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  • David Mattson

Felicia’s Fate: The Trials of a Grizzly Bear Mom

by David Mattson

Grizzly bears reside at a symbolic nexus that seems to relentlessly spawn conflict. Almost invariably, this conflict organizes around incidents that catalyze a mix of fear, anger, grief, and empathy—all inescapably configured by peoples’ mental constructs. There is the reality of bears, and then there are our contested inventions of who they are, what they should be, and what it all means. More complicating yet, grizzly bear-centric conflicts often arise from different ideas about how we should treat them and what that means for the institutions we create to manage ourselves.

Such seems to be the case with an incident unfolding around a grizzly bear called Felicia by her admirers, and #863 by those captive to the instrumentalizing impulses of wildlife management.

Who is Felicia?

Felicia is a tragic figure who could have easily been a character in classic Greek literature or a Victorian novel. She is a bear’s version of the young woman who got in trouble with the law and ended up a single mom in a rough neighborhood trying to scrape together a living while fending off predatory males. If that isn’t cause for Freudian psychological projection, I’m not sure what is.

Insofar as the facts of Felicia’s life are concerned, we know a few, but with ample scope for imaginative invention. We know nothing about her cub-hood, whether nurturing, traumatic, or indifferent. She first shows up in our human records as a (probably) newly-independent 2-year-old on the Shoshone National Forest wandering near human habitations eating human foods in an area with a long history of negligence on the part of human residents. In response, Wyoming Game & Fish (WGF) managers trapped her and a sibling, and then hauled them 75 miles as the crow flies to a location east of Grand Teton National Park. A year later she was trapped yet again by researchers roughly 20 miles east of where she was released the year before. So, by the time she was 3-years-old she had already been trapped, drugged, and handled by humans twice, and was probably not only tolerant of people, but also inclined to seek us out as a source of food. Not an auspicious start.

Felicia apparently lived out her remaining two adolescent years in or near the Blackrock Creek drainage on the Bridger-Teton National Forest below Togwotee Pass, probably never too far from Highway 26, the main connector between Moran Junction and points east. During winter of 2019 she gave birth as a 6-year-old to her first litter of cubs in the confines of a den, after which she emerged to face the considerable challenges confronting a first-time mom trying to keep two cubs alive in a neighborhood teeming with humans and other bears. By May she had lost her first cub. By early June she was being hounded by at least one male bear intent on breeding. For the boar, her surviving cub was at best an impediment to his purposes. By late June, she had apparently abandoned her last cub in the midst of on-going pursuit by these one or more males. When last seen, the cub was frantically trying to reunite with its mom—destined to starve or be killed by a predator if unsuccessful.

Enter Humans

Felicia has probably never been very far from people most of her life. She has been observed by a number of people on a number of occasions, which axiomatically means she’s been near people more often than she’s been seen. More important to this story, she has been near and even on Highway 26 since leaving her den this spring with cubs—literally walking down the highway centerline at times. As described by many, she has seemed “frantic” and “inexperienced.” Among other things, she has predictably incurred substantial risk of being killed by vehicles travelling at 65 mph along Highway 26, and may have even been hit by a car mid-June.

As predictably, she and her cubs have attracted great crowds of tourists, gawkers, photographers, and fans intent on seeing a grizzly bear, getting a killer photo of a grizzly, keeping track of her well-being, or just simply being part of the scene. The result has been emerging roadside mayhem—in the midst of cars and semis intent on making time between Dubois and Moran Junction.

Hence, with the certitude of a Greek drama, managers from Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGF) arrived trying to “get on top of the situation.” The first apparent intervention by WGF was what, at best, could charitably be described as an ad hoc effort to haze her away from the highway. More helpfully, and thanks largely to the efforts of her advocates, Wyoming Department of Transportation (WDOT) rapidly deployed temporary signs that reduced the speed limit near where she was active to 40 mph—which could have saved her life if she was indeed hit by a car.

Since then, the crowds have grown, not diminished, at the same time that the comparative absence of people with authority to manage the situation, notably from WGF or the US Forest Service, has raised questions about motives, resources, and competence on the part of involved bureaus. Rumors have also surfaced about impromptu efforts by private individuals with suspect motives to haze Felicia and her surviving cub, while tensions mount along with odds of some additional tragic outcomes, not only for Felicia, but also for an over-aggressive photographer.

