in the late 1990s, when Bob’s plight first started making national headlines. Although I had met a number of government whistleblowers by then, Bob was especially disarming. Fit, soft spoken, with a twinkle in his eye, Bob seemed bewildered by the controversy swirling around him. I could tell he had not worked with many conservationists before. He seemed relieved when I told him of the many weeks that I had logged in the Teton Wilderness working for the National Outdoor Leadership School. At least I wasn’t a complete greenhorn, by his standards.

We had a lot in common – a love for the wild, grizzlies, and fair play. Here’s Bob: “I mean the bears are what makes life. Yeah, I always had to think of bears -- every night you bang on the door before you go out in case there’s a bear right on your porch. You’re yelling ‘here bear’ when you’re going to the outhouse, you’ve got your flash light, you’re ready to go. But that’s where the humbleness comes in. You’re not top dog.”

I know what he means. At the age of seventeen I had my first encounter with a grizzly—in the Teton Wilderness no less. After a brief but intense moment of surprise for both of us, the bear whirled around and disappeared into the darkening forest. I also got hopelessly lost in the Teton Wilderness’s confusing Two Ocean Plateau, where the headwaters of streams flowing to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans loop around each other till they decide which way to flow – one to the Snake and Columbia Rivers, the other to the Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. I did not then foresee that such adventures would lead me to devote the next 40 years of my life to the cause of protecting wilderness and grizzlies.

Yellowstone River near Thorofare

Not surprisingly, proposals have been made to expand Yellowstone Park to include the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, once during 1918 and then again during the late 1920s. Jackson Hole cattlemen and Cody area outfitters squelched them both. A century later, hostility to grizzlies and National Parks among Wyoming cattlemen and outfitters still casts a long shadow on management of our public lands and wildlife. More on this later.

Of Luck, Skill and Consequences

You have to listen to our conversation to appreciate Bob’s sphincter-shrinking adventures in the Thorofare. He was prone to bumping into bears at close range because he was frequently off trail and sometimes hiding to see what poachers might be up to. He says: “you’re behind a tree or cliff waiting for the bad guys, because you’re in a good spot but that good spot means you’re hidden even more. And so, if the wind was right, the bear could be really on you. That happened four times. That’s where your scalp actually moves, you feel it move, and you got a 50 percent chance. And so, you could say I was lucky.”

To some extent, Bob was also lucky in his success convicting poachers. His secrets? Being in the right place at the right time, which meant riding many miles in tough terrain in the worst weather; support from supervisors; and techniques such as this: “…how I would get the poachers, you let them go through all their stories, and you break them down, and they cry when they’re broken down. Then you get the confessions.”

Bob was on a roll until he brought an elk-poaching case against a hunting guide who had worked for an outfitter named Harold Turner -- a case he discusses in the podcast. The Turner family, which owns the famous Triangle X Ranch in Jackson Hole, is friends with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who predictably unleashed his fury on the Park Service at Harold's behest.

Bob survived the subsequent political storm with the help of the press (here and here) support from Iowa’s influential Senator Chuck Grassley (Bob is from Iowa), and efforts by Professional Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization devoted to protecting whistleblowers.

I admit to being an accomplice in efforts to protect Bob, having introduced him to Frank Clifford of the Los Angeles Times and PEER’s Executive Director Jeff Ruch. Once on the scent of his story, Frank was astonished at attempts by WGF officials to bully him, proving they had no idea who they were dealing with. Hardly a horseman, Frank survived the bruising several-day ride into the Thorofare with longtime outfitters Tory and Meredith Taylor to meet up with Bob. There he saw illegal salting sites, meadows hammered by outfitters’ horses -- herds of up to 70 to 100 animals -- and town-sized outfitter encampments. Frank wrote that Bob was “perhaps Yellowstone’s most revered and reviled backcountry park ranger, poacher hunter, and champion of the grizzly bear.”

Despite the controversy, Bob ended his 30-year career still patrolling the Thorofare. Shortly after retiring he wrote about the problems he had witnessed, even submitting formal testimony to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), a group of managers with authority over grizzly bear populations and habitat.

