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
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.
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.
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.
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
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