Wyoming grizzly near road leads to crowds -- and a problem
JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Rangers equipped with rubber bullets, beanbags, paintballs and noisemakers recently descended upon a popular grizzly’s favorite roadside hangout and created an uproar. The action, intended to keep the bear and the public safe, sparked criticism from wildlife advocates, particularly after officials raised the possibility of euthanizing the bear if hazing did not work.
Felicia the grizzly bear spends her days grazing on the clover planted along Togwotee Pass, not far from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. She and her cubs have become an inadvertent roadside attraction. Visitors who come to Wyoming for its wildlife pull to the side of the highway and, ignoring the signs warning them not to, leave their cars to get a closer look at what is often the first grizzly they’ve seen.
“I think human nature is, they want to see the bear,” said Savannah Rose Burgess, a wildlife photographer who often documents Felicia from the safety of her appropriately parked car. Burgess feels a close connection to the bear and is sympathetic to the excitement of those stopping to see her, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” she said. “I don’t think we should be shaming people because they want to see a grizzly bear.” The problem is the failure of passersby to behave safely. Growing numbers of tourists mean even more danger, for humans and Felicia alike.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Felicia’s allure is a traffic accident — or a mauling — waiting to happen. On June 10, they began hazing her in an attempt to drive her away from the highway, out of view of the misbehaving public.
Felicia’s fans, meanwhile, argue that the bear jams and unsafe behaviors are a people, rather than bear, problem. Everyone involved agrees that hazing is far from an ideal solution, and euthanasia — which officials considered a last resort — is off the table for now. But nobody can seem to agree on a permanent fix.
Most of the people causing problems are from outside the region, making any sort of education campaign — one of the many proposed solutions — impossibly complicated.
“The problem is stemming from the fact that people just don’t have daily interactions with wildlife,” said Kristin Combs, executive director for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, “and then when they see wildlife in a place like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, they’re uncertain about how to behave around that wildlife.”
A protective mother
This isn’t the first time Felicia has caught the attention of wildlife agencies. She first attracted their notice in 2015, when she was found with a sibling in the Shoshone National Forest. At the time, she was only known by her number — 863. Within a year, her habit of loitering near roads led the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to trap and relocate her near Grand Teton.
Back then, before she became Felicia, 863 was known as Clover, after her habit of grazing on the clover and sweetgrass planted to stabilize Togwotee Pass. She was named Felicia by a photographer who has since passed away.
Felicia’s age is a matter of some debate: While records indicate that she was identified as a 2-year-old subadult, others contend that she was actually an orphaned yearling. It’s generally accepted that she is between 7 and 8 years old.
Her story attracted widespread interest in 2019, shortly after she gave birth to her first litter of cubs, Salt and Pepper. Because female grizzlies can only breed when they’re not caring for cubs, male grizzlies will attempt to kill cubs so that they can breed with their mothers. Salt fell victim to a male bear soon after leaving the den.
Mother bears like Felicia are believed to seek out roads for exactly this reason. Male bears prefer to remain in the backcountry, farther from humans.
“It’s pretty well established that a handful of bears with cubs will live near the road for the safety of their cubs, because the males aren’t going to come around,” said Jack Bayles, a wildlife photographer who guides photo workshops and tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone.
“She’s doing what she’s always done, and the next thing she knows she’s getting shot with rubber bullets,” Bayles said.
Felicia’s fondness for the road has led to her being hazed numerous times over the years. In one instance of hazing a few weeks after Salt’s death, a male grizzly showed up to the chaos. Apparently attempting to protect her cub, Felicia fled, leading the other bear on a miles-long chase before he finally stopped following. When she returned hours later, she couldn’t find Pepper.
It took them a month to reunite. As the weeks stretched on, most observers expected the defenseless cub to succumb to the countless dangers of the wilderness. But somehow, against all odds, Pepper survived. The two spent the rest of the season safely together, but when Felicia emerged from her den in early 2020, she was alone.
No one knew what happened to Pepper. Felicia didn’t spend much time near the road that year.
Back at the highway
This winter, Felicia emerged from the den with two new, yet unnamed cubs, and went right back to the highway, where she felt safe, and where she has successfully kept her new cubs alive. People once again gathered to watch the bears, which prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to start hazing her.
Wildlife officials can employ several different tactics when trying to convince a grizzly to go somewhere else. They may attempt to drive them away with loud sounds, trained dogs, or projectiles such as paintballs or beanbags fired from a shotgun. With that method, rangers will aim at large areas of fatty tissue, like a bear’s rump, to avoid causing injury. Cubs, officials say, are never targeted.
The hazing of Felicia and her two cubs was supposed to last for two weeks, pending the outcome of a follow-up review by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Officials’ long-term approach to managing Felicia should be announced early next week. But two weeks of intensive hazing are already an unsustainable practice for the agency, said Hilary Cooley, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We cannot do this for every bear, and I really would like to get the message across to people: We care more about conservation of the species, and it’s just not practical to manage every single bear in this way,” she said.
Hazing is often an ineffective strategy, said David Mattson, a retired grizzly bear researcher. If the hazing is short-lived, many bears eventually return to their original location. Bears are highly intelligent, too, and some learn to leave only when official vehicles show up.
Without changes to the speed limit, enforcement of parking violations and other interventions, “I think it’s basically a no-win situation for her,” Mattson said. “It’s an incredibly hazardous place for her to live, that is to say, along the highway there. Either she ends up being seen as a fundamentally unresolvable problem by managers and killed because of that, or she ends up exhibiting behaviors that puts her at risk of being hit,” like rushing across the road without looking both ways, or becoming more active at night, when cars are harder to see.
