Grizzlies and tourism collide on Wyoming road

  • Highway construction project near Yellowstone

    Diane Sylvain
  • Ecologist Chuck Neal says federal agents "betrayed public trust"

    Dewey Vanderhoff
  • Wintering elk near homes along highway corridor near Yellowstone

    Dewey Vanderhoff
  • Prophetic sign on disputed road through national forest

    Dewey Vanderhoff

CODY, Wyo. - They razed the best patch of angelica.

The nondescript low forb is a favored food for grizzly bears along the highway corridor from Cody to the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The North Fork Highway, as U.S. 14-16-20 is called, was once described by Theodore Roosevelt as one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the United States.

It carries, on average, 1,600 tourists a day to the park, as it ribbons through the North Fork River Valley - home to the densest populations of grizzlies and to the most varied wildlife habitat in the Yellowstone area.

When ecologist Chuck Neal looks at the upper end of the corridor today, he sees bare ground and fill dirt where angelica used to be. It's all part of the first phase of the Wyoming Department of Transportation's $50 million plan to widen and straighten 27.5 miles of the highway through the Shoshone National Forest on its way to Yellowstone.

But, frustrated by demands that the road department cough up large sums to compensate for paving over wildlife habitat, the state board that doles out highway funds voted in November to cancel more work on the highway.

The move delighted critics like Neal, but stunned tourism boosters.

Now, both sides are mobilizing. Chamber of commerce backers, supported by the governor, are applying political leverage to push the rebuilding through. Foes of the project, while certain that politics will revive the project, see the current intermission as a chance to make it right.

"This is our last, desperate hope of adding some sanity to this project," says Steve Thomas of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

The agencies behind the road could have set out to rebuild the highway and roadside campgrounds in a way that would establish a benchmark for roadwork in sensitive landscapes across the American West, Thomas says. Instead, the road has been designed for tourists driving at 50 mph. Bears get little consideration, he says.

"It's just sad, because it could have really worked well," laments Jane Roybal, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She had pushed unsuccessfully for provisions to reduce run-ins between grizzly bears and people along the highway. "We could have seen something besides the devastation up there."

After Wyoming's Transportation Commission stopped the reconstruction, Cody's chamber of commerce held a crisis meeting. The assemblage quickly rejected two options: accepting cancellation of the road and backing a scaled-down version. They went for a third choice: "We've got to turn them around," said Bud Webster, a Cody car dealer. "Tourism is too important to let a bunch of 'againsters' sabotage this project."

Built in the 1930s for the lighter traffic of the time, the highway is disintegrating under monster tour buses and campers. Accident rates are up because the old road cannot satisfy motorists who are used to freeway speeds, boosters such as Webster maintain.

Yet the highway corridor is, one said, Cody's economic lifeline.

Chuck Neal sees a different kind of lifeline. Lean and intense, Neal is retired from the U.S. Department of Interior, where he spent years studying grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region. He describes the valley as the spinal column of millions of acres of national forest and federal wilderness that sweep all around it.

He says the Forest Service and other agencies that consented to the construction "betrayed the public trust."

It's difficult to overstate the value of the North Fork to wildlife, state and federal biologists say. The river valley provides a mosaic of habitats that supports populations of elk, deer, bighorn sheep, moose and other wildlife. It shelters wintering grounds and wetlands and is one of the first spots to green up with the spring forbs and grasses that give wildlife the kick of a high-energy bar.

But on summer days, the valley is also thick with people on the highway and in the Forest Service's 11 roadside campgrounds. Steep slopes leave little room between the valley's human and wild users. Campgrounds draw grizzlies, which often have to be moved or killed in the name of camper safety.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded 107 bear-human conflicts along the North Fork from 1982 to 1995. In that same period, biologists trapped and moved nine grizzlies and eliminated another 10, either by killing them or shipping them to zoos.

