Wyoming Game and Fish Department Large Carnivore Biologist Zach Turnbull determines the cause of death on a calf in 2014 as range rider/cowboy Todd Stearns looks on. (provided/Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish)

KENDALL — After about an hour’s work skinning a fetid, fly-swarmed, half-rotted cow carcass, Zach Turnbull — a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist who investigates suspected grizzly bear killings of livestock — has earned himself a break.

He’s wrestled the dead cow, which has been degrading in the sun for a couple of days, carefully slicing among layers of excrement, organs, bones and muscles. It’s a twisted mess that soils his boots and surgical gloves and taints his hair with a stomach-turning stench.

Zach Turnbull. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr/WyoFile)

The question he must answer is whether this is a natural death or a bovicide. Did the cow tip over by itself, perhaps from eating poisonous larkspur or being struck by lightning, or was it dragged down and chomped on by a grizzly or a pack of wolves?

Turnbull has earned a break but he can’t relax his guard. Every now and then he peers over his shoulder into the dark timber. On the half mile hike from his pickup truck, which he left parked on a dirt two-track high above the Green River on the Bridger-Teton National Forest near the Continental Divide, he saw and followed grizzly prints — distinguished by the marks left by the bear’s two-and-a-half inch claws.

Other clues make Turnbull certain a bear had been on the carcass that morning. His mind holds memories of grizzly-bear charges and the time one bear erupted — unbelievably — from under the only willow bush on the landscape.

His job in this uneasy environment, to which he brings bear spray, a sidearm and sometimes Dunkel, his German spaniel, is to best determine the cow’s demise. Wyoming Game and Fish Department will pay landowners for damage caused, “more likely than not,” by big or trophy game, but to be compensated, someone must prove the carnivores did the killing.

“A black cow laying in the sun, it’s just not that easy,” Turnbull says about the mess he just probed and skinned. “It’s not a perfect world.”

“I skin or look ’til I feel like I’ve got an answer,” he says. “Or I’m done skinning.”

$1.5 million

On this hot July 18, Turnbull isn’t satisfied he has an answer on this cow until he is done skinning. He drags the hide out from the morass of would-be hamburger and lays it out in the sagebrush and grass.

He examines the underside of the skin, looking for puncture holes from the teeth of a bear or wolf, rips from a grizzly’s claws.

“For being as ugly as she is, she’s pretty clean,” he says. “Clean” meaning there’s no sign of attack. “She doesn’t have a hole in her except where she’s [been] fed on.”

A rider herds cattle along the Green River Drift route to Forest Service pastures in the Upper Green River drainage on June 17, 2020. Some of the livestock will inevitably be killed and eaten by grizzly bears while grazing the high country. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Although he will make his report later, at this point he considers the “more likely than not” standard of predation. “I’d say she’s far below that,” he says.

Turnbull’s 16 years’ field experience from his post in Pinedale has earned him credibility. In 2019 the Green River Cowbelles/Cattlewomen honored him as a Friend of Agriculture for his work. Ranchers called him responsive, responsible and fair.

“I’ve been there on those kills,” says Charles Price, one of the ranchers whose stock grazes near Union Pass. “I have a lot of respect for him.”

“He goes through it and looks — there’s maggots crawling, flies, it smells bad,” Price says. “He sits there and does the work. I couldn’t do it myself.”

Price doesn’t always agree with Turnbull’s verdicts and has “bumped heads with him a few times,” he says. But, “most of the time I would bet on his call even when I disagree with him,” Price says. “I support him.” 

In FY 2020, which ended June 30, the department paid Upper Green River grazers $125,881 for 17 individual claims of losses to grizzly bears or wolves, according to information supplied by the agency. Claims can include more than one stock animal.

The statewide compensation program cost about $2.5 million to run in FY 19. Across Wyoming in that year, Game and Fish received claims for about $1.5 million and paid about $1.4 million.

Landowners made 193 claims of all types — for everything from broken fences to crop damage to grizzly-consumed cattle. Game and Fish paid 99% of them, according to the agency.

Most damage done to cattle

Livestock suffered the biggest hit, accounting for 68% of the damage amount paid, or $959,007, in FY ’19, Game and Fish figures show. Grizzly bears and cattle are prominent in the figures.

By species, payments for grizzly bear depredation accounted for 46% of total claims, or $646,168. Wolf depredation payments accounted for 14% of payments — $201,291.

The Game and Fish compensation program cost about $2.5 million in FY ’19 and a significant portion went to cattle losses. (Kristen Lovelace/WyoFile)

For comparison, Game and Fish paid $298,027 for damage caused by elk — crop consumption and other things — which amounted to 21% of all damage claims.

