Teton Valley residents are still reeling over the death of three grizzlies killed in early November by the Idaho Fish and Game Department near Tetonia.
With the same passion that Jackson Hole area residents show for the world-famous Grizzly 399, Idaho residents gathered in Tetonia on Sunday, Nov. 20, to meet with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ask why the federal agency granted Idaho’s request to kill Grizzly 1089 and her two cubs.
At least a dozen local residents at the meeting expressed dissatisfaction over how the state and federal agencies handled the situation, questioning the lack of information before and after the removal and the rationale of public safety used to justify the killings.
“We don’t want them saving us,” said Mike Abbott, a resident of the area near where the bears were killed. “How could you make the call without a little more outreach? We were nervous, but also excited to have these bears around. This mom was a good griz, and I’m just sick her genes aren’t going to be passed on.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives fielded questions from Abbott and other citizens during the meeting organized by Jack and Gina Bayles, who own and operate Team 399, an outfit that offers guided tours of local national parks while specifically supporting the coexistence of humans and grizzlies.
Grizzly 399 is the most famous bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, if not the world, and has made a name for herself by raising her cubs along Grand Teton National Park roads, attracting crowds of onlookers. The matriarch and her four cubs traipsed through southern Jackson Hole several times in the fall of 2020 and 2021, getting into human foods as they did so.
To help keep them out of trouble, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kept close watch over the bears. This summer, however, Wyoming Game and Fish, acting with authorization from Fish and Wildlife, killed one of Grizzly 399’s offspring that was frequenting human-occupied areas in Sublette County after the young bears separated from their mother.
Team 399’s Jack Bayles opened the Tetonia meeting with a list of questions about how officials handled Grizzly 1089, the bear that was killed in Idaho, including the lack of information and that the location where the bears were shot has not been made public.
“My intention is to make a film about this,” Bayles said. “She’s not the last sow with cubs to come down that creek bottom. Grizzlies are killed too easily.”
Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley and her colleague, Grizzly Conflict Specialist Becca Lyon, explained to people at the meeting why their agency approved Idaho’s request to kill the collared sow and her cubs somewhere in the northeastern part of Teton Valley.
Cooley explained that the three bears first became habituated to humans in Yellowstone National Park near Mammoth in October. After making their way to Gardiner, Montana, the bears were eating dandelions on the local football field and crab apples from a tree close to a school bus stop. The bears were then trapped, collared and relocated near Targhee Pass, southwest of West Yellowstone, Montana.
Once the bears arrived in Teton County, Idaho, concern for human safety was cited as the reason for killing them.
But residents had taken precautions to prevent bears from becoming habituated to human foods. Abbott and many others talked about how they had removed outdoor grills, bird feeders and trash. No one at the meeting had seen the bears, and there was only one confirmed report of the bears coming close to residences.
Cooley explained that the target number for the grizzly population in the area might have factored into the decision to kill the bears, which appeared to have no fear of humans.
“Every bear was a whole lot more important when numbers were down,” Cooley said. “But there are a thousand bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The target number for bears is on target.”
As a threatened species, grizzlies cannot be hunted by the public, and state agencies need the approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service before killing one. Cooley said that when the federal agency gets a recommendation from a state that there would have to be a reason to deny the state’s request.
“It’s not a good thing to say ‘no’ to an agency,” said Cooley, who authorized the killing of the bears on behalf of the federal agency, based on an Idaho Fish and Game report sent to her office in Missoula, Montana. “We talked through all of the options. We could have done nothing, hazed them, relocated them or euthanized them. In terms of relocation, states don’t cooperate.”
Tetonia sits outside of the recovery area for Yellowstone grizzlies, and bears that cross that human-drawn line on a map aren’t given the same latitude as bears within the recovery area.
“As the Idaho delegation demands grizzly bear delisting and the return to state management, states need to demonstrate consistency and trust with the public,” said Kathy Rinaldi, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s deputy director of conservation. “Inconsistent management decisions and an intolerance to manage grizzly bears outside of the recovery area, particularly areas of suitable habitat where bears are not causing conflict, are points of concern if we want a healthy and connected grizzly bear population,” she said in a written statement to the News&Guide.
While Teton County, Idaho, has an ordinance in place to mitigate bear conflicts, Fremont County, Idaho, just to the north does not. As a result, it was pointed out, Idaho Fish and Game is overwhelmed dealing with bear conflicts in and around Island Park.
At the meeting, residents compared the handling of Grizzly 1089 to the famous Grizzly 399.
“If the public is willing to take the risk, what can we do to better deal with this in the future?” Abbott said.
Idaho Fish and Game was invited to the Nov. 20 meeting, but no representatives attended.
In an interview before the meeting, Idaho Fish and Game’s Matt Pieron called the decision to kill the bears “very difficult” and added that the decision was made in the interest of public safety. Pieron would not say where the bears had been killed, saying only that it was private property.
Idaho Fish and Game had brought traps up to the north end of Teton Valley while it was hoped the bears would head into the mountains to den for the season, Pieron said.
“We all hoped they would walk up the hill and get away from people,” he said. “All options were on the table,” for the bears, he said, but would not detail those options.
“For me, first and foremost, I respect the fact that people have compassion for these animals,” Pieron said. “Fish and Game does too. I get it. It’s hard. It’s a very difficult thing. I told [neighbors] that I respect where they are, and we have all lost a lot of sleep over this. But think about if someone was injured and lost life over this decision. It’s cool to see wild animals, but it’s not cool when people could be in danger.”
Not everyone in Idaho Fish and Game agreed.
Pieron and James Brower, regional communications manager for Idaho Fish and Game, would not comment on personnel issues, but Rinaldi said Jeremy Nicholson, the Upper Snake Region bear biologist in Tetonia working with neighbors to manage 1089 and her brood, resigned over the decision to kill the animals.
“Decisions to remove bears are rarely easy ones and most often the result of having exhausted all other options,” she said. “Jeremy Nicholson had made several difficult decisions with grizzly bears over the years. He is a trusted and highly respected biologist in the community. In fact, he was Idaho Fish and Game’s employee of the year last year. The fact that he resigned over this decision is telling and doesn’t instill confidence in IDFG’s actions with regards to the bears in question.”
Nicholson did not return repeated requests for comment.
Idaho Fish and Game “has been a solid partner in grizzly bear conservation in Idaho over the last five to 10 years,” Rinaldi said. “That said, the decision to euthanize this sow and her cubs is concerning to us because it is inconsistent with management decisions of Yellowstone grizzly bears in other parts of Idaho.”
Idaho Fish and Game’s Brower acknowledged that residents in the area had a high level of compliance in keeping human foods out of reach from the bears as they foraged on natural foods like berries.
“We understand the challenges and complexity in managing grizzly bears and the calculation of risk with the human population,” Rinaldi said. “The South Leigh Creek area is very rural and wild. The residents were aware of the bears in the corridor and were being compliant with securing food attractants. They were doing exactly what we all should be doing in grizzly bear habitat as residents in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”