A Grizzly Situation for Wyoming Farmers, Residents: Ecosystem is Close By

Rancher Tom Bales' voice grew thick with emotion as he remembered the day his young daughter walked outside to feed her sheep and started screaming. As Bales rushed out of the house to see what was wrong, he saw what had frightened her: The three market lambs she had raised on bottles were spread around the farmyard in pieces.

CODY, Wyo. — Rancher Tom Bales' voice grew thick with emotion as he remembered the day his young daughter walked outside to feed her sheep and started screaming.

As Bales rushed out of the house to see what was wrong, he saw what had frightened her: The three market lambs she had raised on bottles were spread around the farmyard in pieces.

"I can still hear that cry when she saw them," he told a group of state legislators and county commissioners during a recent meeting at the Wapiti School west of Cody.

The big man's voice cracked during his story, and the room grew silent.

"It's all about the kids," he said. "They go out to feed their cats and dogs. I just don't want to see the kids get hurt."


Organized by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the meeting showed legislators the challenges faced by those who encounter grizzly bears on a daily basis at their homes and ranches within the outer reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The ecosystem, comprised of 18 million acres of public and private lands, extends outward from Yellowstone National Park. It is the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere and plays a critical role as habitat for animals that don't exist naturally almost anywhere else.

Many legislators, like Rep. Kathy Davison, R-Kemmerer, said they found the tour informative and powerful.

"I'm not sure that I agree with the concept that the bears won't be a problem because they certainly are," she said. "But we've just got to get them delisted."

About 15 local ranchers and rural residents came to the meeting to air their grievances and explain what life is like on the front line of grizzly country.

Bales and others say they know what it's like to have bears in their backyards, see the animals erupt from the cover of creekside willows and even run through restaurants as one did recently at the Wapiti Lodge and Steakhouse.

The bear that killed Bales' daughter's sheep was like many bears that get in trouble with people: malnourished and desperate to get enough calories to survive the winter.

It was relocated and never was seen again, said bear management officer Mark Bruscino of Game and Fish.

To prevent similar attacks, Wapiti residents lock their garbage in bear-proof containers, rake up the fruit that falls in their orchards and carry loaded weapons when they do work on isolated sections of their ranches. Some say they have resorted to using electric fencing around gardens and barns and have rebuilt doors and windows to make them more bear proof.

In general, they lead more complicated lives because of the bears, rancher Michelle Sauerwein said. She and other ranchers said they're frustrated that their voices seem less important than those of conservationists who seem to want no population control for grizzly bears.

"I just hope for balance so they have respect for us and we have respect for them," Sauerwein said. "Those people in Washington, D.C., they push a pencil. They need to come out here and live the life we live for a while to understand."

Today's bears are not the same kind of bears that always have lived in the area, said rancher Curt Bales, Tom's brother. Not only are there more of them, Curt Bales said, but they no longer fear people or lead the wild, secretive lives for which they always have been known.

"These bears have been listed for so long that they've become habituated to people, and they're unwild," he said.

Like many other ranchers, Curt Bales said peaceful coexistence with bears is possible, but only when the animals regain their fear of people.

The rebound of the Yellowstone-area grizzlies is a wildlife management success story that required unprecedented cooperation between two national parks, six national forests and three states, said Becky Aus, supervisor of the Shoshone National Forest.

"We all are in agreement that the bear is recovered and should be removed from the list," she said. "It's amazing when you get biologists and land managers to agree."

But before the delisting can happen, the state must establish management plans to ensure the bear population won't slip below a minimum number of 400 -- a threshold set by the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the past year, as the agency formulated the draft occupancy plan that eventually will serve as a blueprint for state bear management, Game and Fish got about 47,000 comments from around the country, Aus said.

In creating the plan, the agency tried to balance the desires of local residents who want the bears contained in a tight area and those of conservationists who want no artificial limits placed on the population, said John Emmerich, assistant wildlife division chief at Game and Fish.

"Our plan is somewhere in the middle," he added.

But conservation groups like the Sierra Club worry that the draft plan doesn't give bears enough room to roam and forage.

"There's some good parts of it, certainly, but it concerns us that they've drawn lines and are trying to say they'll keep the bears within the line, even if food resources shift," said Steve Thomas, the group's regional director, based in Sheridan.

