JACKSON — Federal wildlife officials foresee and have approved growing grizzly bear bloodshed on a sprawling complex of Bridger-Teton National Forest cattle grazing allotments recently permitted for the long haul.
The Bridger-Teton’s Pinedale District ranger, Rob Hoelscher, signed off in early October on a decision OK’ing the continuation of a historic grazing operation on 267 square miles of forestland that falls in the Upper Green and Gros Ventre river drainages. That decision instituted a number of minor changes, like giving the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association more flexibility in rotating its cows, tweaking utilization standards for vegetation heights and authorizing some new fencing.
A larger shift, however, is outlined in an accompanying document called a biological opinion, which estimates the federal action’s impact on a threatened or endangered species — in this case, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bears. The updated overall estimate of grizzly bears that will be “incidentally taken” as a result of the Upper Green grazing, the April 2019 document says, is 72 bruins between the 2019 and 2028 grazing seasons.
“We had a number of conversations with the grizzly bear recovery coordinator and also with Wyoming Game and Fish,” said Nathan Darnall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy supervisor for Wyoming. “When we start talking numbers this large, we all have to pause for a second and ask if this number is sustainable.
“In looking at the grizzly population and looking at the future expansion of the population ... we decided that this number, in concert with everything else, was sustainable,” he said.
The Greater Yellowstone grizzly population is estimated at around 700, though an undetermined number of Ursus arctos horribilis dwell on the fringes of the region outside where the species is carefully monitored.
“This is not going to jeopardize the population of bears in the Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Darnall said. “We’re not going to see numbers dipping below recovery levels, and we would still expect the population to increase.”
Darnall and his colleagues at Fish and Wildlife, who oversee grizzlies because they’re currently classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, produced the biological opinion.
The document points out that not all bears in the Upper Green cause trouble and that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has documented bears with territories in the allotments that haven’t killed cattle.
“Nonetheless, bear conflicts with livestock increased an average of 10 percent each year,” the opinion says. “We believe this trend is likely to continue within the action area. Within the last nine years 37 grizzly bears were lethally removed from the action area due to conflicts with livestock.”
The all-time high mark for lethal action taken in response to dead cows came in 2018, when Wyoming had jurisdiction over the species during the grazing season, didn’t need Fish and Wildlife authorization, and opted to kill eight depredating grizzlies.
The 72 grizzlies authorized for removal over the coming decade is a large increase from the most recent estimate, in 2014. That year the “take” was set at a maximum of 11 bears over any rolling three-year period.
The 69-page document puts numbers to the rising rate of ursine-bovine conflict that led to the higher estimate. Although ranchers reported a relative lull this summer in the slaughter of both cattle and bears, since the turn of the century conflict has soared in the Upper Green as grizzly range has expanded and filled in that portion of the Bridger-Teton.
Between 2010 and 2018, Game and Fish and federal wildlife managers confirmed 527 conflicts, almost exclusively cattle that were killed or maimed. The majority, the document says, occurred in the last five years, and they took place “throughout the action area.”
The 1,112-square-mile “action area” assessed in the document is much larger than the actual allotments, taking into account grizzlies estimated to inhabit areas up to 7.5 miles away from the allotments. The more than 9,000 cow/calf pairs and few dozen horses permitted to graze the expansive rangeland have proven a big attractant, according to grizzly bear GPS collar data cited in the opinion. One bear captured after killing cattle on the allotments, grizzly No. 499, denned clear across the mighty Wind River Range, 24 miles away on the Wind River Reservation. Another Upper Green grizzly captured for research, bear No. 754, denned 29 miles away near the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park.
This iteration of Fish and Wildlife’s biological opinion for the Upper Green did not estimate the grizzly population in the “action area” surrounding the allotments. In 2013 the agency put the number at somewhere between 51 and 60 grizzlies.
Fourth-generation Upper Green stockman Albert Sommers, who helps run the Cattlemen’s Association, has tried and failed to change his grazing protocols in a way that reduces grizzly conflict. The operation pencils out, he’s told the News&Guide, only because of Wyoming compensation programs. In 2016 and 2017 Sommers worked with the conflict-reduction group People and Carnivores to test a herding technique that bunched up his bovines at night. It had “no effect on depredation,” the Fish and Wildlife’s opinion said, and was discontinued.
“I still go to conferences,” Sommers told the News&Guide this summer, “and listen to ideas.”
Not all parties paying attention to the chronic conflict in the Upper Green are satisfied with a gruesome status quo that’s forecasted to worsen. Center for Biological Diversity employee Andrea Santarsiere, of Victor, Idaho, said that the Bridger-Teton grazing complex is “good habitat” that’s turned into a “population sink” bound to continually attract more bears, resulting in more conflict.
“It’s just a cyclical problem that they’re not going to be able to resolve without taking some conservation measures on the ground,” Santarsiere said.
Mandatory conservation measures in the Bridger-Teton’s decision, she said, are “lacking terribly.”
“Pretty much everything that we asked for was ignored or significantly watered down,” she said.
During the “objection process” with the forest in early 2018, Santarsiere tried to make it mandatory for range riders to carry bear spray, but the language was turned into a recommendation. It was a similar story, she said, with carcass removal requirements that the conservation community sought.
“They have to move carcasses under the new decision if they are too close to roads where the public might be, which protects the public,” Santarsiere said. “But that’s not doing a lot to protect grizzly bears, because all they have to do is move them a little ways from the road.”
Hoelscher, the Bridger-Teton district ranger, said authorizing the mostly business-as-usual Upper Green grazing plans was a “really difficult decision.” He acknowledged that the regulations relating to grizzly conflict are largely unchanged.
“The permittees as well as the state have done a lot of trying to figure out what works, and what doesn’t,” Hoelscher said, “and they’re pretty much already doing about all they can do.”
“I feel it’s very important to maintain the lifestyles and the industry here locally for the permittees,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what comes out of this all.”
Santarsiere, who is an environmental attorney, said she’s considering her options.