A special part of calling Jackson and Teton County home is living closely with wildlife. We live among charismatic megafauna that attract residents and millions of visitors to our town and surrounding public lands. Of the many species that we consider our community members, bears are one of the most revered and controversial.
There are roughly 700 grizzly bears and 650 black bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, placing Jackson in the heart of bear country. Over the past few weeks, you may have noticed a lot of bear stories circulating around our community. Grizzly 863 – nicknamed Felicia – has captured headlines recently, as well as wildlife advocates’ and Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) officials’ attention. Grizzly 863 is known for choosing to live alongside US Highway 26 on Togwotee Pass, this year with two cubs. Her presence there has generated fascinated crowds of motorists and visitors who want to catch a glimpse of this now-famous grizzly family, creating a complicated situation for both the bears and management efforts. With increased visitation this summer, traffic jams and motorist behavior surrounding viewing of 863 and her cubs have caused major problems for both humans and wildlife. Game and Fish officials do not have authority over traffic violations and the Wyoming Highway Patrol does not have the personnel to constantly manage Togwotee Pass. This resulted in an interagency management plan to keep 863 and her two cubs away from the highway. To decondition the bear and keep her a safe distance from the road, wildlife officials began hazing her with rubber bullets. The hazing plan, which is a coordinated response to the grizzly sow’s habituated behavior of staying near the highway in search of food and to avoid aggressive male grizzlies, seems to be working.
Hazing is just one method that WGFD officials use to manage bear behavior, and the long-term effects of this plan remain to be seen. While many see it as a better alternative to relocating or euthanizing the grizzly, officials and advocates can agree that this issue is larger than a single bear. Along with the difficulties that a multi-jurisdictional management response creates, hazing is not a sustainable solution, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the US Forest Service, WYDOT, and WGFD don’t have the resources to do it in perpetuity. This leads all of us to ask what is the right management response in order to keep both bears and humans safe? Wildlife advocates behind the #SaveFelicia movement and a corresponding petition of over 75,000 signatures are asking officials to focus on human management, education, and increasing resources to the area.
Managing human-wildlife interactions is never an easy situation, and ultimately to keep the animal and humans safe it is going to take all tactics: proactive wildlife management, increased highway patrol/enforcement, and people taking individual responsibility for their role. Grizzly 863’s situation reminds us that Jackson Hole is bear country, and as residents of this wild place, it is up to us to protect and co-exist with our bear neighbors. If you see a wild animal, give it the ample space that it needs (at least 100 yards for bears and wolves), take pictures from the same distances, and NEVER feed the animal. The Alliance will be meeting with local wildlife advocacy organizations, the public leading the #SaveFelicia movement, and the responding federal and state agencies to discuss next steps and potential permanent solutions.
To learn more about Grizzly 863, click here.