Nearly a dozen grizzlies euthanized since September

Deciding fate of conflict bears a team effort

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Once again grizzly bears are under federal management, and with change comes new protocols for human-bear conflicts. Hanging in the balance is a grizzly’s life — whether a bear is relocated or euthanized.

Hilary Cooley, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the person now in charge of making those management calls on all grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

When there’s a conflict — say, a grizzly on a back porch in Wapiti — the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore biologists in the field call Brian DeBolt, the carnivore conflict manager. DeBolt then calls Cooley and all opinions are taken into consideration during a conference call.

“Anytime we have any kind of conflict, we consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” DeBolt said. “We have internal discussion first, discussing the situation and what we feel is the appropriate action based on talking with federal and regional land managers. There’s lots of discussion until we all agree on the course.”

Adding a program manager into the mix is both an effort to make the best decision on individual cases as well as part of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s efforts to be transparent; in Montana, field agents call Cooley directly.

The calls coming in from all three states ring at all times of the day, Cooley said.

“... They all have to call me at some point,” she said.

As of Friday, Cooley had only been involved in the process for about a week and a half, but she’d already been busy.

It’s been a particularly bad month for grizzly conflicts amid a bad year. About 30 bears have been lethally “removed” in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in 2018. That includes 11 euthanizations just since Sept. 1.

The removals make up about 60 percent of the 53 known and probable grizzly deaths in the region this year. There were 56 known and probable grizzly deaths in all of 2017. That’s just three more mortalities than the first nine months of this year, and hunting season — considered a high conflict period — has just begun.

The stats are kept by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a division of the U.S. Geological Survey. Data shows that the speed at which grizzlies have been removed has almost doubled in the past three quarters. Compared to the same time period in 2017, the number of bears euthanized in the past 40 days is more than 60 percent higher.

“Anywhere where grizzly bears and people coexist, grizzlies are going to die,” DeBolt said. “More grizzlies means more conflicts.”

Despite being a short-timer, Cooley is no stranger to the process. Her master’s degree and doctorate both come in mountain lion biology. Her doctoral thesis explored the effects of hunting on the big cats. She studied with Dan Thompson, large carnivore program manager for the Game and Fish, who also studied big cats before coming to Wyoming.

Cooley is a former Wyoming resident, working as a biologist in the state for four years. She has also worked as the northwest region large carnivore coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service and in Alaska with polar bears. Coming into the job, she knew deciding which bears would live to see another day and which would die would be part of her job. Making the call to euthanize is tough. It’s not a part of the job anyone in bear management likes, but Cooley’s job is easier thanks to the hard work of Game and Fish biologists, she said.

“These guys work really hard. They get a bad rap, but are really good at what they do,” Cooley said.

The feeling is mutual, DeBolt said.

“We have a good working relationship,” he said. “It’s never a unilateral decision.” 

The decisions aren’t off the cuff. The teams use a set of guidelines created more than 30 years ago for determining action in conflicts. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Guidelines were published in 1986, but took nearly a dozen years to complete. Shoshone National Forest officials took the lead in developing the guidelines, but all federal and state agencies working with grizzly bears contributed to the publication.

In the 100-page document are tables of conflict resolution scenarios. The scenarios run from the reporting of a nuisance bear to capture and possible resolutions. While the guidelines are referenced in each conflict, there is flexibility in every decision, Cooley said.

“The guideline tables are not rules, just guidelines. They’re still useful today and our people try to stick to the guidelines,” she said. “But there are many tricky situations. They’re all tough decisions, but in the end if you don’t do anything it can be even worse if the [conflict bear] causes more problems in the future.”

DeBolt says the Game and Fish is committed to doing what it can to manage conflicts, but ultimately all decisions are now up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

(Editor's note: This version of the story and the headline have been corrected to reflect that 11 grizzly bears have been euthanized since Sept. 1, not Oct. 1.)

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