- Louisa Willcox
Playing Russian Roulette with Grizzly Matron 399 and the Bears of Yellowstone, Part 2
Photo by Tom Mangelsen. This is the second of a two-part blog about the famous bear matron of Jackson Hole, Grizzly 399, the threats facing her and other grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone – and some solutions. You might also be interested in the new Grizzly Times podcast with renowned photographer Tom Mangelsen, who waxes eloquent about his 15-year relationship with this special bear and his aspirations for a more compassionate approach to wild animals.
Protecting threatened grizzly bears is about managing people. This simple truth is reinforced by the travails of Grand Teton’s renowned grizzly matron, known by her number “399,” and her many descendants. Today, despite her fame and protections offered by the federal Endangered Species Act, 399, along with other celebrated grizzlies living in the Jackson Hole region of Wyoming are threatened by poorly managed crowds, semis barreling down nearby highways, and freely available human foods. And now they are being shot with rubber projectiles, in between haphazard efforts by managers to harass them by yelling and firing explosives. This punitive treatment is occurring both inside the ostensible sanctuary of Grand Teton National Park and on the adjacent Bridger Teton National Forest.
The grizzlies of Jackson Hole deserve better, as do the many citizens across the country and the world who care passionately about their well-being. But progress will depend on numerous government agencies redoubling commitments to public education, conflict reduction, crowd control, and law enforcement -- which means stronger leadership, more resources, and better collaboration. Lack of information and knowledge about how to manage people and foster coexistence are not the problems. We just need to apply our collective insights more comprehensively, consistently, and at the scale of the lands used by 399 and her kin.
Even so, the obstacles to implementing practical next steps are formidable.
It Makes Sense to Expand Grand Teton’s Wildlife Brigade
Grand Teton Park’s team of volunteers called the Wildlife Brigade has done a commendable job keeping park visitors and bears safe along roadsides. But the size of the brigade has remained roughly the same despite a tsunami of Park visitors in recent years. Last year, record numbers of people -- throngs numbering as many as 1000 -- gathered any time 399 or other roadside grizzlies appeared. And with a nearly 50% increase in visitation to Grand Teton in April alone, we can expect records to continue to be broken.
Also, with climate change, bears are out of their dens long before Memorial Day, when the Wildlife Brigade is assembled, and long after it disbands in late October. Last year, crowds swarmed 399 and her quadruplets till New Year’s Day, when she broke trail for her youngsters through chest deep snow to reach her den. And as soon as she arose in early May, her family was mobbed by hordes of people -- sometimes with no ranger in sight. Around that time, 610, one of 399’s daughters, twice bluff charged tourists who got too close, again with no rangers in evidence.
Wouldn’t it make sense to significantly expand the size and scope of the Park’s program to function whenever the bears are out of their dens? Wouldn’t it also make sense to consistently ticket those who break the rules, impose slower speed limits, and prevent cars from stopping under dangerous or unmanageable conditions? And why has the Park Service suddenly implemented a policy of harassing grizzlies that have long depended upon limited roadside habitats, when managing people is certainly less cruel and likely to be more effective?
The Park Service’s response to my recent query about its practices was unequivocally dismissive -- which does not diminish the need for the Service to examine its approach to the current crisis.
It Make Sense for the Federal Government to Accept More Help from Local Bear Watchers
Jackson Hole’s celebrity bears enjoy a huge fan club, including dedicated individuals who know a lot about them, sometimes more than government officials do. In recent years, bear watchers too numerous to name have saved bears’ lives, stepping in to keep tourists from crowding bears, or slowing traffic when government officials are not around. Clearly, these spontaneous volunteers are poised to help fill the breach.
And nonprofit organizations are stepping in too. For example, the Cougar Fund paid for a sign alerting drivers to the presence of grizzlies around Jackson. Also, this year, Team 399, an organization devoted to Jackson's grizzlies, has partnered with the nonprofit arm of the Bridger-Teton National Forest to support the Forest Service’s roadside ambassadors working to manage people along Togwottee Pass east of Jackson, where Grizzly 863 (aka Felicia) recently emerged with newborn cubs. This beautiful bear family has been attracting crowds that match those to be found in Grand Teton Park -- but they live along an exceedingly dangerous highway.
However, the Park Service is resisting outside help, as if accepting this help would be a tacit admission that the agency is not fully in control -- or even the last word on all things bear related.