Impermanence is the most immediate concern. “After this hazing program stops, how long will it be before she starts showing up along the roadside again?” Mattson said.
But hazing is one of the only methods the Fish and Wildlife Service has at their disposal to influence bear activity, short of euthanasia, which is done when a bear has been fed by humans, harmed cattle or demonstrated extreme aggression. This frustrates bear advocates, because many cases in which a bear is killed are the result of human misbehavior, including a 2-year-old male grizzly south of Grand Teton that began seeking out human food and was euthanized as a result last month.
“You might be in the park for a day, and toss some potato chips to a bear, and then you drive away, and you never get to see the effects of that,” Combs said. “But what happens when 10 people feed that bear?”
Felicia isn’t Wyoming’s only famous roadside bear, but she’s the only one living outside park boundaries. That complicates her situation.
Inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the National Park Service has jurisdiction over wildlife management. But outside the parks, oversight and enforcement are more complicated. As a member of a protected species, Felicia herself is under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which delegates some supervision to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. She spends most of her time on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Wyoming Department of Transportation is in charge of the highway next to that land. And the Wyoming Highway Patrol is responsible for enforcing the rules of the road.
“If she was in the park, she would be an asset,” Burgess, the wildlife photographer, said. “She would be a wonderful contribution to what they have going there. But because she’s outside the park, she’s considered a nuisance, which is just incredibly sad.”
Grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits humans from feeding, pursuing or otherwise harassing a grizzly bear — a law wildlife viewers can avoid violating by remaining at least 100 yards away from any bear. Many of the people who approach Felicia don’t know about the rule, or don’t care.
Enforcement of the Endangered Species Act is another complicating factor. While the responsibility falls to the Fish and Wildlife Service, citing someone for harassing a bear isn’t as straightforward as issuing a traffic ticket. For every violation, the agency must conduct an investigation and prove that the action in question was done knowingly and actually affected a protected animal. The investigation is then passed on to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wyoming, which decides whether or not to prosecute.
Jurisdiction issues aside, in a situation like Felicia’s, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service lack the resources to consistently enforce the restrictions set forth by the Endangered Species Act, much less form a new position to protect a single bear.
“We’ve dedicated a whole ton of resources to manage the people and the bear jam, and try and change her behavior,” Cooley said. “And it’s just that trying to continue this effort for the rest of the season, not only on Togwotee, but everywhere else in the grizzly bear range, where you have an issue like this, it’s not really practical to do the single bear management for the season anytime there is a problem like that.”
Grizzly management is a contentious issue in Wyoming. The species, which once numbered in the tens of thousands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, was driven to the brink of extinction by hunting and habitat loss. Since grizzlies were listed as a threatened species in 1975, their population has slowly recovered. There are now an estimated 800 to 1,200 grizzlies in the region.
More grizzlies will eventually mean more roadside bears, Combs said.
“This is a long-term problem. It’s not like this is just going to go away,” she said. “Even if we never saw Felicia again, another bear would fill her space here because there’s great food, great water. It’s wonderful habitat.”
As the bears’ numbers have expanded, their range has, too. Grizzlies’ spread beyond park boundaries has fueled a push for the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove grizzly bears from the list of endangered species and allow some hunting. The agency attempted to delist the species in 2017. That decision was overturned in court the following year, when a federal judge ruled that the grizzly bear population was still extremely vulnerable.
Before the decision to delist was overturned, the Fish and Wildlife Service held a lottery for a handful of grizzly hunting tags. Opponents of the hunt entered the lottery in protest. Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen was among the winners.
“To shoot a bear is, I think, cruel, inhumane, barbaric,” Mangelsen said. “I drew a tag, and I was going to hunt my 10 days with my camera. I got death threats. Just because I won one of the tags.”
Who’s the problem?
Hazing is working for now, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. But everyone admits it’s not sustainable. Earlier this month, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that euthanasia was an option. But officials quickly backtracked in the face of public outrage.
“People were very emotional about it,” Combs, from the Wyoming Wildlife Alliance, said. “And when the word ‘euthanize’ was kind of tossed out there first, I think people really reacted to that — had like a visceral reaction to that, of like, ‘Whoa, we have to do whatever we got to do to save these bears.’”
Even with euthanasia off the table, Felicia’s fans aren’t satisfied.
When the hazing began, “it just seemed like a great injustice was going on,” Burgess said. “Most people didn’t know what was happening. So the idea was to get a large group of passionate people together and just try to keep people educated and in the loop.”
Burgess and several others launched the #SaveFelicia movement, a social media campaign that included a Facebook group, an Instagram page and a petition that has amassed more than 70,000 signatures in just two weeks. Even the bear’s fiercest supporters are grappling with their roles in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to haze. Ultimately, they hope to see a management strategy that allows them to maintain the connections they share with Felicia without putting her at risk.
Her advocates want to see an ambassador program for Felicia modeled after Grand Teton’s Wildlife Brigade, in which trained volunteers make sure visitors know, and follow, the rules. That suggestion, while well received, is complicated by the patchwork of agencies responsible for her.
For now, relocation is still a possibility, but it poses a risk to her cubs, too. Her supporters want to see humans managed – not the bears.
“She has never done anything wrong by any of the formal rules of fair conduct,” Burgess said. “She has not raided trash cans. She has not pursued food rewards from cars. She has not charged people. She is very passive, and she minds her own business. She’s not meddling with people. There’s nothing about her that warrants punishment.”