Saturday, August 04, 2012
Attracted by the foul-smelling carcass of the calf he’d killed the day before, the grizzly bear climbed into the green metal box to resume feeding. As he grabbed the carcass with one huge front paw, the metal door of the cage slammed shut behind him. Trapped, the bear sprawled atop the carcass to wait out the night, knowing the human would arrive at first light. This bear had been trapped before.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WG&F) bear specialist Zach Turnbull arrived on the scene at Wagon Creek at dawn, finding the bear in the trap that he’d prepared the day before. Turnbull hooked the wheeled trap onto the hitch of his state-issued four-wheel drive pickup truck, and began his trip over rough roads in the Union Pass area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. He would take the bear to the agency’s cabin where it could be processed and its future determined through consultation with others involved in managing this species listed as threatened pursuant to the federal Endangered Species Act.
But as Turnbull started down a gentle slope of the road, he touched his boot to the brakes, only to have the foot pedal fall to the floorboard with little resistance. Realizing the truck had lost its brakes, Turnbull managed to get the vehicle stopped and crawled underneath with tools to try to resolve the problem. Any direction of travel from here would involve mountain roads, curves, and switchbacks.
I had turned off the highway and onto the unpaved road just as the sun was starting to rise. I’d decided to take the road less traveled – rather than drive through summer tourist traffic from Dubois to my home in Sublette County, I would take the Union Pass Road over the mountains, planning a leisurely and scenic start to my day.
About half-way over Union Pass, I came around a corner of the tree-lined roadway to see a green WG&F truck stopped ahead, with a pair of dirty cowboy boots sticking out from behind the rear tire, and an aerosol can of bear pepper spray on the ground close by. I pulled up slowly to the truck, sticking my head out the window to announce “Good Morning” to the wearer of the boots. Turnbull’s face appeared from behind the tire to greet me with a grin, and at this point, I glanced back at the trap attached to the truck to see it contained a grizzly bear that was intently observing us. Turnbull explained that he was trying to fix his brakes, so I pulled my car out of the roadway and stood nearby as Turnbull worked, talking and keeping him company while keeping my eye on the caged bear. The last few days on the mountain had been rough ones for Turnbull, and this wasn’t a stellar start for the new day.
I’d heard reports from local cattlemen that the grizzly bears were really harassing the cattle this year, and with confirmed depredations scattered across this largest of the National Forest system’s grazing allotments, efforts to trap and control problem grizzlies were keeping everyone busy. The trapped bear was the sixth Upper Green grizzly bear Turnbull had handled in about the last month. Four others had been relocated out of the area in hopes they wouldn’t prey on livestock again.
The bear stayed back in the shadows of his cage, a low growl rumbling from his chest when Turnbull or I moved around or approached too closely. At one point Turnbull walked near the back of the trap and the bear lunged at him, hitting the door to the trap and rocking the entire contraption. I caught my breath in alarm, and I was stunned when Zach showed no visible response. When I mentioned it, Turnbull said this bear was showing fairly docile behavior considering its circumstances.
After about 20 minutes, we were joined by another bear handler – another Zach – this one Zach Gregory, a seasonal employee working in the large carnivore program with Turnbull. A temporary fix was made to the brakes, and the trap was transferred over to Gregory’s truck and the men were ready to roll. I followed along as they transported the trapped bear to the Fish Creek Guard Station and began their work.
While Turnbull provided a distraction for the bear at the front of the trap, Gregory used a poke-stick to give the bruin a shot of tranquilizer in its meaty rear end. Within minutes, the bear began licking its lips and drooping, as the effects of the 1,500 mg Telazol injection spread through its body. The bear soon slumped over the calf carcass in slumber.
Opening the trap door, the men made sure the bear was soundly sleeping before climbing in, straddling the bear to read the eartag that had been placed in its right ear some years before: 1161. Turnbull climbed out of the trap to look the number up in a well-used notebook that contains all the tag numbers, tattoo marks, and other identifying information about every known grizzly bear in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. This was bear number 304, an old bear.
First captured in 1998 as a three-year old, Bear 304 had been trapped and handled by wildlife officials on numerous occasions in his life, and had sported three different radio collars throughout his 17-years roaming the ecosystem, but was not collared any longer. His rap sheet also noted that the bear had been captured and relocated in 2006 after preying on cattle. Ah, so this was not a first offense.