Given the scale of the crowds that show no sign of abating, it makes sense for the Park Service to expand its volunteer Wildlife Brigade by recruiting knowledgeable local bear watchers – many of whom would be eager to help, and are available now. And the Forest Service could quickly expand the number of its roadside ambassadors as well.
Sanitation around Jackson Hole Needs to Be Improved
Despite its several failings, the Park Service does work diligently to keep grizzlies from becoming conditioned to eating human foods. But all bets are off outside the boundaries of Grand Teton Park. At least two of 399’s descendants have been killed or moved to far corners of the Yellowstone ecosystem after becoming used to eating human foods on private lands in Jackson Hole. A grandson of 399 was recently euthanized for this reason. (“Euthanize,” coined to deal with situations where an animal is killed to relieve extreme suffering, is a term favored by managers to sanitize the act of killing to simplify their lives).
Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, along with numerous citizens, have redoubled pressure on the government to address this problem, rightly fearing that 399 could be next as she and her family continue to feed on human foods when they venture outside the Park. This fall, she may well return to the south end of Jackson Hole where she roamed last year, capitalizing on compost, aviaries, and garbage.
Of all conservation tools available, keeping garbage and attractants away from bears is the best way to prevent conflicts. Indeed, signs that warn “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear” are at every trailhead and campsite in the region. So why don’t the government of Teton County and managers from Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department take more aggressive measures to improve sanitation around Jackson Hole? And why does the federal government, with ultimate authority over management of grizzlies, continue to look the other way as a self-indulgent Jackson landowner deliberately feeds grizzlies, including 399?
One possible reason is a lack of resources, although this is implausible given that Teton County is one of the wealthiest in the country. Fear of the private property rights boogeyman is a likely explanation. In the rural American West, any limits on owners of private property tend to be seen as an anathema -- even measures that have enormous public benefit, such as keeping garbage away from bears.
But if ever government agencies needed a reason to place the broader public good over private property rights, keeping these bears alive -- for us all -- is one of the best.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service Should Step Up to the Challenge
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is ultimately responsible for protecting grizzly bears under authority granted by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA prohibits people from killing grizzlies, except in self-defense, and requires that management of grizzlies by state, federal, county, and municipal agencies is precautionary and based on the best available science.
The FWS can be effective in fulfilling its legal duties, and demonstrated leadership during the decades immediately following 1975, when grizzly bears were granted ESA protections. Indeed, under FWS guidance, government managers succeeded in pulling grizzly bears back from what was literally the brink of extinction.
But that may be ancient history. FWS has been mum about recent skyrocketing grizzly bear deaths, including by poaching. Indeed, in 2018, the FWS’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Hilary Cooley, basically condoned public statements made by Brian Nesvik of Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF) that sanctioned the killing of grizzlies by private citizens irritated by a court-ordered restoration of federal ESA protections after a failed attempt by the FWS, WGF, and others to strip those protections. (Nesvik is now the agency’s director).
In several other essays I have dug into why the FWS has been increasingly abdicating its duties. But what is important here is that after being completely absent from the Jackson grizzly bear situation for years, Hilary Cooley recently showed up -- but not to help. Rather, she and other federal officials have added firepower to the already fraught situation, replacing Wyoming Game and Fish in a futile effort to keep Felicia away from her haunts along Highway 287. This heavy-handed approach is making a bad situation worse -- and could get these bears killed.
Instead of continuing to harass this poor mother bear, we need the FWS to bring rationality, leadership and a coordinated approach to this complex challenge. Importantly, the FWS has a deep well of public support to draw from in efforts to protect Jackson Hole’s roadside bears.
A Mass Transit System Should Be Implemented in Grand Teton Park
We are likely reaching the point where the crowds in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are simply too massive to handle. Park officials are increasingly, albeit reluctantly, recognizing that we may be loving our parks to death, and that limits are in order. In response, planners for the National Park Service have been examining alternative modes of public transportation that would allow visitors to watch wildlife under more controlled conditions and under the tutelage of park interpreters. Experiments are already underway.
But make the American public get out of their cars? Divert them from a bee line to the next vacation destination? That would seem to be sacrilege. We Americans seem wedded to the imagined freedom of navigating congested highways, traffic jams, and overrun parking areas.
However, the Park Service has recognized that at some point an onslaught of people can destroy what they’ve traveled so far to enjoy, by placing limits on visitor use in parks such as Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Arches. And just this summer, Glacier Park has limited access to the popular Going to the Sun Highway.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton could -- and should -- be next.
