Grizzly and livestock conflicts growing near Jackson Hole

Aug 16, 2013

Ranchers grazing livestock in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Drainage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are finding it more difficult to prevent their cattle from becoming the next tempting meals for hungry grizzly bears proliferating in the region.

About 15,000 cattle and sheep are permitted to graze on 10 allotments in the area, making themselves tempting prey for the carnivores. An estimated 2,300 head of cattle graze on the 323-squaremile Upper Green River allotment.

The grazing complex on the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson Hole encompasses 207,000 acres.

Since 2010, wildlife management agencies have killed 10 grizzlies determined responsible for cattle killings near Union Pass, where bears and cattle overlap. Between 1999 and 2012, there were nearly 460 grizzly conflicts with cattle and sheep in the area. Nearly 40 grizzlies were relocated in addition to those killed.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said many cattle producers were alarmed to hear rumblings that environmentalists were pushing the U.S. Forest Service to completely remove domestic livestock from the allotments if more grizzlies than specifically recommended were relocated or killed within three years.

Magagna was among those who attended a meeting a few weeks ago at Pinedale, WY, with ranchers, conservationists and agency officials, which seemed to allay concerns and made headway toward mutually resolving the issue, he told Western Livestock Journal.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD) had agreed that no more than three female grizzlies out of 11 grizzlies could be removed over the next three years from the allotments. “As it turns out, this year they’ve already removed two,” Magagna said.

Fifteen years ago, typical cattle losses in the summer were 3 percent to 4 percent of herds. Now, that rate typically is 7 percent to 9 percent because of bears and wolves killing the cows and calves, Magagna said.

“There is plenty of evidence that the bears ought to be delisted” as endangered species, Magagna said, noting bear depredation of livestock has been an ongoing issue since the federal government initiated full recovery of grizzlies. As their population grows, the grizzlies disperse into wider territory, he said.

“As bear numbers continue to increase, conflicts are going to grow. They’re not going to shrink. … Some years it seems bears are a bigger problem than wolves. Some years it’s the reverse. Bears take on a full-grown cow without any hesitation.”

Marauding grizzlies are given “three strikes” before they are killed. Ranchers are not advocating the elimination of a huge number of bears, but rather prefer dealing effectively with problem bears, Magagna said. “These permitees have taken extraordinary steps to address the issue. … They need to operate without the threat of removing livestock. Certain bears tend to habituate to killing cattle.”

Albert Sommers, president of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, said the first bear killing of a cow in the area was in 1993. “One of the old ranchers said, ‘That’s a bear kill.’ The rest of us had never seen one. We kind of laughed it off.”

By 1995, several cattle were killed by grizzlies. Last year more than 60 cattle kills by bears and wolves were confirmed on the allotment, mostly calves. All in all, more than 200 calves have been lost to predators, Sommers said.

The loss of calves before 1990 was 2 percent per herd. Now, the calf loss averages between 8 percent to 10 percent. “What this really shows you is the success of the grizzly bear recovery program,” said Sommers, who praised WGFD’s reimbursement program for ranchers who lose livestock to carnivores. “That helps take the sting out of what could be a horrible situation.”

Referring to rumors that environmentalists are ramping up opposition to cattle grazing in the area, Sommers told WLJ he fears there will be a push by some to claim ranchers are taking too many bears as they protect their herds.

“If we don’t take those real problem bears, those losses will be too hard to handle. We have to bend both ways. The system is working. It’s not perfect,” he said. “We don’t raise cattle to feed bears. We raise cattle to feed America.”

Ranchers had to remove cattle completely from one small drainage area the week of Aug. 11 because there were too many bears there, he mentioned.

As long as WGFD and USFWS continue to remove problem bears, the predation rate can be managed, Sommers said, emphasizing the bear population is at saturation levels. The killings of cattle seemed to drop recently after three bears were removed, he said.

One of the riders recently sent out to monitor grazing herds found two black wolves and a grizzly feasting on a cow carcass. When the rider came back later, the wolves were gone, but six grizzlies were eating on the dead animal. Two days later, when cattle were moved, two more grizzlies were flushed out, he said.

“From July through August, you can get on any cow trail you want and see grizzly tracks,” Sommers said, mentioning his family started homesteading the area more than 100 years ago.

Like Sommers’ family, Charles Price’s family also has ranched and farmed in the area for many decades— on the Green River south of Daniel, WY. Price said when he first moved his cattle onto an allotment this year, “bears actually came down and met us. They started killing immediately.”

Price recounted several deadly bear encounters experienced by his livestock.

One removed female bear caught in 2012 returned to the area and killed 11 or 12 more cattle, more than it could eat, including a calf as soon as it entered the allotment, he said. A male bear caught as a cub in 2008 has made repeated returns and killed sheep and cattle.

Price has seen a steady increase in the number of grizzlies in the area in recent years and said USFWS has badly underestimated the bear population. He is seeing more female grizzlies with cubs moving into areas and fewer black bears. “The grizzlies have kind of pushed the black bears out, competing for food and habitat.”

Three wolf kills have been confirmed this year, down from previous years when there were no controlled hunts. “If a pack gets a calf, it will tear him up. You won’t find anything except a grease spot,” Price said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent