Felicia and her cubs along the highway over Togwotee Pass. (Lara Agnew Photography)

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.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners used this photograph to illustrate the dangerous mix of bears, people and high-speed traffic on Togwotee Pass. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

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.”

Habituated humans

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.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using social media to promote practices to keep bears from becoming habituated. (USFWS)

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.”

Jackson Hole grizzly advocates have launched their own program to keep people away from Felicia. (Michelle Bevier McCormick/Cindy Campbell)

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.

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“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.”

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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  1. So the government can stop businesses opening during a health crisis and bankrupt them but stopping people from creating a traffic hazard and a resulting wildlife hazard, is a bridge too far?

    Banana Republic of Americanista.

    Sydney Australia

  2. Please don’t relocate her and her Cubs. I fear they may get separated. She has been there for 6 years and that is her home! Why should she and her Cubs have to pay the price of people not having the sense to leave her and her Cubs alone! There has to be another way to resolve this issue. Please save this beautiful family!?

  3. Bob: Felicia could easily be encouraged to leave Towgotee Pass by strategically feeding her carcasses but I thought of another problem. Feeding would attract lots of bears including black bears – 6 to 20 bears might show up for supper especially since they can smell food from many miles away. It could turn into another Churchill, Canada where many polar bears frequent the town dump, and yes, tourists do visit Churchill just to see the polar bears. It could be developed into a bear tourism industry for DuBois but how to control it???
    Vets could be a valuable source of meat simply because they have to put so many sick or injured animals down. This resource is usually wasted but could be a source of protein. The euthanizing drug would need to be checked to make sure it wouldn’t be passed on to the bears – remember how 1088 was passed on to eagles and hawks and killed them to – not just the coyotes.
    Our moth feeding sites typically attract 8-15 grizzly bears but they are remote and usually viewed by fly overs – I’m not sure what months the bears visit the moth sites – but it is a possibility for bear tourism – just a problem getting in and out.
    It would be easy to run a one carcass experiment with Felicia by dumping a carcass about 200 yards from the pass where she and her cubs could be watched – I suspect they would bed down in the trees within a quarter mile of where the carcass is covered by her before the next meal. But at least they wouldn’t be right on the highway.
    Felicia could charge about $2.00 per picture and use the money to go south for the winter – or north for the salmon run!! Anyway, there must be several options for helping her and the cubs but wildlife managers would probably veto most of them. Lee

  4. Grizzly Bears are dangerous wild animals. If you don’t believe it, just look at all the various YouTube videos showing how easily they kill other wildlife in Yellowstone and elsewhere. So it’s a disservice to the public, and the bears, when they are given warm, fuzzy, human names. In this case “Felicia.”

    I understand that bear advocates give popular bears human names in an effort to build sympathy and support for Grizzly. But this causes the public to see them more as pets, than the dangerous and efficient killing machines nature made them to be. Hence, tourists and some others think it’s ok to walk up to, or get their picture taken with a “Felicia”, “Marty Moose”, “Billy Bison” or whatever. The author contributes to this problem by making this article about “Felicia”, rather than bear 863.

  5. The best, most comprehensive article I’ve read on this subject, showing the diverse opinions of many. If the people element was taken out of the equation, it appears as though the bear’s chances for success would be much greater. But, with some people vowing to stay away from the bears, to the other end of the spectrum of them being famous and so they should be left alone so we can continue to see them, it appears any efforts to save 863 and keep her in her present location is doomed. When we are trying to save a grizzly bear, it would be nice if the total focus would be on the animal’s life instead of what humans want.

  6. The answer to this dilemma is to treat the humans the same as the bears, to level the playing field and send the correct message.
    If a human(s) has stopped on Towgotee and gotten out of the car to observe the bear being a bear and doing what bears do in season on home range , invoke the protocols. Shoot a tranquilizer dart into said human’s rump. Yank a tooth , snip some hair , take a blood sample , and install a GPS tracking collar.
    Then relocate the human(s) and car to Idaho or Montana before the sedative wears off.

    Do that a few times and the encroachment problem will miraculously go away …

    1. Love the idea!
      Here’s another (and quite serious) one. Install along the road a high-pitched sound that is irritating to humans. If they get out of their cars, they have to put up with something that sounds like very loud tinnitus. If it hurts, they won’t stay around to gawk and photograph.

  7. She’s awesome. How about feeding her road kill deer or antelope about a mile away from the highway? Its a natural food and not human food. Then, slowly increase the distance until she’s 2-3 miles away. It would take helicopter drops of carcasses – she might eat a carcass every 3-6 days and when winter comes they’ll all be fat. Its a natural solution and a small group of supporters could help feed her – not too much different than zoo feeding. After all, bears are scavengers and omnivores. Almost the same as grizzlies eating gut piles left by elk hunters – they respond to the sound of gun fire and smell of course. Lets feed them venison steaks!!!

    1. Interesting. As a wildlife biologist having worked with several prominent grizzly biologists, I think this idea has merit.

      The Agencies involved are conservative by nature. There needs to be some serious consideration to meeting the needs of those who love bears and are in awe of them. Some form of people management that recognizes the value of bear watching should be considered. I am sure private money could be found if good ideas were found workable. Not easy, complex, but lets get to work on it! I do believe that “bear tourism” could be a shot in the arm to my town’s economy.

      Bob Hitchcock, Dubois, WY

      1. Good points on the carcasses , guys. I just want to add an overarching comment. One of the greatest failures of modern Wildlife Conservation – as opposed to monetarily managing for perennial harvests of big game and put-and-take fish and fowl – is understating / undermanaging for landscape scale ecology. To narrow it down to the topic at hand, today’s land managers and game fish and fowl farmers removed a key element from the equation : Carcasses. We no longer allow or even approve of having decomposing carcasses littered anbout the open spaces and public range. Yet carcasses play a vital role in the ecological chain. Not having them effectively breaks the natural food chain. All the creatures from bacteria and invertebrate up past mammalian scavengers to those vultures and raptors circling overhead spent millions of years evolving to dine on and depend on dead meat across the landscape. Example : 60 million Bison were also a 24/7 /365 all you can eat buffet for the vast interior of North America. The American West used to be one vast carcass dump. The ecological principle of that is simple and blunt.

        Our perceived problems with Grizzlies and Grey Wolves and the mesopredators could be mitigated by scattering carcasses inside on the wild side of the human-wildlife interface. Nasty smelly work, but all those rancher’s cattle that end up dead from a hundred causes could be put to better use than just heaving them into the boneyard or established carcass dump. We have one of those carcass dumps a few miles north of Cody for surrounding cattlemen’s dead detritus. You can’t see it from the highway but you always see the buzzards and ravens over it.

        Let’s start with Towgotee Pass and a few other strategic apex predator mosh pits and see what works.