Highways Should Be Made Safer for Wildlife
Semis barreling down Highway 287 on Togwottee Pass have nearly splattered Felicia and her cubs countless times. Many less well-known wild animals have met their demise along this deadly road. To prevent such slaughter, Wyoming Department of Transportation has placed signs asking travelers to slow down and be alert for wildlife in the area used by Felicia.
But many highway departments have gone further by building systems of underpasses and overpasses to improve safe passage for people and wildlife. Good examples of road-crossing infrastructure include Highway 93 through Montana’s Flathead Valley and the TransCanada highway through Banff National Park in Canada.
It is true that building such infrastructure takes time and money. But expense is relative. The cost of a single F-35 stealth fighter is $80,000,000, more than enough to make highways in the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone far less deadly for everybody. So, why not here, in a world-class ecosystem that is rapidly being over-loved and over-run by humanity? After all, this is the kind of technological problem we Americans are good at fixing.
The first step is to make wildlife crossings a priority, especially given that the 60-mile stretch frequented by Felicia along Highway 287 is all that separates two huge wilderness areas that are home to a vast array of wildlife.
Wyoming Should Do More for Celebrity Bears Outside the Park
With authority over wildlife management on lands outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, Wyoming has enormous influence over the fate of the ecosystem’s grizzly bears. But, although Wyoming Game and Fish (WGF) has plenty of expertise in educating the public and reducing human-grizzly conflicts, it has so far done little to protect roadside grizzlies in the Jackson Hole area.
The culture and orientation of state wildlife management are largely to blame. Wildlife managers in Wyoming and other western states have long instrumentalized animals -- systematically and unapologetically. Moose, elk, cougars, and black bears -- in fact virtually all wildlife -- exist simply to supply hunters with animals that they can kill, usually for sport and trophies. This worldview is a relic of Manifest Destiny, an ethos that sanctified the genocides of native peoples, bison, wolves and grizzlies. Despite dramatic changes in public values, state wildlife managers in the Northern Rockies still see grizzlies as little more than grist for a trophy hunt.
Even so, in a surprising departure from long-standing norms, WGF biologist Mike Boyce played a commendable role last fall in protecting 399 and her quadruplet cubs as they journeyed onto private lands in the southern end of Jackson Hole. He also helped calm the waters in a community roiled by the state’s campaign to allow trophy hunting of grizzlies -- including Jackson’s celebrity bears -- up to the borders of the National Parks.
But Boyce’s efforts appear an anomaly rather than the norm. WGF officials are seemingly preoccupied this year with, among other things, futile and haphazard hazing of Felicia. Underscoring the agency’s knee jerk tendency to kill any perceived problem, WGF has deliberately destroyed 22 grizzlies during the past year alone.
Jackson’s Celebrity Bears Should Be Treated as Valued Individuals
Despite overwhelming public support for laws such as the ESA and exponential increases in numbers of people seeking solace in nature, wildlife managers still struggle to acknowledge that wild animals have any intrinsic worth. Grizzlies continue to be seen as interchangeable and disposable. Individual bears such as 399 -- along with her fans -- are at best seen as an annoyance, and at worst a threat. It is little surprise that wildlife managers so stridently oppose giving bears names. It is easier to kill a cypher.
Reinforcing this view is the outdated and scientifically unsupported government narrative that only 500 Yellowstone grizzlies, reduced to an isolated ecological island, constitutes a recovered population that can be delisted and hunted for sport. We have written about this complex problem here and here. The upshot is that agencies believe that we have a surplus of bears in Greater Yellowstone -- and that killing more is perhaps even desirable. Plus, grizzlies are just numbers anyway.
Such antiquated views are reinforced at meetings of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a consortium of state and federal managers responsible for grizzly bear recovery. For 30 years I attended these meetings to speak on behalf of bears and millions of members of groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition. My comments were typically met with real or metaphorical rolling of eyes and crossing of arms by the assembled managers -- who were, not surprisingly, all white, mostly male, and typically self-proclaimed avid hunters. The message was not subtle: those who promote the welfare and well-being of grizzlies threaten the instrumentalizing and paternalistic status quo.
Making matters worse, disputes over managing grizzlies have been bleeding into larger culture wars in the West. A case in point is the unprecedented deluge of anti-carnivore bills recently signed into law by Montana’s Governor Greg Gianforte, who has, among other things, beat up a journalist and proudly shot a helpless Yellowstone Park wolf caught in a trap. He and other regressives in the state want to kill more grizzly bears that are increasingly seen as surrogates for a West that is becoming more progressive and tolerant of people who are different as well as animals that have been historically demonized. If you can’t shoot the people you fear, you can at least shoot a wolf or bear.
