Sunday’s mauling of a hunter participating in Grand Teton National Park’s elk reduction program was inevitable, and it is irresponsible for park officials to allow the hunt to continue, critics of the program said this week.
The hunt puts hunters and bears too close together, because bears have learned to find gut piles from hunter-killed elk, the critics say, and hunters slinking through the woods can surprise a bear, resulting in a mauling or a hunter shooting a bear.
Park officials have documented at least seven grizzly bears that have traveled in the general area where the attack occurred along the Snake River north of Moose. This fall, grizzly bears 399 and 610 led five cubs from Signal Mountain and Willow Flats past the attack area to Moose-Wilson Road.
“We told them so a hundred times,” photographer Tom Mangelsen said of pleas to the park that a conflict was only a matter of time. “It’s really unconscionable that [park officials] continue to have their heads in the sand.”
Park officials counter that the elk reduction program is authorized by law and they cannot stop it unilaterally. A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist said the park hunt is “critical” to achieving population objectives for the Jackson Elk Herd.
Nevertheless, the attack led the park to close a quarter-mile area around where hunter Timothy Hix was mauled. Rangers found an elk carcass nearby.
A bear bit Hix, 32, of Jackson, at least twice Sunday during the surprise encounter in the river bottom between the Blacktail Ponds and Glacier View overlooks.
St. John’s Medical Center staff deemed Hix in good condition and discharged him from the hospital Monday.
Park officials suspect the bear that bit Hix was a grizzly.
Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott said Tuesday she would not close more of the Snake River bottom, an elk travel corridor where dense foliage could conceal a bear.
Park rangers found an elk carcass roughly 70 feet from where Hix was attacked. The carcass was partially buried, likely by a grizzly bear.
A hunter had warned park officials that there was a carcass in the area before Hix was injured Sunday, but rangers had been unable to find it, park spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said.
“Rangers could not confirm the presence of a carcass,” she said. “They did post a notification near that access point notifying ... park users that a hunter had reported a carcass in the area.”
The park might close a trail when a carcass is nearby, but “when it is not near a heavily used area, it’s not typical for the park to institute a closure,” Anzelmo-Sarles said.
Park bears cue in on the hunt because of the gut piles left behind by hunters, Mangelsen said.
“They’re running to the sounds of bullets,” he said. “It’s a dinner bell.”
That bear activity, coupled with hunters moving silently through the woods, is a dangerous mix, Mangelsen said.
“To put hunters in that situation is insane,” he said.
Jackson resident Tim Mayo agreed that the hunt makes for a dangerous situation.
“The superintendent is playing with fire,” he said. “I am incredibly grateful that the mauling was not fatal.”
Sunday’s incident was unfortunate, but bear attacks can happen anywhere in the park, Scott said Tuesday.
“This just as easily could have been a hiker or a fisherman or a boater,” she said. Hunters receive information on the danger of bears and are required to carry bear spray in Grand Teton.
Park’s enabling legislation
The elk reduction program is mandated by law, Scott said. The program is required when the elk herd is at or above management objectives set by the state, she said.
“It’s very important to note that the park does not have unilateral discretion to discontinue the hunt,” Scott said. “Those who think that the Park Service does have the authority to unilaterally discontinue the hunt, they either don’t understand the law or are choosing to ignore it.”
The park’s 1950 enabling legislation specifically requires a collaborative decision on the elk reduction program by the State of Wyoming and the Park Service.
The legislation states, “The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the National Park Service shall devise, and recommend to the Secretary of the Interior and the Governor of Wyoming for their joint approval, a program to insure the permanent conservation of the elk within the Grand Teton National Park established by this act. Such a program shall include the controlled reduction of elk in such park, by hunters licensed by the State of Wyoming and deputized as rangers by the Secretary of the Interior, when it is found necessary for the purpose of proper management and protection of the elk.”
‘Only an option’
Scott’s refusal to end the elk reduction program is arrogant, Mangelsen said.
“The enabling legislation does not require [the park] to have a hunt every year,” he said. “It is only an option. They need to prove that the elk herd really does need to be reduced.”
If the agencies want to reduce the elk population, they could end supplemental feeding of elk on the National Elk Refuge and state-run feedgrounds, Mangelsen said.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department north Jackson wildlife biologist Doug Brimeyer said the park hunt is needed to target a segment of the Jackson Elk Herd with a high reproductive rate.
“The calf production on the southern end of Grand Teton Park and on private lands along the Snake River is high enough that we need to maintain hunting in the southern end of the herd unit,” he said. “Grand Teton is in the southern end of the herd unit.”
Data from radio collars show those elk move back through the park before they go to the National Elk Refuge for the winter, Brimeyer said. The hunt is a collaborative approach that helps meet the goals outlined in the 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan, he said.
One of those goals is to have fewer elk on artificial feed on the refuge in the winter, a goal that is supposed to be achieved through hunting.
Without the combined hunting effort in the park, on the Bridger-Teton National Forest and on the National Elk Refuge, more elk would move through subdivisions and golf courses and onto roadways during the winter.
“The problem would only be worse without hunting,” he said.
Stopping artificial feeding would also send elk onto roads and golf courses and into subdivisions, Brimeyer said.
“Just saying that we shouldn’t feed is a simplified answer,” he said. “It creates its own problems.
“It’s unfortunate that this incident occurred,” Brimeyer said. “But that incident could have occurred anywhere.”
Mangelsen said allowing hunters to leave gut piles behind is hypocritical given the park’s strict food storage rules.
“If you leave a candy wrapper or an empty beer can on your picnic table, they give you a ticket,” he said. “But you can leave a pile of guts and legs anywhere you want.”
The park is ignoring its obligation to protect grizzly bears as mandated by the Endangered Species Act, Mangelsen said. Hunters “know that some guy got bit, and they’re going to be scared, and they’re going to fire their gun,” he said. “It’s very upsetting. I hope they don’t kill any bears.”
Grizzly bear protection and human safety are “foremost on the mind of managers in Grand Teton,” Scott said.
Hix noticed the bear when it began to charge from a few yards away, park officials said. Hix rolled up in a ball and the bear bit him, then left. Hix was carrying bear spray, but did not have a chance to use it, officials said.
He used his cellphone to call for assistance. Some 15 park rangers, including biologists and resource managers, responded.
Rangers collected hair samples and other evidence at the scene that could help identify the species of bear that attacked. Park officials have not announced plans to find the bear.
Hix was “following the recommended protocols for hunting in bear country” at 11:30 a.m. Sunday when he surprised the animal at a distance of five to 10 yards, park officials said. Hix had not killed an elk and did not fire his weapon at the animal. After Hix dropped to the ground, the bear bit him at least twice.
The nature of Hix’s injuries was not available. Hix did not respond to a request for comment.