“Garbage Dump Syndrome”

One of Bob’s central complaints was that outfitters and hunters were conditioning grizzly bears to seek out human foods, a problem the Park Service and Forest Service had worked hard to address in other areas under other circumstances--and with significant success. In 1969, shortly before declining grizzly bear numbers prompted ESA protections, Yellowstone Park banned feeding bears and ordered closure of dumps that had become veritable ecocenters for Yellowstone’s grizzlies. Shortly afterward, the Forest Service also adopted rules requiring that human foods be securely stored in grizzly bear habitat. Together, these simple moves were critical in preventing extinction of grizzlies in the last 3% of their former range.

But despite rules, food storage is still often lax, especially in the Thorofare where law enforcement officers have become another “endangered species.” Bob offers this: “All those [hunter] camps could be clean, but they’re not. Why aren’t they? Why are they leaving the elk carcasses where the bears can get at ‘em? They all know what they need to do, but they’re not going to because it’s more important to be “old wild west…”

The Hollywood-fed iconography of being an elk hunter or hunting guide often trumps law and even common sense. The reprobates and nascent criminals who sometimes serve as outfitters and guides obviously seem to relish the outlaw image. (In the podcast, Bob tells a priceless story that nails this point.)

In his testimony to the IGBC, Bob said this: “As long as outfitters leave elk buffets for the grizzly, habituation will only deepen.” And it has.

The Salt March

The practice of deploying salt to lure elk to hunters, singular to the Bridger-Teton Forest, is an example of the out-sized influence that Wyoming outfitters have in managing our public lands and wildlife. WGF and the Forest Service mapped several dozen salt sites, some as close as 50 yards to the borders of Yellowstone Park.

Bob's horse eating from an artificial salt

Although salting is tantamount to baiting elk – not only unsporting but also illegal in designated Wilderness Areas -- outfitters such as Harold Turner proudly admit to the practice. Yet as far back as 1951, scientist Olaus Murie wrote in his classic work Elk of North America that using salt as bait – a practice that had been going on in the Thorofare for a number of years even then – could not be justified as “good for elk.”

The impact has consequences far beyond the salt blocks themselves. Even after the salt dissolves, wildlife is drawn to these sites where they then overgraze the surrounding vegetation in a Wilderness that is supposed to be “untrammeled by man.” Grizzlies also learn the locations of salting sites and congregate there to scavenge elk killed by hunters—giving rise to encounters and conflicts that outfitters love to blame on increasing numbers of bears. The nearness of some salts to trails also endangers the public who use them.

Years before meeting Bob, I had corresponded with Dan Hooper, a former Forest Service District Ranger, who had studied the problem of salting in the Teton Wilderness in the 1960s and, in retirement, campaigned to end the practice. (I have a half inch file of letters and documents he sent me.) In a 1989 letter in the local Jackson Hole newspaper, Don wrote: “the Forest Service’s failure to stop salt placement as a game bait reduces its own objectives and policies to mere platitudes and gives overriding importance to economic wellbeing of outfitters who practice animal baiting.”

After 6 years of sustained pressure, including from yours truly, the Forest Service adopted a special order prohibiting salting. But the outfitters pushed back and the agency “declined” to enforce it. In a 1991 letter to Regional Forester Gray Reynolds, Don protested: “It is abundantly clear that outfitters and their operations are given special treatment that is not available to the general public. Perpetuation of caches, immunity from permit violations, heavy and abusive uses are some of the special treatments allowed by wilderness managers. All of the self back-patting and acclamations of good management cannot erase or overcome the evidence of improper and inadequate on the ground management.”

Nothing changed.

A decade later, a young buff heavily-tattooed man in ragged cutoffs wandered into my office, asking to volunteer for something useful. Tom Arnold was fresh back from Afghanistan where he had served in Special Operations with the Marine Corps. I suggested that he check what was going on in the Thorofare before hunting season, especially the deployment of salt blocks. He did, moving light and out of sight. Wide-eyed, he came back to the office two weeks later. Yes, he had seen some active salts but had been accosted by several outfitters and threatened with violence. Bob was not surprised.

Since then, Forest Service funding to protect the backcountry has tanked, and the agency considers the salt issue a low priority.

Bob can still see many of the same salt sites on Google Earth, indicating that the salting practice continues.

