Art Lawson wanted to show actor Martin Sensmeier what the Wind River Indian Reservation was all about when he came through town this summer. So Lawson, the Shoshone and Arapahoe Fish and Game’s director, took Sensmeier fishing in the backcountry. 

The actor — star of the upcoming film, “Wind River: The Next Chapter” — got a good glimpse of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho’s 2.2-million-acre reservation’s wild landscape. 

“A bear just popped up right in front of camp,” Lawson recalled of the July encounter. “The actor, actually, just shouted, ‘Bear, bear!’ and it turned around and ran the other way.” 

But reports of bold behavior from a large male grizzly bear continued. The grizzly was approaching occupied camps in the same area, the Wilson Creek drainage, high in the Winds at 10,000-plus feet. 

“There’s not a lot of tolerance for bears displaying this kind of behavior,” said Pat Hnilicka, the supervisory fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Lander office. “It’s a really dangerous situation.” 

Hnilicka spoke to Ben Jimenez, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear conflict coordinator, about the situation. Rather than wait for something bad to happen, they recommended the tribes close the whole area down. 

And the tribes were receptive. 

“We had to look out for people,” Lawson said. “But at the end of the day it was for wildlife, too. We don’t want the bear going into camps and thinking it’s OK. We wanted to give the bear a chance to move out of the area.” 

Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game closed down a chunk of the Wind River Range in late July and early August to avert backpackers from possible conflict with a bold male grizzly. The strategy seemed to work. (Shoshone and Arapahoe Fish and Game/Facebook)

Lawson brought the recommendation to the tribal councils, and they were supportive, too. On July 24 they announced that the entire Wilson Creek drainage, which includes a dozen-plus lakes scattered over thousands of acres, would be off-limits to all human access. That’s a precautionary strategy that’s rarely used on such a large swath of the landscape, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Large Carnivore Supervisor Dan Thompson said. 

“That’s a fairly unique situation,” he said. 

Thompson could think of some parallels. Grand Teton National Park, he pointed out, routinely closes down the Moose-Wilson Road when grizzly bears move into the area to feed on berries, and the park has done the same when elk carcasses, hunters and grizzlies are all in known close proximity to each other.  

Yellowstone National Park also has large bear management areas closed at predetermined dates every spring in places where there tends to be high densities of winter-killed elk and bison carcasses.

Still, wildlife and land managers haven’t often closed down large areas as a result of a single bold grizzly that hasn’t yet caused what bear managers characterize as a conflict. At least in the Wilson Creek drainage, the area closure seemed to work, if the goal was to avert a worse outcome for both people and grizzlies. 

“We had no further conflicts in the Wilson Creek area,” recalled Hnilicka, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “The tribes reopened it after about a three-week period, and it’s been pretty quiet since. It seems that the bear either moved on, or changed its behavior and is not causing those issues.”

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. Why are backpackers in there anyway?? I thought the Wind River Reservation was closed to whites/non-tribal members except when they are accompanied by enrolled Shoshone tribal members. Here in Hot Springs County we whites totally avoid trespassing on the Wind River Reservation. Are backpackers required to obtain a tribal permit prior to entering tribal lands high in the Winds?? Another question – does the USFWS have jurisdiction over grizzly bears and wolves on the Wind River Reservation – they are a sovereign nation after all. I thought I remembered the grizzly bear and wolf recovery plans excluding designated habitat on the Wind River Indian reservation – everyone knows there are sizeable populations of both grizzlies and wolves on the WRI reservation but those populations ARE IN ADDITION to the populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosysytem recovery areas; and thus, Wyoming Game and Fish Department is not responsible for their management or for depredation loss claims on the WRI reservation. This article seems correct in that the tribal council rightfully closed the area to backpackers but why were whites/non-tribal members visiting the area in the first place. Of significant importance to tribal members is their historical beliefs about the grizzlies and wolves whom they hold in high reverence – as a result the Shoshones can be expected to manage grizzlies and wolves entirely different than habitat outside their reservation boundaries. We non-tribal members must respect their sovereign nation status and stay off their lands except when tribally authorized.

  2. As an outdoor enthusiast, I would be disappointed if an area was close to backcountry use. However, I would certainly understand and fully support the restriction, knowing that the closure would be best for wildlife. All too often, humans are reluctant to yield to the welfare of wildlife.