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Plans for a historic number of visitors to national parks coupled with a peaking grizzly bear population have prompted leaders in the Interagency Grizzly Bear Commission to consider how to manage the potential conflicts.
One bear specifically, Bear 863, commonly known as “Felicia,” was brought up multiple times as an example of the clash between a growing grizzly population and tourists. The bear that lives on Togwotee Pass near Grand Teton National Park has been a roadside tourist attraction, which has created traffic jams and other problems.
“It’s been a multi-agency, multi-year approach to try to deter some of this what we call ‘habituated roadside behavior,’” said Dan Thompson, Wyoming’s statewide large carnivore supervisor.
While the bear has been a problem for years, Thompson said it has been escalating as of late and “blew up” during the weekend.
“People have gotten more selfish and taken advantage of some situations to put other people and these bears in danger, so we’ve had to ramp up efforts through time,” he said.
But ramping up those efforts has created a lot of misinformation and outright lies, Thompson said, referring to a Change.org petition suggesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was going to kill the bear and her cubs.
“This bear family simply grazes along the roadside, peacefully eating planted clover as this appears to be a preferred food choice … There is absolutely no reason to euthanize (or even relocate) this federally protected bear or her cubs,” the petition, which has more than 30,000 signees, said.
“The bear really hasn’t done anything wrong. But because she’s so visible, she’s causing some traffic jams. People are not behaving appropriately. And so our effort is to protect human safety,” said Hilary Cooley, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for FWS.
Another challenge is a jurisdictional web of authority managing the bear. The Wyoming Highway Patrol does not have the personnel to have someone manage traffic on the pass full time. And the state’s game and fish department, which has jurisdiction over wildlife on the pass, does not have the power to issue traffic violations.
Wyoming hired a hazing specialist from Yellowstone National Park to change the bear’s behavior, who for 14 days will haze the bear every time she appears, and the effort seems to be working, Cooley said.
“She’s acting skittish towards parked cars and people on foot. And that’s what we want; we’re not expecting her to totally leave the area. But if she is not lingering near the highway and causing that human safety issue, that is a success to us,” she said.
But even if the effort is not entirely successful, that does not mean the end for the bear, she said. “On day 15, we’re not going to swoop in with traps and do something. We’re going to take some time and evaluate the success and see what happens next.”
Additionally, for the first time on Wednesday, members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee got a chance to react to recent Montana legislation passed into law that changes how the state will manage grizzly bears.
During a presentation to the committee, Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife staff for Fish Wildlife and Parks, explained the laws, which include prohibiting FWP from relocating particular bears, enhancing compensation for ranchers that lose livestock to bears or wolves, and allow for the killing of bears threatening livestock or humans. However, the law is effectively moot as it is still illegal under federal law to kill a grizzly bear.
He said the laws were, in part, spurred by skepticism among legislators about grizzlies being removed from the Endangered Species Act. In a March report, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service preserved the bears’ status as a threatened species under the ESA. But, he said, the laws passed out of skepticism could backfire.
“We tried to point out that this bill could have this impact in terms of delisting, and that was pretty much dismissed based on the track record of not delisting. So even though we brought up concerns about the impact, it didn’t have much weight, which I think is a message for all of us,” he said.
In 2007 and 2017, delisting efforts were rejected in federal court.
Grizzlies were added to the endangered species list in 1975 after the population in the lower 48 states fell from a peak of around 50,000 in the late 1800s to less than 1,000. Since then, bears have made a substantial recovery, with about 1,900 bears roaming 6 percent of their original territory. More than 1,000 of those bears live in Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, entirely in Montana, spanning from Glacier National Park south to Missoula and one of six designated grizzly bear recovery zones. Another 700 grizzlies inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park.
The most significant bill, McDonald said, is Senate Bill 337, which says FWP can only relocate grizzlies to areas approved by the FWP Commission. The bill also says the department can not relocate conflict bears outside of designated recovery zones. The bill will go into effect in March 2022.
Requiring pre-approved relocation areas could create confusion for bear management in places like the Bitterroot Ecosystem, which overlaps between Montana and Idaho, and would require planning between multiple agencies.
The Montana legislature also passed a law extending the trapping season to February 28. However, McDonald said that the department plans to request the trapping season ends in mid-December to protect bears coming out of hibernation within grizzly bear habitats.
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