A two-week effort to haze a popular mother grizzly bear and her cubs away from Highway 26/287 over Togwotee Pass where they have been attracting hundreds of gawkers is showing results, a top federal wildlife official said Monday.
Federal agents have successfully hazed bear 863, AKA Felicia, and her cubs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley said.
“We want her to be afraid of humans,” she said. People stop to see and photograph her, creating a cluster that’s more dangerous than bear jams in nearby national parks where travelers are attuned to wildlife.
Along with traffic dangers on Togwotee Pass, people could get too close to Felicia causing her to charge, and she and her cubs could come to learn that humans pose no danger and may even bring rewards.
“We can’t mess around if we believe there’s a threat to human safety,” Cooley said.
The scare tactics include shooting non-lethal projectiles like the bean bags that are directed at the mother’s rump and other fatty tissue. Wildlife specialists also shoot noise-making rounds that scream or bang.
Some Felicia supporters, however, believe the USFWS may be pushing the mother and her cubs out of a relatively safe environment she’s successfully exploited for six years and into other danger. They wonder whether hazing will keep her from her food or make her come out only at night when she’s more likely to get hit by a car or truck. They’re fearful that if hazing doesn’t work, the USFWS will trap and move her into a more dangerous environment where a male bear might attack her cubs.
They’re also worried officials might even kill her, an option they say is a last resort but a possibility nevertheless.
“In some ways, Felicia is being set up for a fall,” said Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer who lives in nearby Grand Teton National Park and has photographed grizzly bears for decades. To change what Felicia has been doing for six years, “that’s a big jump,” he said.
Cooley’s team will evaluate the situation with partners like Wyoming Highway Patrol, Game and Fish and the Bridger-Teton National Forest when 14 days of hazing ends Wednesday.
“We are seeing a change in her behavior,” Cooley said. “When a car pulls up, she runs away.”
An old problem intensifies
“This is not a new problem,” said Dan Thompson, large carnivore supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s kind of continued to elevate over the course of a few years now.”
Game and Fish trapped Felicia on the Beartooth Highway near the north side of Yellowstone National Park in 2015 when she was 2 years old, he said. It is likely passersby had fed her and got her used to, perhaps attracted to, people and cars.
Agency workers moved Felicia south and she took up residence along the road over Togwotee Pass where more people began seeing her regularly.
“2019 is where things kind of really blew up,” Thompson said. “There’s a cult-like following that started then when she lived by the road.”
Despite a multi-agency effort that included no-stopping signs, people didn’t behave. “There’s a lot of just thumbing their nose at authority,” Thompson said of the scofflaws.
Game and Fish did “heavy hazing” of Felicia between May 18-21 this year, he said, resulting in “some behavioral changes” by the mother bear.
“We put together a fairly intensive effort,” he said. Still, “people would come [and say] ‘You can’t stop me from stopping.’”
Game and Fish officials talked to their federal counterparts, which led to the current hazing effort. The ongoing two-week aversive conditioning by USFWS may be unique.
“To my knowledge,” Thompson said, “it’s the most intense behavioral conditioning [directed at] a single wild animal.”
Cooley said the federal agency is “piling a bunch of resources into this 14-day effort.” But its authority is limited. The Fish and Wildlife Service “can’t write a ticket for people walking up to the bear,” she said.
That could happen in Grand Teton or Yellowstone, but the USFWS would have to launch an investigation into whether a person was harassing a threatened species — a form of “take” in agency regulatory parlance — before resolving a relatively simple situation.
Meantime, “I know the Forest Service cannot enforce the speed limit,” Cooley said, and Wyoming Highway Patrol can’t post a patroller on Togwotee for 14 days.
“We’re allowing her to cross the road when she’s determined to cross,” Cooley said. “There’s people out there dawn to dusk monitoring her.”
For some Felicia supporters, wildlife managers are looking in the wrong direction.
