This summer we saw a problem in our neck of the woods. It was a big problem–a silver-backed grizzly bear problem. In two weeks he was confirmed as killing eight yearling heifers and suspected in the deaths of five more.
Many of you have been through this country and traveled down the roads; millions do each summer. Halfway between Grand Teton National Park and the South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, on the west side of the road, begins a narrow, sometimes impassable, dirt road that heads into the forest between the two parks. The road is designated, simply as Forest Service Road #261. Occasionally a tourist, beguiled by his GPS unit, will try it. That is usually a mistake. There is no way to know the road conditions and terrain unless one does as the map suggests and "inquires locally". If one heads west on this road the forest gets deeper and the road narrower. Before long it is easier to go on than turn back, and so one continues on, reflecting that perhaps they should have "inquired locally."
In about 20 minutes there is a sign, pointing left, that says, "Jackass Loop." The locals leave off any "road" inference on purpose. It was aptly named by those who regularly travel it. Follow this for another 15 miles and you will come to an unmarked “T.” The obvious holds true; if you don’t know where you are going at this point it really won’t matter. Either road soon opens into the upper northeast reaches of the Snake River Valley.
This valley was some of the last land settled in the lower 48 states, and that only a hundred years ago. There are still a few of the sons and daughters of the original pioneers still around. It is high, 5,500 ft., cool country, fertile and well-suited to rotations of peas, barley and oats, seed potatoes and alfalfa. The alfalfa, in its turn, rounds out the complimentary stocking of cattle and sheep which are fed through the winter and grazed in the summer.
Those who settled the valley were a diverse group. Good people and normal people with children, dogs and cats in the yard. Like most small communities, we each seem to take a turn at providing something interesting for our neighbors to talk about.
The bear of 2012 came down out of the high country for the sweet and easy "pickins" on the range. He had a history and it wasn’t good. He was easy to identify as he had been a problem before; he’d been trapped and deported, but came back just the same. He had tags and had worn a collar, but rubbed it off in the spring when he lost his winter fat. When he came, he came with an epicurean appetite. He had a pattern in how he attacked and killed with a preference for yearling heifers. The evidence of his first attack was found on the 4th of July. Judging by the nature of the wounds, while she was grazing in the meadow he came quickly out of the nearby willows and captured her by biting down over her shoulders. He shook her and held her down, while he ate the brisket and udder; actually only parts of the udder. She was still alive when the stockman found her, who then took her back to the ranch and called the vet. Together they tried to nurse her back, but in the end failed. Two days later another was found with the same attack and eating pattern, but she was dead. Then a third; same pattern, but she was alive. She, too, was taken into the ranch, the vet called, but in the end she too succumbed. The pattern repeated every day or so. All in all, over a two-week period, by the 18th of July, there were eight confirmed kills to this grizzly bear. All attacks on young heifers, all with just the brisket and parts of the udder eaten and all of which ultimately died. There were also five more heifers killed in the immediate area by a grizzly bear, but these could not be directly attributed to this bear as by the time the kills were found, all that was left was the hide, and scattered bones. A total of 13 killed in two weeks ... about one a day.
Of course the authorities were called in. While they recommend others use bear spray for defense; one must question if the bear spray works so well, why they show up with 12 gauge semi-automatic shotguns loaded with buckshot and slugs? They tried their best to trap him, but he’d been in the trap before and was not a slow learner. His tracks showed that he came, checked out the trap and left. To their credit they were able to trap two naïve black bears, but they were turned loose as they were not the problem. He then went down off the range and into the community and began raiding the stacks of honey bee hives. From our childhood stories of Winnie the Pooh, we all know that honey is an irrepressible habit for bears.
This is all new to us. When this part of the country was settled a hundred years ago, the great predators were largely gone; the grizzly and black bears as well as the wolves, while theymay have been present, were never seen or confronted. We, like you, went to Yellowstone to see the bears and, particularly, the grizzly bears; but not now.