And, off stage, the passion, stridency, and even vitriol have mounted. Felicia’s partisans have promulgated passionate pleas for some sort of remedy. In response, Trumpian thugs have responded with profanity, video clips featuring their middle finger, and the message that most or all grizzlies should be killed. In some bizarre quadrant of it all, one of WGF’s putative public servants, an out-of-control Brian DeBolt, likewise accosts a photographer at a service station saying “f..k you photographers.” Little if any of this is about Felicia or her cub. Most is about human emotions and root symbolic stakes.

Sound like a Greek tragedy? Probably should.

A Classic Profile

Felicia fits a classic profile that typifies a non-trivial number of female grizzlies I’ve either personally known or have been acquainted with from afar. These females take up residence near people, probably as early as their adolescent years, largely because it is a space safe from the hazards and harassments of other bears, especially large potentially violent boars. This attraction to people, highways, and homes only strengthens with birth of their first cubs. Adult male grizzlies will kill cubs as means of triggering estrus in females that would otherwise be available for breeding only once every three years. Moreover, with prerogative to any resources they want, these males tend to preempt backcountry habitats and avoid annoying and potentially lethal humans.

The upshot is that areas near people become a figurative shield against predatory boars for females trying to find food and keep their offspring alive. These females then perversely incur the perhaps less obvious hazards of living near people and, in the process, become the centerpiece of a roadside circus, with unpredictable consequences for everybody involved, although predictable mounting exasperation for wildlife managers.

Roadside grizzly bear moms end up being between the proverbial rock and hard place, hemmed in by lethal boars and mobs of people. No wonder these mother bears often seem frantic, especially when tending their first cubs.

Variations on the Theme

Given this basic profile, there are variations on the theme, including the famous roadside dame of Grand Teton National Park—bear #399. Number 399 stands out as an individual who has figured out how to negotiate the human niche with considerable aplomb and minimal related hazards to the crowds of people who gather to collect photographic trophies or just simply stand awestruck. As a result, #399 has more-or-less successfully raised four litters of cubs, with a fifth currently in the nursery. (For more on #399 see this page and this page in Grizzly Times).

However, there are important differences between Felicia and #399. For one, #399 seems to be a much more grounded individual. And, yes, for those who resist the idea that animals are sentient beings with personalities, there are, in fact, enormous differences among individual grizzly bears, as between Felicia and #399. For another, #399 roams Grand Teton National Park where managers have a more benevolent mandate compared to the Forest Service, WGF, and WODT—all of which hold sway to some extent over the fate of Felicia and her remaining cub. Number 399 often has Park Service attendants focused on controlling traffic and crowds. Felicia does not.

And then there is the tragic tale of Bear #59, a roadside denizen of Yellowstone National Park with whom I worked closely during 1984-1986. Notably, # 59 and Felicia have some remarkable similarities. Number 59 could likewise have been called “frantic,” if not desperate. She likewise lost her first litter of cubs, followed by the loss of her second. She was likewise hounded by hordes of sight-seers and photographers who were, at that time, not closely tended by managers. Roadside viewing of grizzly bears was an emerging, even novel, phenomenon that Park managers were still scrambling to deal with. Of particular relevance to the developing situation with Felicia, #59 ended up killing a photographer named William Tesinsky. Tesinsky relentlessly pursued her while she was frantically digging roots in an attempt to remedy a profound deficit of body fat—with only a month to go until denning. Needless to say, she was subsequently killed by managers, despite the fact that all of the blame lay on Tesinsky’s shoulders.

A cautionary tale indeed.

What to Do?

All of this begs the question of what to do about Felicia and, more importantly, her surviving cub. Indeed, this question is on a lot of peoples’ minds. Perhaps more importantly, though, this challenge broaches the broader issue of what to do about increasing numbers of similar bears in similar situations—but where ultimate authority is held by dysfunctional and undemocratic state wildlife management agencies in a world overrun by humans.

Felicia ended up in a niche that includes private land residences and a major US highway funneling virtually all of the east-west traffic from a swath 100 miles wide. Given the imperatives of commerce and communication, there are few options for affecting traffic speeds and volumes—unlike in a National Park. And it is an inescapable fact that bears are being increasingly killed by collisions with vehicles traveling at high speeds along heavily-trafficked highways.

Likewise, odds are high that someone will be injured under circumstances where mobs containing unknowledgeable, inexperienced people—or even people greedy for the next best photograph—have more-or-less unrestrained access to a roadside grizzly, especially one accompanied by cubs. No matter how judicious or habituated the bear may be, someone is guaranteed to cross a boundary out of rudeness, stupidity, or avarice.

