POWELL — For the first time in more than a decade, no humans were injured or killed by a grizzly bear in Wyoming last year. And despite the population of grizzlies trending slightly upward, substantially fewer bears had to be relocated or killed by wildlife managers due to conflicts.
It was a good year for Wyoming, Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson told members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee during the group’s spring meeting last week.
“We’re very fortunate that we didn’t have any human injuries or fatalities — the first year in several years we didn’t have a human injury. And we also had a lot less management actions because of those reduced number of conflicts,” Thompson said.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore team euthanized 18 bears in 2019, down from 32 the previous year.
Ten of the bears that were “lethally removed” had roamed outside the portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that’s been deemed as suitable habitat for the species. Several of those removals took place in Park County.
“The Absaroka front has our longest footprint of conflict,” said Thompson. “Our first conflict starts there and our last conflicts, on an annual basis, occur there.”
The types of conflicts have changed over the past few years, with fewer bears sniffing out garbage and destroying private property. But as grizzlies continue to increase their range beyond their suitable habitat into agricultural and residential areas, conflicts with livestock continue to rise. Of the 192 conflicts reported in Wyoming last year, 126 were due to depredation of farm animals.
Montana and Idaho also saw increased livestock depredation. Wyoming’s northern neighbor reported 111 total conflicts — 30 more than its 10-year average — while Idaho recorded a relatively high number of conflicts for the second straight year, though much fewer than Wyoming and Montana.
There were 40 total known or probable grizzly bear deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem last year.
Those mortalities included grizzlies euthanized in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, bears killed in self-defense or by vehicles and deaths by natural causes. All grizzlies removed in management actions in the tristate area are done under the supervision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as the species is currently listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Thompson gives much of the credit for Wyoming’s positive numbers to the state’s Bear Wise program, coordinated by Dusty Lasseter out of the Cody Region office.
“Dusty and all of our folks are proactive, trying to educate the public and let people know what they can do,” Thompson said.
“The information and education component is the foundation of what we do,” he added. “We’re trying to get the message out there as much as we can to reduce the potential for conflict.”
It’s a hard job “with the increasing footprint,” he said, as bears disperse into farms and residential areas. The removal of problem bears the previous two years was also part of the equation, he said. More than 30 bears were euthanized in conflict management actions in 2018, about half of those outside suitable habitat. That included a sow and two cubs caught feeding in a dead animal pit south of Byron.
Another 25 bears were relocated in 2018, but only 15 grizzlies were relocated last year.
The population of grizzlies within Yellowstone National Park and suitable habitat in the surrounding ecosystem has increased slightly in the past year, according to Frank van Manen, who heads up the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team for the U.S. Geological Survey. There are an estimated 737 grizzlies within the demographic monitoring area, he said, up from the previous year’s estimated population of 728 bears. The counting method is known to be conservative and bears outside the demographic monitoring area are not included in the count.
The interagency committee was formed in 1983 to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the lower 48 states through interagency coordination of policy, planning, management and research. It consists of representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Geological Survey and representatives of the state wildlife agencies of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming.
Canadian Wildlife Service and Native American tribes possessing grizzly habitat have been involved. The group met by Zoom amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Thompson spoke from his home office, as the Game and Fish office in Lander has been closed after multiple staffers there fell ill.