No one–no one with a sane and rational mind–wants a loose grizzly bear in their back yard and it is a perverse and hypocritical wickedness that suggests that someone else should have one in theirs. Whether one is on horseback riding the range, or on foot fixing fence, it only takes one grizzly bear charge, just one, to forever change your understanding of our relationship with grizzly bears. One becomes immediately aware that the contest over who is at the top of the food chain is not over. It is a position we humans claim by right of having earned it over eons of time. It is a concept, the reality of which is totally missed while sitting behind a desk in a city of concrete and steel but, must be faced by those in this part of the country while working and living on the land (a). Relinquishing that right to the top of the food chain, is a high-risk way to live; perhaps not totally different than having a busy highway running between your house and the garage. Either way, you have to look both ways before taking the trash to the garage and you would never let the children out to play in the yard.
Can the stockmen not get compensated for their losses? Yes, sometimes, but it is not an easy process and only a portion of the costs are covered. There is the customary red tape, bureaucratic delays and hoops which must be cleared; ultimately, there comes the harsh realization that the stockmen must count their time too and it is largely lost trying to pursue compensation. Meanwhile the other stock needs care and protection as well. Too often the stockman finds his best option, most productive option, is to round up his shoulders and move on, bearing his burden the best he can.
One of the harsh criticisms that history may heap on our society is that we have failed to recognize that not everything of value can be reduced to dollars and cents. For a truth; what is at risk of being damaged beyond recovery here is not the bank account, but the stockman’s heart and will. While he understands the end to which his cattle are bred and born, he still cares in a very deep way, beyond the dollars and cents of economics, about his cattle. The cow-calf operator has often spent generations carefully breeding and developing a strain of stock that can thrive in their specific climate. Ride beside a good stockman and carefully note that he reads first, not the brand or the ear tags, but identifies his cattle by their face as he would a well-known acquaintance. The face tells the story of their identity, their health and the pedigree of years of careful breeding. The good stockman knows his cattle individually; and if you are a careful observer you’ll soon know that the cattle also know their stockman. The leathered patina on the stockman’s face covers the deeper feelings he seldom lets others see. When his cattle are mauled and mutilated in the manner of these grizzly bear killings, his pain runs a canyon much deeper than his wallet.
Going forward, perhaps we can learn something from the map. It says simply “inquire locally for conditions;” any road to be traveled is better informed if one inquires locally. Should public administrators do no less? Wisdom would demand yes. While a person may study bears for years, that relationship is distant and superficial. It is only by living with a situation, any situation, whether Alzheimer’s or grizzly bears, on a daily basis, does one ever truly learn to understand it. The people who live and work year-round in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, that have a vested, long-term interest in the well-being of it must be given a real voice in the decisions that affect it.
Most of the stockmen in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem celebrate with the rest of the nation the recovery of the grizzly. The issue is not with the grizzly per se, but where the grizzly is. As grizzly populations have increased, the old policy of relocating problem bears is failing because of overcrowding. The old policy solves nothing and simply postpones the inevitable. What I am hearing locally makes sense, at least to the common man. When the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, the lawmakers knew that if it was successful, and it has been, that we would be in the position we are now, deciding the limits to the grizzly bear range. Grizzly bears cannot be re-established to their pre-1800 geographical distribution; that would be both ridiculous and impossibly dangerous, but that then begs the question of where should appropriate limits be established?
The principal of protection works for both sides of the issue; just as the bears and their way of living in the National Parks are protected; the interests of people are not less and their way of living on their land adjacent to the Parks need to be protected as well. If the grizzly is fully protected to the line of private property, the spillover into private property will be both dangerous and continuous. People and bears will be needlessly killed. A buffer zone with progressive management is essential. As the issue currently stands, conflicting interests are face-to-face on a single line. There is no space or opportunity for good management, which has resulted in more conflict than management. As a practical solution the only natural boundary that exists for a buffer zone is the public land of the National Forest System. This land has always, from its inception, been designated as multiple use land and should continue in that capacity. In the Yellowstone System most out-of-state visitors go to the National Parks. It is the local residents who are the primary users of the adjoining National Forests (b).
We ask simply that we be allowed to help in a real and positive way with the decisions that affect our locale. We have experience which should be valuable and as the primary users of National Forests in the Yellowstone area, it is we who must live with the decisions that are made.
(a) Taken from the quote from John le Carre: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
Chet Kendell lives, farms and writes with his family in Ashton, Idaho.