By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
At least two bears were killed in vehicle collisions on the North Fork Highway over the weekend as visitors continue to flood into Yellowstone National Park. And the lives of two young cubs, now alone in the Shoshone National Forest, hang in the balance.
A grizzly bear sow was struck and killed Friday and a black bear was killed Saturday in the late season rush to visit the park. Bears are gathering in the North Fork corridor of the Shoshone River east of Yellowstone, feeding on a bumper crop of chokecherries, said Luke Ellsbury, large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Coincidently, two cubs of the year have been seen frequenting the area surrounding the two-lane highway, apparently without a mother to guide them. Tests conducted on the sow killed Friday found the animal was not the cubs’ mother, but there is some speculation their mother might also have been hit by a vehicle and its body has yet to be found.
The cubs continue to draw a crowd along U.S. Highway 14/16/20, but their future is fairly grim, Ellsbury said.
“Survival for cubs of the year without a mother is pretty low,” he said Tuesday.
The Game and Fish Department has considered its limited options and currently has no plans to attempt to capture the cubs.
“There’s nowhere to take them,” Ellsbury said.
There are very few facilities with room for grizzlies, John Heine, director of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, in West Yellowstone, Montana, told the Tribune for a recent story. Once a grizzly is taken on, it’s a “lifetime commitment — and it’s rare a spot opens up for an addition to a zoo,” he said. “There are not enough spots available.”
If the Game and Fish is forced to capture the abandoned cubs, they would have to be euthanized. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately makes the final decisions on what happens to grizzly bears because they are a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act.
The spectacle is causing a bear jam, and yet traffic is still moving fast through the area, placing wildlife and people in jeopardy, Ellsbury said.
Wildlife photographer Tim O’Leary found the grizzly sow killed Friday and dragged it off the road.
“With my photography, there’s two things that I try to avoid: power lines and roads,” he said.
But O’Leary intentionally photographed the cubs while they were on the North Fork Highway because “this story must be told,” he said.
He’s afraid the cubs and other bears will be hit and killed as they circle between the river, berry bushes and cover.
“Traffic is just flying through there,” O’Leary said.
Yellowstone National Park has been breaking attendance records every month this summer. In August, 921,844 recreation vists were counted in the park, roughly 40,000 visits more than the same month last year. It’s easy to blame tourists, he said, but there are many locals driving way too fast through the area as well.
“If they put up a sign about bears on the road and to slow down, I think that would help,” he said.
Biologists for Game and Fish are often tasked with euthanizing grizzly bears. So far this year, the U.S. Geological Survey reports 25 grizzly bears have been put down for frequenting agricultural areas, killing sheep and cattle, for property damage, obtaining numerous food rewards, repeated bold behavior at guest lodges and trailheads, and property damage while searching for food. Fifteen of those killed were inside habitat deemed suitable by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and known as the Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA). Eleven more grizzly bears were euthanized outside of the DMA.
More grizzlies could meet the same fate due to increasing conflicts in the fall and the growing population of the large predator species.
“It’s that time of year when conflicts increase as grizzly bears are looking for food sources,” Ellsbury said.
The department has moved several bears this year, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find safe areas. In the past decade, there have been fewer bears moved, according to Dan Thompson, who heads up the large carnivore section for the Game and Fish.
“The ability to find available habitat is more difficult as the species has reached its carrying capacity inside core habitat,” he said.
It’s especially difficult now as more people are seeking outdoor recreation during the pandemic.
“The thing we’re dealing with now is, 20 years ago relocation was a lot different because there weren’t near as many bears,” Thompson said. “There was more open home range areas, and you could move a bear and find a place for it to live. Nowadays, it’s just hard to do that.”
The Game and Fish Department captured and relocated an adult male grizzly bear on Saturday, according to a Tuesday press release. The bear was captured for killing cattle on a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment north of Pinedale and relocated to the Five Mile Creek drainage, approximately 5 miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance.
“Bears that are considered a threat to human safety are not relocated,” the release said, adding that grizzly bear relocation is a management tool that’s “critical to the management of the population.”