After calling in the bear’s information to his agency managers, Turnbull climbed back into the trap to have a closer look at the bruin. The men had started to pull the bear out of the trap, but soon realized that his estimated 350-pound weight might mean that the men would be unable to lift him back into the trap if needed, so they would just have to do their work from inside the trap, straddling the latent beast.
The adult male grizzly was battle-scarred, with an open bloody gash on the right side of his head, just above the eye.
“He took a whipping,” Turnbull muttered, as his fingers probed the swollen mass near the eye, suggesting the bear may have a broken facial orb from a recent fight with another bear.
A look inside Bear 304’s mouth revealed stained and worn teeth. One of his front paws had several broken claws and was entirely missing a fifth claw. A quick look at a hind foot showed it measured five and a-half inches across. Turnbull’s hands moved over the bear with the confidence and familiarity of one who has handled a lot of bears, and he repeatedly checked the bear’s respiration, with quick taps on the bruin’s nose to be sure the slumber was a deep one.
Turnbull and Gregory drew blood and hair samples from the bear while awaiting word of his fate. When the call came on the radio, it was no surprise that the bear would be destroyed instead of relocated. The decision to relocate or remove a bear is made after considering a number of variables including age and sex of the bear, behavioral traits, health status, physical injuries or abnormalities, type of conflict, severity of conflict, known history of the bear, human safety concerns, and population management objectives. Turnbull quietly and professionally gave the bear a lethal injection as it continued to sleep from its earlier tranquilizer.
Turnbull climbed out of the trap as the bear’s last breath escaped its body, acknowledging as he did so the sadness of having to kill such an animal. But the bear had lived a long life and had probably done his share of contributing to the gene pool many times over. Wounds such as those he had suffered would take their toll on his aging body, and he could have died from those wounds, or those suffered in future battles, or starved in his winter den. Death in nature is never pleasant and often involves suffering. Instead, this bear had feasted on fresh beef for his last meal, and his life exited his body under the respectful hands of a caring wildlife professional. Perhaps it was not such a bad ending after all.
Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem were listed as a threatened species in 1976, when there were as few as 136 grizzlies remaining in the region. Today the minimum population estimate for Yellowstone grizzlies stands at 650, and may in fact be closer to 1,000, according to state wildlife officials. The Upper Green River Cattle Allotment is located more than 25 miles outside the original grizzly bear recovery zone, but grizzlies moved back into the area and began killing cattle in the mid-1990s. The grizzly bear population has since expanded to the point it is fairly common to see bears in this area, and much is done to reduce the severity and frequency of depredations on livestock. Cattle producers and agency personnel intensively monitor the allotments for large carnivore conflicts, and wildlife agency personnel respond to confirmed depredations by attempting to trap and remove the offending animals. Generally if it’s a first-time offense, the bear can be relocated to another area not containing livestock, but if it’s a repeat offender, the animal may be killed, removing it from the population entirely. Of the six grizzlies trapped in the Upper Green River region so far this year, four were relocated while two were destroyed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its interagency cooperators believe that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population represents a viable population that is no longer in need of federal protections. The prompt removal of problem bears is believed to generate support for grizzly bear presence in local communities that co-inhabit these regions. Eliminating problem animals also helps reduce the likelihood that undesirable behaviors will be passed on or learned from bear-to-bear.
Those using the Upper Green and other areas of the Yellowstone ecosystem that grizzlies now inhabit are urged to follow proper safety precautions while enjoying the outdoors, including carrying bear pepper spray; keeping clean camps; hiking in groups and making noise while doing so; and compliance with area closures. If an area has been closed to human presence because of grizzly bear activity, for your own safety, conduct your outdoor activities in some other area not subject to closure.
Turnbull and Gregory loaded the dead bear’s carcass into the back of Gregory’s pickup truck so it could be transported to a WG&F office. Bear 304’s body will be handled by a taxidermist, and given to an educational institution as a tool to educate people about grizzly bears and their ecology. Bear 304’s impact on the ecosystem will be felt for years to come. Cheers, old bear!