“What needs to be hazed is the people,” said Sue Cedarholm, a photographer and wildlife advocate who has worked closely with Mangelsen.
Game and Fish’s Thompson agreed. “In essence,” he said, “we have habituated roadside behavior of people.” Cell-phone calls and social media postings of a sighting “brought out the masses,” he said.
Instead of focusing on people, Mangelsen said he believes wildlife managers recently wrongly used aversive conditioning on some grizzly yearlings. “They couldn’t manage the people so they decided to manage the cubs,” he said.
One was euthanized after it pilfered food at a development in Jackson Hole. Wyoming Wildlife Advocates is petitioning for more tolerance.
“Visitors and photographers … are also not being managed,” a letter to wildlife managers reads. “With record-setting crowds in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks this past year and expected in the future, more staff will be needed to properly manage bear jams.”
Mangelsen, Cedarholm, Thompson and Cooley agree that a visitor who has traveled hundreds of miles to see a grizzly bear won’t keep driving if he or she spies Felicia and her cubs by the highway.
“You have people from all over coming,” Cooley said. “This might be the only grizzly bear they see in their life and that’s a pretty cool thing.
“If the bear was not there,” however, “people would not be stopping,” she said. “Just because she’s there — that is the ultimate problem,” Cooley said. “She hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Cedarholm said she and others can easily raise money to start a wildlife brigade like one in Grand Teton National Park where a trained and uniformed corps keeps the public at bay when a grizzly appears.
Game and Fish’s Thompson isn’t sure a brigade would work on Togwotee Pass. “There’s a lot more manageability in the national park,” he said, and Cooley agreed.
Given the limited and mixed jurisdictions on the Togwotee Pass highway, “it’s not as simple as writing a ticket,” she said.
Rock star grizzlies
The Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing people to take the agency’s bear safety pledge as part of its #keepbearswild campaign. A graphic distributed over social media and elsewhere promotes ethical wildlife viewing and safe practices around grizzlies.
Grizzly supporters in Jackson Hole are sending out a similar message; activist Cindy Campbell distributed a graphic urging all to “Please show you care … Steer clear of Togwotee bear.”
But Cedarholm and Mangelsen believe agencies that manage wildlife populations don’t account for the personalities and “rock-star status” of some individuals. Grizzlies like Felicia and grizzly 399 in Grand Teton, arguably the most famous grizzly in the world, are two of a handful of individuals that are ambassadors for the species and for conservation.
“There’s only like seven,” Mangelsen said of the stars. “If you lost one, you really have lost the capability of [educating] many millions and millions of people.
“The importance of the bears,” he says, “is not only to the ecosystem but to tourism.”
Underlying advocates’ hazing skepticism are doubts that aversive conditioning will work with Felicia or some other grizzlies.
“Given the way it’s currently being framed, it’s a no-win situation,” said David Mattson, a grizzly scholar in Livingston, Montana. He agrees there is “preliminary success” keeping Felicia from the highway.
But how well aversive conditioning works depends on the situation and the bear. An adult male, for example, is “probably one of the easiest bears to deter,” Mattson said, “because they have so many options.”
In contrast, a female with cubs like Felicia “has made a habit of living along a road … for a good reason,” he said. “Along the road there is a payoff, I would argue a substantial payoff,” he said. “There are acute threats, mortal threats, in the backcountry.
“If you want bears living in roadside niches,” Mattson said, “you’ve got to be looking at the human side of the situation.”
All options are on the table for the next management move, Cooley said.
“It’s kind of an experiment,” Cooley said of the hazing. “We don’t want to move her. We don’t have a whole lot of options.
“Our job is to conserve bears, for sure,” she said. “With any type of grizzly bear conflict, if human safety is at risk, that’s a threshold that’s always in our mind.
“The fact that they’re famous makes it a lot harder,” she said of Felicia and others. “If you had a lot of bears that were managed in this way, it’s a lot of resources.
“I’m glad we’re doing this,” she said, but “it’s hard.”