"That has been a major, major conflict site in the last 10 years," says Dave Moody, who oversees predators for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "The North Fork (of the Shoshone River), without a doubt, poses the highest threat of loss to grizzly bears" in Wyoming.

State engineers first proposed reconstruction of the North Fork Highway in the early 1980s, but dropped the idea after finding a tangle of environmental strings attached. They resurrected the plan in 1989, citing accident rates on the shoulderless highway up to three times the norm for roads in Wyoming. When it came time to firm up plans, the Forest Service added renovations of its aging roadside campgrounds to the discussion. State and federal wildlife biologists raised another topic: grizzlies.

The Forest Service immediately cried in local newspapers that the state Game and Fish Department and federal Fish and Wildlife Service were trying to close the North Fork to camping. At that time Barry Davis, then the Shoshone National Forest supervisor, announced that campgrounds would be moved only over his dead body.

"What got me was the way they totally misrepresented where we were coming from," the Game and Fish Department's Moody says. "We were branded as being anti-tourism."

Both the Forest Service and state highway officials say they did plenty for wildlife. They shrank the highway shoulders from eight to six feet and narrowed "clear zones" on either side. A few bridges will be higher so grizzlies can walk underneath them to avoid collisions. The campgrounds will incorporate "bear-friendly" measures such as fences to detour grizzlies around tents.

With that, Forest Service Regional Forester Elizabeth Estill last June signed off on the highway, on the condition that highway builders offset the loss of roughly 260 acres of big-game habitat the wider road will pave. That was the final sticking point.

When it came to replacing the lost big-game habitat, highway engineers proposed prescribed burning and selective logging to open new meadows. But state biologists insisted that road builders buy conservation easements that would maintain nearby private land as open space.

The highway department balked.

"We're not against it, but we don't want this kind of expense to preclude our work in the future," said Bob Bonds, the environmental coordinator for the highway.

Late last year, Shoshone National Forest Supervisor Rebecca Aus threatened to stop work on the highway until the state road officials presented an acceptable plan to replace newly blacktopped habitat. About the same time, the Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that workers constructing the first segment of road (which will be completed) had inadvertently blasted tons of rock into the river.

Clean up your act, the agencies said.

Forget it altogether, the state highway commission said.

"The more we heard about what was happening and what we were dealing with, the more it just made sense to take our money elsewhere," says Transportation Commission member Charles Brown. "It's not a scare tactic, but it is meant to send a message."

To Chuck Neal, it's a defense worthy of O.J. Simpson: Camouflage your guilt by attacking your critics. The highway cheerleaders, as he views it, have thrown out a $50 million road to dodge a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of wildlife assistance.

"(Highway builders) have a standard design," biologist Roybal says. "Getting them to sway from that for environmental reasons is almost impossible."

Following the emergency chamber of commerce meeting, members mobilized to deal with what a recent newsletter called the "Cody-Yellowstone Highway Reconstruction Crisis." The chamber said it wants to "instill a sense of fiscal responsibility" in the wildlife mitigation, which to skeptics sounded a lot like diluting the mitigation to please the state highway folks.

Forest Service Supervisor Aus said she believes the Forest Service's prior approval of the highway before any mitigation was cemented and before she came to Cody "was, in retrospect, a rather poor decision."

It's ironic that the North Fork Highway passes into Yellowstone National Park, where the federal government is reworking its road. The in-park work has turned out to be an engineer's dream: It drew very little criticism, no citizen appeals and no lawsuits. It's now leagues ahead of the state project - so far ahead, in fact, that it will almost surely be done years sooner and at a much lower cost.

For more information or to voice opinions on the North Fork Highway reconstruction, contact: Shoshone National Forest, 808 Meadow Lane, Cody, WY 82414-4516 (307/527-6241); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4000 Morrie Ave., Cheyenne, WY 82001 (307/772-2374); or Wyoming Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 1708, Cheyenne, WY 82003-1708 (307/777-4379).

The writer lives in Cody, Wyoming.

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