Among livestock damages, 83% of payments or $791,464 covered cattle losses. Game and Fish confirmed grizzly bears killing 176 cattle in FY ‘19, ranging from 76 steer calves to two full-grown cows.

Another comparison: Agency investigators confirmed that wolves that year killed 56 head of cattle.

Grizzlies ate more cattle than sheep; 92% of grizzly compensation — $593,130 — went for dead bovines. Game and Fish doled out the most in the Cody and Pinedale regions. Cody accounted for half the payments statewide, the Pinedale area 17%.

Wyoming legislators waived the state’s sovereign immunity — a legal construct in which a government generally can’t be held responsible for carrying out duties like overseeing wildlife — for the compensation program.

Based on a study on the Blackrock Allotment on Forest Service range on Towgowtee pass in the 1990s, the Department set cattle compensation at 1.67 head for every confirmed kill. Researchers justified the multiplier after tagging cattle with mortality transmitters, letting riders find the dead ones, and then counting those the cowboys didn’t find.

When depredations began to accelerate on Union Pass, the agency in 2004 changed its model and adopted a multiplier of up to 3.5, depending on the terrain and other factors.

The mortality rate for Upper Green River Cattle Association members in the early 1990s was around 2%, rancher and association president Albert Sommers wrote in a legal declaration. Depredations have been as high as an average of 14% for calves.

“Since 1995, Association members have lost over 1,000 head of cattle,” Sommers wrote earlier this year.

The payment formula is complex. After an investigator determines that stock was killed by a wolf, grizzly or mountain lion — in an area the carnivore is classified a game animal and not a predator — he or she must determine the species of the killer. This is important because some carnivores, like grizzlies, can drag their kills off, hide or even bury them. Others don’t. 

The landscape also figures into the equation. Investigators won’t assign a multiplier in a pasture setting, for example, where all dead stock are likely to be found.

Finally, a rancher has to come up short at the end of the season — the agency won’t allow the multiplier to lead to compensation for stock that never existed. Game and Fish pays market price of the stock in question, be it steer, heifer, lamb, sheep or cow. 

Punctures, tears and bruising

When Turnbull begins his investigations, he first takes in the larger scene.

When approaching two separate carcasses on a recent outing, he walked around the messes, looking for grizzly, lion or wolf tracks. He searched for ear tags, often attached to cattle to help designate ownership. He sized up the trampled grass, the thrashed willows. He looked over his shoulder every now and then.

Zach Turnbull probes a dead cow on July 18, 2020, for evidence of carnivore bites. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Then he dug in. Turnbull took his time. He looked for holes in the hide — a telltale sign that can distinguish an attack from postmortem scavenging. 

“I need to see puncture marks and bruising associated with those puncture marks,” he says, “and in areas that are typical for wolves or bears.” Bruising indicates “the blood was pumping when that animal was bit or scratched.

“About 99% of grizzly-bear-killed beef are bit along that midline along the spine [with wounds] concentrated over the withers, the shoulders,” Turnbull says. About 25% that are killed by grizzlies are bit in the head around the eye orbits.

Wolves inflict wounds in different patterns — on the hind end, hams and flanks. Bites from wolves on the head are typically lower down on the snout than grizzly-inflicted wounds.

Turnbull shuns caliper measurements of fang-holes and the spacing between teeth in a bite mark. They are textbook measurements but he is in the field, not a lab.

“That hide is tough enough and moves enough and you get enough punctures and enough bites [that] it’s very difficult to sort out what matches what,” he said.

While the big picture is important, Turnbull doesn’t ignore the fine details. That day in the field, he took the hide and hooves of one calf home to wash and soak. Removing dirt and grime from the skin enabled him to better see if stains were from hemorrhaging or some other factor.

At the end of the July 18 investigations, Game and Fish had bad news for the stockgrowers. Turnbull could confirm that neither the calf — whose remains amounted to a sweater and pair of mittens worth of hide — nor the cow, had been killed by carnivores.

Repeat offenders

There’s another aspect to Turnbull’s job. When grizzlies are persistent in killing stock, Game and Fish will move or kill them.

That’s done in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But Turnbull often makes the first call.

Ranchers seek to avoid depredation. The cattle association has altered its grazing sequence to keep smaller animals farther from grizzly haunts and tried other methods.

In the heart of the mountains near the Continental Divide, Zach Turnbull tracks a grizzly bear near the site of a cow carcass he investigated on July 18, 2020. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“After the 2015 grazing season, the Association worked with an organization to sponsor a number of seminars focused on methods to reduce large carnivore depredation of cattle,” Sommers wrote in his declaration. “Out of these discussions, in an effort to reduce depredations, the Association tried cattle bunching techniques in one pasture system for two consecutive years.

