Bear in town

The large black bear moves through the courtyard at 255 Buffalo Way in mid-October. The bear was estimated to weigh about 300 pounds. Bears fattening up for winter enter a phase known as hyperphagia, when they require many more calories than normal.

After several months of around-the-clock calls about bears in neighborhoods and eating garbage and crab apples, Mike Boyce is experiencing a reprieve.

“Just in the past week it has significantly slowed down,” said the Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore biologist. “Calls kind of dropped off. Bears are heading up to their dens.”

“We were really busy, and in general I would say that we were way above average for bear conflicts, mostly involving black bears,” Boyce said. “At least a call a day, and some days multiple if not numerous calls.”

But the spigot of reports hasn’t been closed off completely.

“Just today,” Boyce said Monday afternoon, “we had a bear in garbage.”

It’s a combination of natural and unnatural factors that’s led to another heavy conflict year for bears in Jackson Hole and Wyoming Game and Fish’s broader Jackson Region. A poor late-summer berry crop, presaged by hard June frosts that inhibited blossoms from developing, likely pushed a lot of bears into the more peopled parts of the valley. Once they got there the bears capitalized on unnatural food sources, like fruit from ornamental trees and garbage from trash cans left out in the overnight hours.

The result, in terms of numbers, is that there have been 20 instances of residential and campground-dwelling Jackson Hole and Star Valley bears taking the bait and ending up enclosed in the state’s culvert-style traps. About half those bears were driven off and relocated to a new area, typically dozens of miles away and clear across the region, which stretches from the southern border of Yellowstone National Park to the headwaters of the Salt River. Roughly the other half of the captured bruins, 11 of them, were repeat offenders or deemed too far habituated and destructive, and they were killed.

In 2006, Teton County enacted regulations designed to curb bear conflicts. But enforcement has been scant and, partly because of that, at times they’ve proven ineffective. All corners of the county outside northern South Park and the town of Jackson proper are classified as “bear-conflict priority zones,” where residents must use certified bear-resistant trash containers and abide by bird feeder regulations (10 feet high, and 4 feet from tree trunks). There was a discussion two years ago of making the entire county abide by the standards, and the idea was endorsed by the valley’s largest trash hauler, Westbank Sanitation. But competing haulers balked because they lacked the equipment, and the talk of an all-encompassing zone fizzled.

Greater Yellowstone Coalition Wildlife Program Coordinator Chris Colligan was one of the conservationists lobbying the county to expand and strengthen the regulations at the time, and he’s disappointed by the lack of progress and another year of lots of dead bears.

“The problem is enforcement and also inaction by our local officials,” Colligan said. “As a community we’re way behind in updating our land development regulations as it relates to bear conflicts.”

Around the same time as the LDR discussion in 2017, a Tufts University master’s degree student in wildlife policy completed a survey about Jackson Hole community attitudes about policies that would keep bears out of trouble, like bird feeder requirements and backyard berry bush bans. The student, Pietro Castelli, found that people didn’t want to be bothered by the types of rules that wildlife managers say can save bear lives.

Bear in town

Mike Boyce readies a tranquilizer after receiving a call about a large black bear near the Jackson Hole News&Guide office in mid-October. The situation didn’t qualify as a conflict, he said, but was just a bear in a bad place. The animal moved on its own before it was darted.

“There really was not a statistically significant amount of support for banning anything, which was definitely disappointing,” Castelli told the News&Guide at the time.

Though bear zones helped where they do exist, they haven’t been a cure-all for conflicts.

“We had bears in repeated conflicts involving unsecured garbage,” Boyce said. “People are not in compliance. And as a result of that we’re having to capture and euthanize bears.

“There are definitely some areas in the county where people can do a better job,” he said: Wilson, Fall Creek Road and Hoback Junction. “What we’re seeing is people simply won’t have a bear-resistant can or they’re overfilling their can or not latching it.”

Exacerbating the habituation, he said, are residents hesitating to notify him or other authorities when they are raided. Sometimes, by the time he learns of an animal marauding a neighborhood at night it’s been weeks and there’s already been a “fast escalation” of the behavior, which is perilous to the bear.

“It usually starts with a small food reward,” Boyce said, “and quickly bears start exhibiting bold, destructive behavior.”

There are some bright spots from an otherwise conflict-ridden year.

East Jackson, the site of unrelenting black bear conflicts two years ago, has been relatively quiet, Boyce said.

In Jackson Hole’s corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and beyond, livestock conflicts were down, according to Dan Thompson, Wyoming Game and Fish’s large carnivore chief. The same goes for hunter conflicts, Boyce said.

“It’s noticeably more quiet than normal,” he said of the Jackson region. “I don’t think we’ve documented any grizzly bear-hunter conflicts this year.”

For whatever reason, overall conflicts with grizzly bears dropped this season, even while they were going up for black bears. Of the 20 bears that Boyce and his colleague Becca Lyon captured this year, just one was a grizzly. That 2 1/2-year-old female was likely a cub of the famous Grand Teton National Park grizzly known by her research number, 399. In late September she was relocated to the Shoshone National Forest near Beartooth Pass. Based on her tracking collar information, the subadult sow is likely in her den for the year, somewhere just over the Wyoming border south of Cooke City, Montana, Boyce said.

With the black bear garbage conflicts, where there’s been less progress, Colligan’s plan is to continue urging county decision-makers to take action. He cited the city of Bayfield, Colorado, a suburb of Durango, where elected officials recently proposed raising monthly trash service rates by $1.49 in order to transition entirely to Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee-certified bear-resistant cans.

“We were trying to come up with a proactive fix for requiring bear-proof garbage containers by ordinance and regulation, countywide,” Colligan said. “The idea is to regulate that through the haulers rather than local residents, so you don’t have the choice.

“As a community I think we’re way behind,” he said. “Nobody wants to have bears having to be killed because of our garbage.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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