“Wimps in the Woods”

In 1990, four grizzlies were killed and one hunter mauled in the Teton Wilderness. At the fall IGBC meeting, Dick Knight, then Leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, erupted: “There are too many wimps in the woods… We need some education for hunters out there. They’re not woodsmen. They don’t know what the hell they are doing out there.” I watched the shock on the faces of the seated managers as Bozeman Chronicle reporter Joan Haines scribbled down his quote.

Dick made headlines, and a group of managers was assembled to evaluate what could be done. Its report recommended considering later starting dates for the hunting season so as to overlap less with hungry grizzlies; closing some areas to hunting; and certifying hunters in grizzly bear habitat – but then predictably rejected all of these measures in favor of non-regulatory approaches that would pose fewer political threats to the managers and their agencies. Although bear spray was then in its infancy, managers strongly encouraged its use, as well as hunting in pairs and prompt retrieval of game to avoid leaving carcasses overnight.

Based partly on these recommendations, managers sponsored a number of “Living in Bear Country” workshops aimed at reaching out to and educating hunters, recreationists, and residents. In those somewhat less polarized times, my involvement was welcome. I was invited to participate on the Grizzly Bear Committee’s Information and Education Subcommittee. Moreover, the Sierra Club co-sponsored a number of workshops together with state and federal agencies while producing regular Public Service Announcements for radio broadcast that promoted safety in bear country.

But, despite the fact that garbage-related conflicts between humans and grizzly bears continued to decline in the ecosystem, hunter-related conflicts mounted.

More Wrecks and Hot Air

The next big wreck occurred during 1999, again predictably in the Teton Wilderness and adjacent Shoshone Forest. Six grizzlies were killed by hunters, several under questionable circumstances. Some of Wyoming’s more ethical hunters showed up at the grizzly bear managers’ meeting that winter in Jackson, angry that the deteriorating situation was giving hunting a bad name. Lloyd Dorsey of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation said in a letter to the editor of the Casper Star Tribune: “if the great bear is ever to recover from its threatened status and be delisted, hunters have to learn proper behavior. Evidently some hunters are not paying attention to the lessons…including using bear deterrent, keeping clean camps, storing food, trophy game heads, and carcasses properly out of reach of bears, camping away from your camp kitchen.”

Under pressure, the Forest Service stepped forward and offered to create a committee to evaluate the problem. At the helm of the process was Bridger-Teton National Forest Biologist Timm Kaminski, who was committed to improving hunter practices and became a good friend. Impressed and hopeful, I volunteered to be part of the committee, serving as one of the only women on a group that was mostly outfitters and exemplars of Wyoming’s good old boys. Harold Turner proved an entertaining storyteller, blustering about grizzlies attacking his pack horses loaded with elk quarters, grizzlies in camp, and grizzlies scaring guides as they dressed elk. I still wonder whether he was bragging or complaining. Regardless, his role here was to hype the problems rather than to engage in a useful discussion on how to solve them.

While the process was underway, Meredith and Tory went back to the Thorofare and found dozens of salt sites, with craters up to four feet deep and 20 yards across. They publicized their inventory and conversations with agency officials, who, other than Jackson, poo pooed the problem. Needless-to-say, the outfitters were not happy that the Taylors’ work had elevated the problem, nor did they want to stop the practice. They were poised to blow up the entire process when the Forest Service released draft recommendations, similar to previous ones, but this time with more emphasis on enforcing regulations and expanding agency presence in the backcountry during hunting season.

No sooner had the draft document hit the streets than Turner and his politically well-connected compadres threw a fit, blocking further action. Around this time the Bridger Teton Forest Supervisor who had created the committee was sent on a “detail” to Utah presumably to duck the political backlash. When asked about his agency’s inaction, Michael Schrotz, who stepped in as acting Forest Supervisor, offered this: “I regret to say we haven’t had the presence we should have in the back country." Almost certainly an understatement.

We were back to ground zero, or worse. The outfitters and their political sycophants had yet again won this round. The story circulated in the agencies like wildfire. The message: contesting the privileged position of outfitters on the Bridger Teton National Forest is a career-ending move. I bet Harold Turner spun a self-congratulatory funny yarn about all this.

Since then, in 2004 and 2009, managers released two sets of laudable recommendations to reduce hunter-related conflicts with grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone. Monitoring reports show that, while sanitation work continued, virtually no new suggested measures related to hunter conflicts were implemented even as such conflicts continued to climb. My notes taken at the 2009 IGBC meeting show that the Committee’s chairwoman, Mary Erickson, requested that the 2009 recommendations be prioritized and that an action plan be developed. Neither happened. Another big zero for bears and people.

