2021 is proving to be a dangerous year for grizzly bears.
So far this year, 42 grizzly bears have died in Wyoming, from the Beartooth Range down to the Dubois region — and there are still more than two months to go in the calendar year.
In 2020, the number of grizzlies killed through October totaled 31.
Some of the increase can be traced to the fact there has been an above-average number of encounters between grizzlies and humans this year, said Luke Ellsbury, a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“Typically we’ll have three or four aggressive encounters every fall,” he said. “I think we’re at seven or eight maybe this year. And so it is a little bit high, although we see that every few years… we have a high year.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has received seven reports of human-bear encounters in the last month, with one injury.
Ellsbury blamed the increase in incidents on more people and more bears using the same landscape.
“Bears are coming into hyperphagia, so preparing for winter and going into the den,” he said. “This year, we did have a really dry year, and there was a shortage of a lot of natural foods. And so a lot of bears are a little bit food stressed right now.”
Ellsbury said reports of aggressive bear encounters began at the beginning of last month.
“It started in early September, and I think our last one was about a week and a half, two weeks ago,” he said. “And that’s typical. We usually see it in the fall — September, October time frame,” he said, noting that more hunters are in the woods at the same time bears are preparing for winter.
Ellsbury noted most of the encounters have involved females with cubs.
“And so they’re probably really searching for food, trying to get enough fat to make sure those cubs make it through winter, as well as defending those cubs from what they see as a threat,” he said.
Ellsbury reported that all of the aggressive encounters this year have taken place in traditional grizzly bear habitat.
“Hunter run-ins have been the number one cause,” he said. “We’ve had a few bears coming down to the low country and in developed areas near towns, but so far, we haven’t had too many aggressive encounters with them.”
Fortunately, there has only been one encounter so far that has resulted in an injury to humans – a grizzly caught a hunter by surprise west of Cody earlier this month.
“It bit his hand near his thumb, but they were able to save his hand,” he said.
Ellsbury noted that the rest of the encounters have involved a deterrent and either the bears were killed or they were driven away without any injury to the human.
“We have had a few bears killed in self-defense this fall,” he said, “and those are under investigation.”
Ellsbury pointed out that there are ways to keep safe while recreating in grizzly bear country.
“If you’re just out recreating or hunting, make sure you have a defense on you, such as bear spray or a firearm,” he said. “Both are effective tools in deterring an aggressive encounter. But just make sure that you carry them where they’re accessible, and you know how to use them.”