Can grizzly bears and homeowners get along

  Houses march to the Wyoming skyline like fat clouds stacked in a troubled sky. There’s open space, too, long sweeps of it, mostly irrigated, mostly covered with cows or alfalfa. The ranches are keeping this country open but every year a new ranch is "ranchetted," chunked up like cheese, sold, fenced, housed. This is the Wapiti Valley west of Cody.

In the middle of this, wild animals try to exist on ground they’ve been treading for generations. The valley is critical habitat for elk, deer and bighorn sheep, not to mention grizzly bears and black bears.

Biologist Mark Bruscino struggles with the balance. Recently, he had to pull out a culvert bear trap that failed to work. The trap sat for days in the driveway of a house perched precariously on an open sage hillside that used to be winter territory for deer and elk. It’s a housing development now.

Homeowners saw a grizzly in their yard — a big bear with a head the size of a feed bucket. It was peering into a shed full of birdseed.

For three days the trap sat near the shed, guillotine-style door open, with a chunk of road-killed antelope cooking inside in the sun. The big bear never came back. A grizzly, maybe the same one, was seen along the river, walking past the Wapiti Elementary School.

The school has a brand-new fence around the playground. Its sole purpose is to keep bears out and kids in.

Although Bruscino’s job description is several paragraphs long, two words sum most of it up: problem bears. All too often, it’s Bruscino’s job to take out those problem bears, and most of the time, "take out" means kill. That is the part of his job that is no fun.

Bruscino and two or three other employees of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department stay on the run most of the summer. When the bears come out of the den, the phones start to ring. When the bears den up in the fall, the phones stop ringing. In the dry year of 2002, the phones started ringing on Feb. 28 and stopped on Nov. 25. More than 200 of those phone calls were grizzly bear incidents.

A picture published in Sierra magazine not long ago showed Bruscino holding two very small, fuzzy bear cubs that he extracted from a winter den during a hibernation study. The look on his face says it all. He is thinking he has just about the coolest job in the world.

Bruscino speaks with the kind of know-how that can only come through years in the field. I’ve sat at his kitchen table and I’ve eaten at his campfire, and I unconditionally believe that he knows what he’s talking about. Bruscino thinks the Yellowstone grizzly bear is ready to come off the list — the list being the endangered species list, to which, in 1975, the Yellowstone grizzly bear was added.

It was once rare to see grizzlies in Yellowstone, particularly after the 1970s, when Yellowstone’s garbage dumps were closed. But today, biologists like Bruscino and Kerry Gunther, who is the park’s chief bear biologist, think the grizzly has met the recovery goals and can be delisted.

Others aren’t so sure. Those who oppose delisting can back up their concerns, and their evidence, admittedly, is much less ephemeral than 500 seldom-seen grizzly bears floating around the ecosystem. Their evidence is trophy homes marching in a line up the flanks of Sheep Mountain outside the Wapiti Valley, and other developments that have spread into what was once part of northwestern Wyoming’s big empty.

The center of the grizzly population is Yellowstone National Park, and as the bear population has grown larger, the younger and less-dominant bears have been pushed to the edges, spilling into country that hasn’t seen a grizzly in years.

Delisting the grizzly would turn the management of the species directly to the states and the national parks. Currently, a multi-agency group, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, oversees grizzly bear management in the Yellowstone region. If grizzlies came off the list, the state wildlife departments of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana would manage them.

Bruscino says the agencies now involved in saving grizzlies from extinction would be the same agencies managing the bear if it comes off the list. So the real question, he says, is whether people can accept bears in their midst while keeping enough land open for bears to roam. "Those things are going to be critical."

Tom Reed is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of Great Wyoming Bear Stories and lives in Lander, Wyoming.