What Now?

Here we are again, 10 years later: the government is revising its recommendations to reduce conflicts in the wake of a record-breaking 65 grizzly bear deaths and a hunter fatality during 2018. Yet again the fatality--of hunting guide Mark Uptain--occurred in the Teton Wilderness. In addition to the two grizzlies killed in response to the fatality, another 9 grizzlies were killed by hunters in Wyoming. Since all cases are still “under investigation” the locations are not disclosed.

Now, not only has Bob retired, but the Park Service has lost its zeal (and funding) to patrol the backcountry as it once did. The Forest Service has likewise lost most of its funding for wilderness management and trail maintenance. (Both agencies have good people but little commitment). By contrast, the “old west” anti-carnivore culture of Wyoming flourishes. Emblematic of this reactionary vigor in lock-step with the Trump presidency, Wyoming’s state legislature recently passed a bill allowing—even promoting—a grizzly bear hunt in defiance of an order issued last fall by a federal District Judge prohibiting hunting and restoring ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, for the second time.

During the last 15 years conflicts have worsened, largely as a result of the climate-driven collapse of whitebark pine forests. The fat-rich seeds of whitebark pine had previously been a mainstay for grizzly bears. But due to warming temperatures, mountain pine beetles have been able to flourish in the trees’ formerly inhospitable high-elevation refuges where they have devastated whitebark pine. Grizzlies are now turning more to eating meat and, as a result, conflicts over big game carcasses and livestock are skyrocketing. Because of excessive mortalities, the population of about 700 bears has not grown over the last fifteen years and is likely currently declining—apologists for removal of ESA protections notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, technology for reducing conflicts has improved considerably. In a comprehensive federal study, bear spray has been found to be effective in deterring a charging bear in over 90% of the cases it was deployed. Numerous bear poles have been built on National Forests in the Greater Yellowstone to facilitate hanging of game meat way from bruins’ reach. Electric fence has been perfected to protect calving areas. We have examples of successful coexistence in agricultural landscapes such as the Blackfoot Challenge, where conflicts have been reduced by 90% as a result of simple measures such as prompt removal and composting of livestock carcasses, deployment of electric fences, and a phone tree to alert neighbors when a grizzly is in the area.

The point is that it is possible to avoid conflicts with grizzlies. And if the tragic death of Mark Uptain teaches us anything, it is the need for hunters to take simple precautionary steps, including being ready for encounters with grizzlies and avoiding leaving an elk carcass on the ground overnight – recommendations that have been made for the last 30 years.

And, more importantly, we are reminded that outfitters and hunters have too much influence over management of our public lands and wildlife—largely in service of their private profit and regressive ideologies. More egregious yet, their private benefits are heavily subsidized by our taxpayer dollars. We have made the case elsewhere that reforming the institution of state wildlife management is essential if the large majority of people who are not hunters are to have a meaningful voice in management of wildlife in the West. We have also argued that more emphasis and related funding be directed in federal land management agencies towards protecting wildlife and wilderness.

The kind of work that Bob did should be expanded and otherwise supported. The Forest Service should also bolster its presence in the backcountry, as Timm recommended. Those who use the backcountry of the Thorofare should abide by the law and conform to basic ethical standards. Despite the apparent norms of current political behavior, being well-connected should not sanction criminality.

History has shown that, by itself, education – which many of us inside and outside the government have wholeheartedly pursued – does not work. In adopting food storage orders three decades ago, the Park Service and Forest Service recognized this simple fact. At this juncture, new regulations, even a certification system for hunters, should be required to ensure the safety of both hunters and grizzlies.

The 64-million-dollar question is: will the agencies do anything different this time? Will hunters, outfitters, and managers change their behaviors? Or will we only hear more whining from Wyoming politicians and wildlife managers, followed by yet more of our grizzlies being gunned down because of toxic ideologies, willful ignorance, and venal political posturing?

Given my history with this debate, I am not optimistic. But Bob Jackson, Timm Kaminski, Tory and Meredith Taylor, Don Hooper, Lloyd Dorsey and others have articulated a positive alternative path forward for anyone to follow if they only choose to.

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