Federal wildlife managers are asking wildlife watchers to stay away from Togwotee Pass for the rest of June while they haze a well-known grizzly sow from sunup to sundown anytime she nears the highway.
Grizzly 863, also known as Felicia, has become habituated to living along the federal highway, especially when raising cubs. She has two little ones this summer and is routinely proving to be a spectacle, causing crowds to gather. Wildlife managers will not haze the grizzly family when people are around because of the potential for something to go wrong, and so they’re asking passersby to keep driving and photographers to steer clear of the area.
“I know people have trouble with hazing, but this is a human safety issue,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley told the Jackson Hole Daily. “And the bears, if they grow up roadside, that’s not a good way to grow up. So we want to change her behavior, help the bears out and keep people safe.”
For years, federal and state agencies have not had the staff necessary to attend to the grizzly-watching crowds on Togwotee at all times. The Bridger-Teton National Forest has a single volunteer devoted to the job this summer, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Wyoming State Highway Patrol periodically dispatch wardens and troopers to help keep people and the large carnivore a safe distance apart.
But invariably, Cooley said, the grizzly family comes into view when an authority figure is not around, and irresponsible human behavior such as flying drones, getting way too close or attempting to feed the bears unfolds. Grizzly 863, who has been hazed repeatedly in the past, then regains her easiness along the highway.
“It’s kind of like kids,” Cooley said. “You can reprimand them occasionally, and it might not be very effective. But if you’re more consistent about it then maybe you have more effect.”
And so, Cooley has brought a former Fish and Wildlife Service colleague, special agent Steve Stoinski, out of retirement on a contract basis to provide a presence on the pass. Neighboring federal land managers like Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks are also enlisting staff to help out and ensure there’s at least two people, but ideally more like four or five, on the scene at all times. For the next two weeks their sole task is to haze Felicia and keep traffic moving.
“The thought is that if you can do it from dawn to dusk consistently for 14 days, that’s a pretty good intensive effort to try to change her behavior,” Cooley said.
Game and Fish Large Carnivore Supervisor Dan Thompson said that the goal of the operation is straightforward: “So she doesn’t live next to the road.”
If the 8-year-old female grizzly’s highway-side habits are unchanged by the end of June, federal and state wildlife managers will move to plan B: trapping her and relocating her and the cubs.
“Euthanasia would very much be a last resort,” Thompson said.
Cooley, who spent the tail end of last week on Togwotee Pass, agreed.
“If she doesn’t change at all, then the next step would probably be relocation,” she said. “Hopefully this is successful and we don’t need to move her, but we might.”
“I acknowledge that if I do go see Felicia/Bear 863, and I do not follow all rules and guidelines we have requested bear management puts into place in the area, I am risking her life,” the online pledge reads.
But there’s plenty of skepticism about Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans and intentions, too. The Change.org petition, signed by more than 12,000 people by Sunday morning, questions whether action is needed.
“This bear family simply grazes along the roadside, peacefully eating planted clover as this appears to be a preferred food choice,” the petition states. “When did it become unacceptable for bears to simply exist near the roadside in a national forest? There is absolutely no reason to euthanize (or even relocate) this federally protected bear or her cubs.”
But in Cooley’s view, grizzly viewing along Togwotee Pass is untenable and a different situation than bear watching in national parks.
“It’s a highway, 70 mph,” Cooley said. “It’s not set up to manage crowds of people viewing bears on the side of a highway, and that’s what the problem is and makes it so difficult.”
Note — The speed limit where U.S. Highway 26 goes over the top of Togwotee Pass — where Grizzly 863 is most commonly seen — is 55 mph, not 70 mph.