Some Improbable Prospects

Perhaps most urgently, Felicia’s surviving cub requires attention. Yet, as one of a species protected by the US Endangered Species Act, the cub is subject to the authority of the US Fish & Wildland Service in the form of a person sitting at a desk in Missoula, Montana, 300 miles away, which de facto results in deferral of authority to WGF managers on the scene. Yet these officials as a matter of culture and policy are loathe to intervene in something deemed “natural,” especially when there is uncertainty about whether Felicia has completely abandoned the cub, and even more so when to do so would be tacitly at the behest of “bleeding hearts” they despise.

Indeed, most WGF officials seem to harbor unabashed animosity towards not only people who emotionally identify with individual bears, but also the roadside bears themselves. As Dan Thompson, Wyoming’s Large Carnivore Specialist, said: “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of…” Despite recent soothing sounds to the contrary, it seems unlikely that WGF officials will scoop up Felicia’s cub and send it to a sanctuary. More likely it will just simply disappear.

Hazing Felicia away from the highway and perhaps conditioning her to avoid humans likewise has very limited prospects of success. As someone who has been involved in and closely privy to research on and applications of aversive conditioning, the contingencies of success are so numerous and stringent as to debar practical application in a situation such as this one. Felicia does not have—nor does she probably perceive herself as having—any good options. The least bad option from her perspective would probably be to endure any pain or discomfort meted out in predictably haphazard ways by WGF officials rather than confront the more certain threat posed by bigger badder bears in the backcountry. I have seen bears in a similar plight literally allow themselves to be beaten to death at the hands of aversive conditioners rather than abandon a putative roadside sanctuary.

More Promising Possibilities

Which, again, begs the question of what can be done? WGF almost certainly considers bears such as Felicia and her cubs to be readily expendable, and so are probably not highly motivated. Setting such attitudes aside for the moment, there are at least two measures that could be taken with prospects of yielding future benefits, perhaps not for Felicia, but for bears in future similar plights.

Nearer-term, agencies with authority over roadsides and highways could institutionalize remedial measures. WDOT could reduce speed limits on a seasonal rather than ad hoc temporary basis for stretches of highway likely to be frequented by grizzlies. The US Forest Service and WGF could create teams of Bear Rangers on call to deal with roadside situations as they emerge, and trained to manage and educate the entailed crowds. The National Park Service in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks has perfected this method, based largely on employment of relatively low-cost volunteers. Given the passionate interest, considerable resources, and evident expertise of Grand Teton National Park personnel and nearby Jackson Hole residents, teams of bear rangers would seem an easy fix.

Longer-term, a comprehensive infrastructure of fencing and crossing structures could be installed with prospects of yielding considerable benefits for bears and other wildlife. Research in the Bow Valley of Banff National Park and along Highway 93 in the Mission Valley of Montana has demonstrated the efficacies of such measures. On the down side, this kind of infrastructure is expensive, needs to be comprehensive, and would, moreover, create an obvious visual and psychological barrier between people and the bears that are the object of their affection, interest, and perhaps avarice.

Tragedy But with a Future

Felicia’s prospects seem bleak captive as she is to a hazardous near-human niche and prey to the apathy and even outright hostility of Wyoming’s wildlife managers. Prospects for Felicia’s surviving cub seem bleaker yet. This young inexperienced bear has little buffer against lack of sustenance or vagaries of the world, and is likewise prey to indifference and platitudes on the part of those with authority over its fate. And none of this is likely to change any time soon given the politics of Wyoming and a culture of willful blindness in the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Yet there is hope in the long game. Bear Rangers can be assembled, trained, and effectively deployed. A comprehensive infrastructure of highway crossings and diversions can be built. Even more ambitious yet, state wildlife management can be reformed to better represent who we are becoming, and to even pioneer a more compassionate vision of how to treat wildlife.

But achieving such long-term and prospectively resource-intensive outcomes is contingent on a fundamental reorientation. Advocates for bears such as Felicia need to do what might seem unthinkable and shift focus from a perhaps unredeemable near-term situation to higher-order and longer-term goals. Energy and even outrage is often found in the moment, but meaningful gains predictably require sustained and strategic political engagement.

Even more fundamental yet, accommodation and care for bears such as Felicia will necessarily be rooted in a foundational reordering and realignment of societal priorities—away from the self-gratification of a local culture organized around thrill sports and entertainment of elites; away from a national obsession with the distractions of digital media and related indifference to the plight of other sentient beings; instead to a committed, humble, and deeply-felt obligation to help others without power or voice.

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