Hunting Away Our Griz Problem

Roaming grizzly bears is the new normal

The recent decision by a federal judge to cancel grizzly bear hunts planned in Wyoming and Idaho may be the final nail in the coffin for a 2018 season, but it won’t end the debate about bear management. That’s especially so in Wyoming where public officials are eager to resume griz hunts after a decades-long hiatus.

Montana had already opted to sit out the season, and Idaho planned to issue just one permit, but in Wyoming, more than 20 bears could have been killed if the hunt had gone on as intended.

Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding region is home to about half of the 1,500 grizzly bears in the lower 48, and “encounters” between bears and humans are increasing. Last month a Jackson-based hunting guide was killed by a griz as he tried to retrieve his client’s elk.

On the other side of the park, in the valleys of the north and south forks of the Shoshone River, griz sightings have become so common they barely draw notice. A friend recently posted on social media a video shot from the window of her summer cabin up the North Fork in 2016. It shows a decent-sized sow sauntering past the cabin, seeming to take care to stay on the opposite side of the pole fence that marks the property line.

The bear’s deference to private property is an illusion.

Downstream from where the bulk of the North Fork bear sightings occur, and a little farther from the park, is the town of Wapiti. Wapiti isn’t really a town so much as  a collection of high-end trophy homes that increasingly crowd a broad valley that is a prime travel corridor for dispersing bears crowded out of Yellowstone.

There are a pair of elementary schools up the North and South Forks. The school on the North Fork is on the eastern edge of Wapiti, and was made famous by Betsy DeVos during her 2017 Senate confirmation hearing to become education secretary. DeVos — her brother, defense contractor Erik Prince, owns one of those Wapiti mansions — inartfully suggested she might support guns in schools to protect students from rampaging bears.

For most of the country it seemed an absurd statement. School officials in Cody, Wyoming, however, have long been a bit evasive when asked about rumors there were “unauthorized firearms” available for staff at both schools, just in case a bear sauntered too close to students on the playground.

This year Cody approved a policy allowing employees who complete a training program to carry firearms at district schools, so we can consider the rumors now confirmed.

This summer one grizzly even made it far enough east to reach the city of Cody. Folks in Cody, a city of about 10,000, are used to wildlife. The city already uses police sharpshooters to cull a resident population of nuisance mule deer, and black bears are common visitors, but griz are another matter.

Cody is the county seat for Park County, so it’s little surprising the Park County commissioners have been some of the most prominent advocates for the hunt.

While Montana has adopted a go-slow approach on the hunt, increasingly wide-ranging bears mean the state will soon have its own day of reckoning on the issue. Last week a grizzly bear killed a calf on a ranch north of Two Dot, which is itself a bit north of Big Timber. That’s historic grizzly range, but it’s been a long time since bears regularly made it that far out from Yellowstone or the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Roaming grizzly bears is the new normal. Killing 20 bears isn’t going to change that, and killing them on a scale necessary to change it will likely never be tolerated.

Humans will have to adapt to this new paradigm.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news.