But the sea change in demographics and values will not stop, regardless of how many carnivores Gianforte and his supporters kill. History is not on their side. Even so, the question remains, how many beloved bears will needlessly die in the meantime?
A Collaborative Effort on Behalf of Jackson Hole Grizzlies Makes Sense
Collaborative interagency approaches have significantly reduced human-bear conflicts in lots of places in the region. Over the years, I have been involved in a number of successful efforts involving government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private individuals. Models can be found in Big Sky, south of Bozeman, Montana, and the Swan, Madison, Big Hole, and Blackfoot Valleys, also in Montana -- along with a slew of “Bear Smart” communities in Canada.
And relevant to the situation on Togwottee Pass, Idaho Game and Fish and the Targhee National Forest have long shared seasonal staff to pursue much-needed outreach to summer visitors around Island Park in eastern Idaho, just west of Yellowstone Park.
At a minimum, Jackson Hole deserves a collaborative, interagency approach -- perhaps a working group involving the Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, state of Wyoming, Teton County, and Wyoming Department of Transportation. Since situations can develop rapidly, systems to share information could help ensure that resources and staff are in the right places at the right times. Given the inspiring dedication of private citizens to curbing the careless or clueless behavior of some wildlife viewers, they deserve a seat at the table as well.
What stands in the way? There is little doubt that one of the main impediments is jealousy of authority and long-standing traditions of operating in silos. And no state wildlife management agency is more ferociously jealous of its turf and devoted to its silo than Wyoming’s. It is no mystery why the list of collaborative successes with grizzlies are in Montana, Idaho, and Canada -- not Wyoming. Numerous promising efforts in the Cowboy State have foundered on the rocks of Wyoming’s pettiness.
But that should be no excuse for Wyoming Game and Fish -- or any government agency. The importance of Jackson Hole’s bears to many thousands of people regionally, nationally, and internationally demands that everyone with authority roll up their sleeves and work together to solve this solvable problem.
Getting to Yes
According to surveys of the national public, those seeking to include wildlife in our universe of moral care are part of a majority that is rapidly expanding, including in the Rocky Mountain region. Bears are increasingly seen as kin, with the same basic brains and emotions that give us the capacity for thinking, feeling, and consciousness.
Passion for bears and other wild animals can be harnessed to push for reforms in how we manage these sentient beings -- or rather, manage ourselves. And there is no better place to begin than Jackson, where citizens are clamoring for a voice in management and a kinder approach to the valley’s celebrity bears. If the public good cannot trump private property rights here, it probably cannot prevail anywhere.
Governmental agencies have the expertise needed to address the challenges. And groups outside the government can contribute. For example, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation has considerable expertise in not only designing, but also developing support for wildlife-friendly overpasses and underpasses. People and Carnivores, Defenders of Wildlife, and Vital Ground all can help with sanitation efforts.
Government managers owe it to the people they ostensibly serve to replace petty turfiness with pragmatic and inclusive problem-solving approaches that serve the public good. Government representatives must be accountable to the majority of people, nationally and regionally, who see wild animals as wild kin, not simply surplus grist for a hunt. Toward that end, citizens with relevant expertise in conflict reduction, or who represent the national constituency for grizzlies, should be allowed to meaningfully participate in management.
Right now, 399 is preoccupied with keeping her rambunctious quadruplets out of trouble, and teaching them how to hunt elk calves, and where the most nutritious sedges, clover, and dandelions are. Indeed, there is no better model of a good mom than a mother grizzly.
But with mounting threats, it is our turn to redouble care and protection for 399 and other threatened grizzlies. We can do it. With enough political will and commitment, we can develop a more inclusive, big-hearted and sensible approach to ensure that grizzlies flourish. In the end, how we treat the grizzly, an icon of the American West, says a lot about how we treat each other -- and how we view our duty to those who come after us.
What you can do: contact Hilary Cooley at Fish and US Fish and Wildlife Service (email@example.com)
and ask her to stop the cruel and futile efforts to haze grizzlies from roads, and instead focus on improving how people are managed. Since there is currently no Director in place at FWS, please copy your letter to Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior (firstname.lastname@example.org). With authority over the Park Service, Haaland also needs to hear that hazing grizzlies is not appropriate inside National Parks either, and that Grand Teton Park needs to improve its management of people -- not bears. Please emphasize that citizens are eager to help and that new private/public partnerships could yield far better results for grizzlies that the public adores.