In addition to the tight boundaries, Thomas said he's not sure that 400 bears are enough to maintain a viable population with enough genetic diversity.

When grizzlies were listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List in 1975, their numbers had dropped to about 200, Aus said. After 30 years, Game and Fish officers now estimate the population at 500-600.

But the number could be much higher, said Scott Talbott, Game and Fish's assistant wildlife division chief.

"It's an incredibly difficult species to study," he added.

Rancher Rick Felts said the bears are already at a saturation point in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and are steadily increasing their range as younger ones are forced out to establish their own territory.

"Where is that magic number where there are suddenly enough bears?" he asked. "When there's not enough bears to see from the road, apparently that means there's not enough."

With the possibility of delisting coming as soon as next year, residents and wildlife managers say they're eager to have more tools for managing bears.

But some ranchers say they are skeptical the government will ever turn control of grizzly bears over to the state.

Grant Stambaugh expressed frustration at the idea that the bears might retain federal protection if the government disagrees with the state's final bear management plan, expected to be completed by this fall.

"I don't think they'll ever delist them," he said. "There's just not enough of us in Wyoming. The U.S. government and the people in Washington are just too powerful." But Thomas of the Sierra Club argues that much of the decision-making about the bears actually happens right here in Wyoming.

"What people don't realize is that counties and local governments here have much more access to the Forest Service officials than anyone living in Hoboken, N.J.," he said. "It's just this myth that got started, and it's just so much hogwash. We have a huge impact on what happens on federal lands."

Sauerwein, a Wapiti farmer and rancher, said she also feels many decisions related to grizzly bears are made without much consideration of the residents most affected by them. She said she is most upset by her sense that her family's safety means less than the bears' ability to live freely in and around the valley.

During the meeting Sauerwein shared a story from one morning when she woke early to do the milking.

She left her 4-month-old infant sleeping in the house, expecting to return only a few minutes later. But after she reached the barn, she heard a familiar, terrifying noise.

"There was a grizzly sow right behind me with two cubs, and she was agitated," she said.

Sauerwein said she climbed to the roof of her barn and spent four hours there with the grizzly growling below her, unable to get back to her house and child.

"I should've shot that sow," she said. "I live on that farm, and I pay taxes on it, and I have a right to be safe."

But as long as bears remain under the protection of the federal government, it's illegal for landowners to kill one unless their lives are at risk.

Sauerwein said she has lost track of how many bears have been tranquilized and removed from her front lawn. Despite her best efforts to keep the fruit from her orchards from sitting on the ground, bears still flock to the property where four generations of the family have lived.

"I shouldn't have to cut down my trees to accommodate the bears," she said.

Other alternatives include electric fencing, but that comes at a high cost, she added.

Some of Sauerwein's neighbors have bought Karelian bear dogs to protect their families. Robyn Asherman brought one to discuss how they add a layer of security for her family. But at $1,500 each, the dogs aren't a cheap solution, she said.

"They're not like normal dogs," she said. "They require lots of attention, and they will kill almost any other animal that comes on our property.

"Since we got the dogs, we've had bears in the yard, but after the experience with the dogs, they generally will go around."

But when she goes hiking, she with her kids, she said, they always bring the dogs, bear spray and a loaded gun.

"It's just what you do here," she said, her 8-year-old daughter Lilly sitting beside her.

As the bear population increases and animals begin to widen their ranges, Game and Fish officials say the next challenge will be to keep them from spreading to other mountain ranges and forests.

Kevin Hurley, a wildlife management coordinator for Game and Fish, said bears can't be allowed to spread across the state.

"An animal like this is not suited to go wherever it can to make a living," he said. "We have to reduce its range to what is biologically suitable and socially acceptable."

The designated conservation area in Wyoming for grizzly bears includes a total of almost 5.9 million acres, Aus said.

The Shoshone National Forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest contain the bulk of the grizzly habitat in the state. Of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Wyoming holds about 85 to 90 percent of all the bears, Emmerich added.

But despite the large numbers of bears here, Emmerich said the public perception they will spread throughout the state is inaccurate.