“The goal was to make cattle less susceptible to predation,” he wrote. “[H]owever, the Association did not see any reduction in depredation and has discontinued that practice.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for when to trap or move a bear, Turnbull said. “One strike, two strikes, three strikes — it’s not really how it happens,” he said. “It’s not a really good description of conflict management.

“There are bears that we have captured and removed the first time we have captured them,” he said. “There are bears we have captured several times before we removed or didn’t remove them.”

Many bears that are caught depredating are moved miles away. But some of those find their way back to their familiar haunts.

Grizzlies have little proclivity to snuggle into a culvert cage and trip the trap-door trigger, even with bait secured inside. Once trap wary, they become difficult to snare even with a hidden leg-hold loop.

When called on to catch a grizzly, “I kind of look long-term,” Turnbull said. “I’m not going to just throw all my tricks or tools out there the first time. I try to use the minimum tool I can.”

Turnbull has tricks, rancher Price said. Price watched the biologist set a snare for one wily grizzly close to Union Pass along Teepee Creek.

Wary grizzlies will step, when they can, where other bears have gone. In this instance, Turnbull used obstacles to create an avenue to the bait, Price said. Then he created fake bear impressions on the ground, spaced according to the amble of a grizzly.

“Where there are footprints, they’ll step in the same place,” Price said. “He said ‘I’ll catch him by the right front foot’ … and he did.”

Turnbull acknowledges the public criticism of the entire grazing and conflict scene. “There’s a lot of considerations going into trap, not-trap,” he said. “There’s a lot the public doesn’t understand.”

The grazing allotments he oversees are probably the largest in North America, covering some 120 square miles, Turnbull said. It’s probably got more depredations than any other area, too, he said.

A recent Forest Service plan for grazing in the Upper Green River area contemplates the removal of more than 70 grizzly bears over 10 years — with no limit on the number of female grizzlies that might be lost. The forest plan provoked a lawsuit from conservationists, who believe, among other things, the figure is too high and that stock shouldn’t prevail to such a degree over the interest of wildlife.

The Upper Green River and Union Pass, “it’s a huge area,” Turnbull said. “We’re not talking about securing two milk cows in your backyard.”

To reduce depredations, managers regularly assess “what should we be doing that we haven’t already tried?” Turnbull said. “There usually is not as clear an answer, and that’s frustrating.”

Turnbull’s shot and killed a grizzly bear, he said. “It’s certainly not why you get into it,” he said of his job.

But with each killing, there may be a bit more tolerance from tradition-bound Wyomingites whose custom and culture call for the killing of predators, whose business model is based on a heritage that includes a long gun, lead in the air and accuracy.

When a depredating grizzly is out of the picture, “other animals may replace them that maybe don’t have the same behavior,” Turnbull said.

Only a segment of the grizzly population kills stock, Price said. “We’ve got a lot more bears,” than those that are depredating, he said. Many will scavenge but not kill.

“If you can keep the depredating bears down, and in my opinion remove them, you actually reduce the overall damage,” he said.

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Turnbull gets more out of his job than getting elbow deep into maggot-ridden cows. In July, for example, he saw a rare sight on Union Pass’s Mosquito Lake: two trumpeter swans with four cygnets.

He made a note to pass on to other biologists about the rare success on the roughly 8,900-foot lake. He’s got empathy for the bears, too, even as he does his job.

“When I set a trap, I want to catch it,” he said of a cattle-killing bear. But he recognizes their majesty.

“It’s neat watching them run off,” he said. “They’re charismatic.”

The conflict and death is taxing — on all sides. “At this point,” Turnbull said, “if I never had to set a bear trap, that would be just fine.”

Several misspellings of Turnbull’s name have been corrected — Ed.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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4 Comments

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  1. Angus –

    Thanks so much for you recent article in WyoFile on our son Zach. We’re sure you realized that he is a man of few words. Your writing enhanced our understanding of what he does. It’s hard work, he loves what he is doing and he thinks Wyoming is a phenomenal state.

    Sincerely,

    Debby and Hugh Turnbull

  2. Great informative article! I’d like to suggest a “training” to mitigate some of the Wolf Depredation that will continue to elevate in Wyoming and elsewhere. My research can be viewed at http://WWW.FENCEFLAGWOLFTRAINING.COM where the reader will be informed of “presently used tactics” to mitigate this issue, yet DO NOT solve long term objectives to “train”, to not trespass a barrier. DJK

  3. Agreed, nice work, on a complex and difficult subject. I like how you show the day to day work of someone involved in on the ground management of what it means to coexist.