Large carnivore management evolving

Game and Fish biologist opens up about lions, bears and wolves

Posted 5/21/24

With Wyoming’s bear, wolf and mountain lion populations on the minds of many in the state as adventurers and tourists head to the hills for the summer season, Game and Fish Large Carnivore …

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Large carnivore management evolving

Game and Fish biologist opens up about lions, bears and wolves


With Wyoming’s bear, wolf and mountain lion populations on the minds of many in the state as adventurers and tourists head to the hills for the summer season, Game and Fish Large Carnivore Biologist Luke Ellsbury took the mic at the Coe Auditorium in traditional red shirt, wool vest and a full salt and pepper beard that would make Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) proud.

Ellsbury is part of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s elite Large Carnivore Management team based in Cody. He’s one of only 10 wildlife biologists tasked with conservation decisions and conflict mitigation, non-stop work that has them on the run throughout the year. He was invited to speak at the Draper Museum of Natural History at a time when the department has been under attack — mostly by those who don’t live in the state. The recent Sublette County wolf abuse case has weighed heavily on the entire department as those outraged by the case took out their frustrations on the red shirts. Game and Fish employees have faced harsh criticism after the incident, even receiving threats to their safety and sadly their pets, and been on the phones and answering a large volume of emails, according to an official.

First on Ellsbury’s list was explaining before the attentive crowd the difference between biologically suitable habitat and socially suitable habitat. For example, grizzly bears could most certainly make a good life in the Bighorn Mountains, but the probability of conflicts with humans and livestock are too high to allow the increasingly dense populations in the Northern Rockies to take hold there.

“[There’s] an ever-growing aspect to what we do with the department as these species — not just grizzly bears and wolves — But as all these species recover and expand,” he said. “They're moving into more heavily human dominated landscapes and it's our job to try and make that work,” he said.

The team strives to include local expertise in developing objectives and making management decisions, with a priority on instructing how to live safely live with the large predators.

“When it comes to the public, there's a wide spectrum of viewpoints,” he said. “So we have to sift through both the polarity of it, but also just the emotion around each species. And of course, some species have a little bit of more emotion around them than others.”

Management differs for each species. In-house data on black bear and mountain lion populations, which drives management decisions and hunting seasons, are largely assessed through trends in harvest data. But when it comes to wolf and grizzly bear monitoring, “It’s a bit more intensive,” Ellsbury said.

The extra work is due to current and previous listing statuses, resulting in agreements with the federal government. With wolves, the department is in the 19th year of prerequisites after the species was delisted. Like lions and black bears, the state develops harvest regulations based on population and biological estimates. But with wolves and grizzly bears, they have to estimate populations, mating pairs and age ranges (among other data) each year, instead of every three years with lions and black bears.

Last year, Wyoming had about 28 wolves harvested in the trophy game management area. The department is able to do accurate counts thanks to the large number of wolves fitted with radio collars every year.

“This is a great tool for us, especially when it comes to looking at pack size and documenting reproduction,” Ellsbury said.

The department’s agreement requires at least 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs. But there are almost twice that number of wolves, with 190 wolves and 17 breeding pairs in the monitoring areas, he said. Last year the department collared 39 wolves across 18 packs within that trophy game management area and collared another 40 this past winter.

“We have a pretty robust collaring sample out there,” he said.

Ellsbury pointed out that when wolf populations are high, higher rates of livestock predation are expected. The state reimburses ranchers for their livestock losses. This year grizzly bear and wolf reimbursements were about $1 million. They anticipate total annual reimbursements, including crop and infrastructure losses by ungulates and other wildlife, to be more than $2 million or about 2% of their entire budget.

“As we began to hunt and do some management actions early on in 2017 and 2018, we brought that pack populations back towards our objectives,” he said.

The U.S. House voted last week to end federal protection for gray wolves, approving a bill that would remove them from the endangered species list across the lower 48 states.

A handful of Democrats joined with Republicans in passing the bill. The measure now goes to the Senate, but it appears doomed after the White House issued a statement Monday warning that the Biden administration opposes it. Congress shouldn’t play a role in determining whether a species has recovered, the statement said.

The Republican-authored bill comes amid national debate on the wolves’ future. Hunters and farmers across the country maintain the species is stable and have been complaining for years about wolf attacks on game species and livestock. They want to be allowed to legally kill the animals.

Conservationists insist the population remains fragile after being hunted to near-extinction by the 1960s.

In 2011 Congress stripped Endangered Species Act protection from gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Trump administration removed protections across the rest of the continental U.S. in 2020. However, a federal judge blocked the change except in the northern Rocky Mountains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this past February rejected requests from conservation groups to restore protections in that six-state Rockies region, allowing Idaho, Montana and Wyoming’s state-sponsored wolf hunts to continue. The agency estimated the wolf population in the region at almost 3,000 animals at the end of 2022.

For black bears, hunting interest continues to grow while population estimates are increasing slightly. But, it’s a story of two bears in the state. While grizzly bears have been one of the most studied wildlife species on the planet — becoming a political football and capturing the attention of many wildlife enthusiasts — funds available for black bear conservation studies are relatively limited. The department has studied the species, Large Carnivore Team Supervisor Dan Thompson said recently. Yet, their density had remained somewhat of a mystery until a recent population study was funded.

The highest density of black bears in the Big Horn Basin is in the Bighorn Mountain range with about 9.5 bears per 100-square-kilometers (about 38.6 square miles). The highest reported in the state is in the Sierra Madres, with about 11 bears per 100-square miles.

Grizzly bears receive massive amounts of attention from the team, as they have for about 50 years since they were first listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But the landscape is changing for grizzly bear management as the population continues to grow. One of the factors is the constant influx of new residents and the loss of open lands due to new subdivisions.

“We all see the people moving in. And it's not just here in the Basin, but it's across the whole ecosystem where you get off the mountain, and there's a lot of people in a lot of new spots,” Ellsbury said.

In 2023, there were 28 reported grizzly bear mortalities in Wyoming in 2023, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 18 of which were listed as lethal management removals. Most of those were outside suitable habitat called the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA); roughly 50,000 square kilometers (about 19,300 square miles).

“That’s representative of suitable habitat, both biologically and socially. We know this is where we can have bears for long term where they’re viable, [where] they'll do well,” he said.

Prior to lethal removal of a grizzly bear, the large carnivore team has typically trapped the bear at least once and attempted relocation prior to removal — a labor-intensive process. Before either management decision, they’re required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as long as the species is listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act.

More recently relocations have become difficult as the density of grizzly bears in the DMA has increased, Thompson said, which makes it hard to justify bringing a conflict bear from outside the DMA back to suitable habitat.

Ellsbury said one of the best parts of Wyoming biologists studying grizzly bears for about five decades is there are several on the team, like himself, who have 20 to 25 years of experience studying the species.

“The guys that have been here for 20 to 25 years have seen a lot of change versus the guys who have been on the ground five years. But it does really epitomize this conservation success story,” he said.

One new research method the state is undertaking in conjunction with the National Forest Service is hiring an Alaskan team to come to Wyoming and capture grizzlies by helicopter in the backcountry, rather than relying on most of their experience and research coming with front range bears.

“Each animal that we capture and that we collar and monitor, it gives us an insight into the entire population,” Ellsbury said.

But he had a warning about current management and population increases as the bear is listed for protections.

“I think that managing this population as threatened into perpetuity, it's going to lead to a lot more challenges, and we can only have our hands tied for so long,” he said.

At the end of the presentation that included many participants watching online, Ellsbury opened the lecture to questions and comments. Not one of those comments was based on the Sublette County wolf abuse case. It was probably a relief to the biologist after all the vitriol that has flooded the state since March. However, Ellsbury is accustomed to facing tough questions and would likely handled it in his typically kind, easy-speaking style that effectively gets a point across without offense.