"We plan to focus on problem bears and density management," he said. "We will actively discourage bears from spreading to the Wyoming Range, the Salt River Range and the lower Wind River Range."

But after 30 years of protected status, the bears have filled up much of the available habitat, he said.

"Our bowl is about full," he added.

If delisting happens, any hunting limits the state imposes will be localized and aimed at thinning out populations that seem too high. The total mortality limit will include any bears that were killed by cars and those that were removed because of problems with people or livestock, Hurley added.

Just last week Game and Fish officials killed the first problem grizzly of the year near Dubois after the animal repeatedly got into trouble with livestock.

Despite the assurances of Game and Fish, Wapiti Valley residents say they doubt the animals will stay within the designated habitat, no matter how hard Bruscino and other bear management officers work.

"The bears have reached the carrying capacity, and they're overpopulated," said Bob Coe, owner of Pahaska Teepee, a lodge and cabin community in the Shoshone National Forest.

"Overpopulation leads to broadening the territory. They're going to move to the Big Horns or the Owl Creek Mountains. Even Casper Mountain could be possible, there are so many in the ecosystem, and there's just not enough food," Coe said.

On the Game and Fish map of grizzly bear conflicts in 2004, the Wapiti Valley is ground zero.

The area stands out from the rest of the state by a cluster of bright red dots stretching west from Cody along the North Fork of the Shoshone River.

Of the 136 reported grizzly incidents in the state last year, six resulted in human injury and six resulted in the death of bears.

Bears also killed 27 cattle and about 20 sheep, Bruscino said.

To help prevent more attacks and teach valley residents how to protect their families, Game and Fish's staff developed an educational campaign and has been working with residents to remove or contain bear attractants and better protect gardens, livestock feed and other items that bears seek out for food.

"People who have been living with bears and dealing with them for 30 years know how to do it," Game and Fish's Talbott said.

But the newcomers to the area often are the ones who don't fully grasp the importance of taking preventative measures. And with a proposed subdivision that could double the population of Wapiti if it is approved by the Park County Commission, bear conflicts are bound to increase, some say.

Bruscino said about 75 percent of residents there fully cooperate with his suggestions.

"Another 15 percent just don't get it, and about 10 percent are defiant," he added.

This year the state's Brucellosis Task Force recommended that the Legislature consider a bill to prohibit the feeding of wildlife, said Walt Gasson, a policy analyst for Game and Fish.

"The recommendation was approved as an interim study topic," he added.

"Even though it comes from a different source that doesn't mean that they're entirely separate problems.

"This is a situation where one bad apple does indeed spoil the whole bunch, and when you're dealing with grizzlies, you're dealing with real threats to human life."

Teton County recently passed a similar ordinance that has drastically reduced its problems with elk and bears, Teton County Commissioner Larry Jorgenson said.

Bruscino and other Game and Fish officials say they hope to use the valley as a sort of lab for other areas to see how to teach people to coexist successfully with bears. He said he hopes to bring his education program into the Wapiti School to help students learn about living with bears early in life and prevent some future conflicts.

"Relocating bears has kind of run its course," Bruscino said.

Once bears get a food reward or learn that they can get what they want from breaking into barns or raiding garbage cans, Bruscino said they often reoffend.

And a fed bear is a dead bear, according to common wisdom.

Ranchers and residents in the Wapiti area say they are eager for the change to state control and the implementation of limited grizzly hunting, said Lee Livingston, who ranches there.

"Hunting will inject a degree of fear into the bears, and a hunted bear is a safer bear," he said. "We just don't want to be afraid in our own backyards."

But Thomas of the Sierra Club doesn't agree with that logic.

"That is one of those fairy tales," he said. "There's not eight or 10 bears that get together and one gets shot and they talk about it. If one gets shot, it's gone. That's a big theory out there, but I don't know if it's accurate."

Legislators who met the ranchers and heard their stories said they came away with a better understanding of the problems associated with bears and the people who live in grizzly territory, said Davison, the representative from Kemmerer.

"I just feel sorry for those people up there," she said. "They can't even protect themselves, and I empathize with the Game and Fish not being able to do what they need to do to manage the bears -- their hands are tied.

"We certainly need to get them delisted, then we can manage them."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News