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Just in Time: Bear Training!

This week has been a full gas week, between Dave’s efforts with Wildlife Brigade, two days of lecture style in-person (not Zoom!) training sessions, and helping prep for the start of operations at String Lake.

On Monday alone the brigade worked five bear jams, and an elk jam near Signal Mountain. Apparently there is a bull elk that loves the visitor paparazzi, frequently making himself available for photo ops along that stretch of roadside. Some in the Park have nick-named him “Fabio.”

seen at Signal Mountain – could this be Fabio?

Dave even escorted a grizzly along one of the pedestrian paths over Jackson Lake Dam, the bear taking one side of the road, and Dave the other. I would have loved to see that! Another day everyone’s favorite bear was getting stressed, wanting to cross the road with the cubs, but getting too close to the crowds. Luckily the ambulance cruised by on patrol, and was able to help the brigade by using the siren to reroute the bear family to a safer place to cross.

All of which are fun “How-was-your-day” wildlife stories. But I think we were most fascinated by the training session presented by the acting bear management specialist, sharing not only how the Wildlife Brigade’s work impacts the bear population in the park, but also the work the String Lake Brigade volunteers contributes to their safety as well. I couldn’t take notes fast enough!

Here then is your behind the scenes glimpse into the life of bears in the park and how the wildlife specialists, rangers, and volunteers go about protecting bears and humans. (as I understand it)

Roughly 1,000 grizzlies live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. There are 70-100 black bears in the park at any given time, and 60-70 grizzlies. There are no known cases of a grizzly bear living its entire life within park boundaries — at some point they all go on walk-about.

Food security is a the key to a healthy bear population — meaning not just that there is enough grasses, berries, and carcasses of opportunity to feed the bears in the park, but equally as important that human food is NOT available to the bears.

In general, mature and healthy bears don’t want anything to do with the developed areas where people are. Young subadult bears, yearlings recently kicked out by their mothers and looking to establish their own territory, or sows with cubs are all low in the bear pecking order and are often pushed into marginal areas by dominant adult bears. So the bears that we see in places like the String Lake picnic area are often the bears forced to make a living on the edge of the best food sources, or are just passing through, moving north to south, hemmed in by the lakes and mountains in this long, narrow park.

one of the beach spots where people love to picnic

This of course brings about human-bear interactions. That may mean a bear being a bear and foraging on natural food resources in the area such as the sweet huckleberries that grow in the understory and along trails, being seen or encountered by hikers and picnickers. Or a curious bear, being drawn to the enticing smells of human food, suntan lotion, toothpaste, deodorants, even gas for RV generators, may be found wandering campsites or beach picnics.

For more than a decade, since the introduction of the Wildlife Brigade and the subsequent formation of the String Lake Brigade, there has been a great reduction in the number of bears in the ‘death-zone’ of human-bear interactions. This is where the story comes back to food security. The wildlife specialists, rangers, and volunteers in these groups devote themselves to educating the public on the dangers of allowing a bear access to human food. Oh yes, and we also answer a lot of questions about hikes, parking, and bathrooms.

If a bear gets a human food reward, they often change their eating behavior and begin to seek out more of the same. If they learn that they can push people away from their picnics, they can become increasingly aggressive, which now makes them a danger to people, which of course is not tolerated. Once a bear receives a human food reward, it is often a downward spiral for the bear.

To prevent these situations from happening, the “Lakers” patrol the waterfront and picnic areas talking to visitors about storing their food, backpacks, water bottles, and cooking gear securely in the bear boxes the park has provided. Our advice is to keep all of their food in arms reach, and to have a plan with the other adults on how to get the food secured should a bear visit their picnic spot. An unfortunate scenario would be for them to panic and leave all the food behind when departing the area. If we see unattended food, we put it in a bear box and leave a note regarding where it can be found — and a little education on why it was moved. When not trying to unsnarl a wildlife jam, the WL Brigade drives through campgrounds in the park with an eye out for food storage violations and the chance to educate more people about food security.

Just the situation we want to avoid! video of a black bear getting into abandoned backpacks (a food safety violation) at String Lake in 2020, shared by a visitor watching from his paddle board

Some visitors pooh-pooh the idea that it is necessary for them to take these preventative steps. “Can’t you just move them somewhere else?” is a common question.

If only it were that easy! A lot of thought and consideration goes into each case of a bear getting a food reward. Beginning of course with just how much of a ‘taste’ did the bear get, and what is their behavior like now? In the past, the park had something like a three strike rule, where the bear was euthanized the third time they got themselves into trouble over human food. Now however, the park attempts to be be more proactive, and trap the bears after their first encounter with human food. They are better candidates for relocation if you can catch them quickly. First of course, you have to catch the right bear. Then you need someplace to take them — and there are not a lot of places to take them. Historically, relocating a bear has only a 50/50 chance of success. To walk the length of the park and return to their old location is not a hard thing for a bear to manage. Some relocated bears have gone on to live their lives out of trouble. Other relocated bears couldn’t break the human food habit and were ultimately euthanized.

There is an interagency bear organization to call on if you really need to find a new home for a bear. I was fascinated to find that Grand Teton returns the favor when they can, and takes agriculture nuisance bears, the cattle killers, because there is no livestock here in the park.

The presentation then covered what we should do, not if – but when we encounter a bear in the String Lake area. Job one is to get eyes on the bear and assess its behavior. Is it just passing through? Is it foraging on natural foods along the trails? Is it keying on human food? Next, call dispatch with the details and request assistance. Then work with your team to clear the area of people, ensuring all food and cooking items — yes, even grills, are secured into bear boxes or vehicles. To save the bear, we want to make sure there is no chance for a food reward.

Part of the team should also clear a space for the bear — trying to turn a bear around would be pointless and dangerous. Make sure it can continue on its way.

Today is the second day that String Lake has had volunteers working. Today, they had a grizzly bear come through the parking lot and the waterfront. Dave got called in as part of the Wildlife Brigade, and said the Lakers on duty did all the right things. And this bear made things complicated. It seemed very unsure about just where it wanted to go and circled around a few times, disappearing in the trees and then popping out again. But eventually, it did move on. No one was in danger or hurt, all the food was secured, and the bear did not get a food reward. And a few visitors got some great vacation photos/stories to tell.

Thank goodness for the presentation three days ago!

Grizzly in String Lake area, Saturday 29 May, posted by a Laker

I also learned that the way Grand Teton National Park handles bears alongside the road is more than just keeping people from getting too close for a photo or getting hit by a car. Because this park is blessed with open meadows and grasslands that the bears naturally forage in, park officials have the ability to allow visitors to stop their cars for viewing opportunities while remaining safe. If a bear is known to be in the forest and brush alongside the road, cars and people are not allowed to stop there, because without being able to see the bear, it might pop out at an unsafe distance from someone.

Bears are allowed access to roadways to cross, but not linger — we don’t want them to get comfortable around the road and end up hit by a car. Bears are allowed to forage and do other natural bear behaviors near the road. The 100 yard rule is enforced as much for the bear as for the people. The habituation of bears to people (at 100 yards) and people to bears is expected. Remember at the start of this story that a bear was getting too close to people — the park used a loud noise to discourage the bear from coming closer to people while the brigade continued to move folks away from that section of roadway. After all the bear jams I have experienced, I had not considered that the 100 yard rule was being taught to the bears as well as people.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned about some of the nuances surrounding something as simple sounding as ‘bear management.’

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