Game & Fish Says No Grizzlies Yet In Bighorns, But It May Just Be A Matter Of Time

The Wyoming Game and Fish department say grizzly bears havent made it to the Bighorn Mountains yet, despite greatly expanding their range over the last few decades. Others aren't that sure...

Mark Heinz

October 31, 20224 min read

Grizzly ok to use scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Grizzly bears supposedly lumbering about in Wyoming’s Bighorn mountains is one of the most “pervasive” rumors the Wyoming Game and Fish Department deals with, an agency biologist said. 

“There is also a rumor that we move (grizzly) bears to the Bighorns, which is absolutely false,” Game and Fish large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily

Noted Wyoming outdoorsman Paul Ulrich agreed that tales of grizzlies in the Bighorns have circulated for years among hunters, hikers and others who venture into the unique and isolated mountain range. 

“I don’t have any solid evidence of grizzlies in the Bighorns, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least a couple of them in there,” he told Cowboy State Daily. 

Grizzly bears have been verified by Game and Fish along the Greybull and Shoshone rivers east of the Absaroka mountains, Thompson said. That would put them about “halfway” between the Absaroka front and the Bighorns. 

Wyoming Department of Game and Fish

Recovery A Success

There are roughly 600 grizzlies in Wyoming, according to official counts from Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are among the 1,070 bears in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The GYE radiates out from core habitat in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Shoshone National Forest and includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. 

The GYE grizzlies were put under federal threatened species protection in 1975 when there were only a few hundred left. 

Since then, their comeback has been a resounding success, Thompson said. Particularly since 1990, grizzly bears have been expanding their range at a steady pace. 

The greatest expansion in Wyoming has been south of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton area, as grizzly bears have ventured well into the Wind River and Wyoming mountain ranges. 

High-Profile Attacks

“We have documented grizzly bear expansion beyond the demographic monitoring area, considered biologically and socially suitable habitat for the long-term viability of grizzly bears,” Thompson said. “The result is increased conflict potential unfortunately.”

There were two high-profile grizzly attacks in Wyoming in October. Two Northwest College wrestlers were mauled by a grizzly outside of Cody on Oct. 15. 

An Evanston man was hunting elk in a remote part of the Gros Ventre mountains when he was attacked Oct. 21. He drove the grizzly off with multiple shots from his handgun, but he shot himself in the foot in the process.

Grizzlies Change Outdoor Experience

Ulrich said grizzlies have become so pervasive in some areas of the Wyoming backcountry that he’ll no longer venture to those spots alone. 

“When you’re hunting in grizzly country, the standard procedure is to go in with a big party,” he said. “If you get something down, you have one guy processing the game carcass while the others stand watch for grizzly bears.”

It’s nothing like it was when he was growing up in the Meeteetse area, Ulrich said. 

“We would hike and camp up in that country west of Meeteetse all the time with little or no concern about grizzly bears, even though we knew there were one or two in there,” he said. “My little sister and I as grade schoolers would hike around up there without a care in the world.” 

Now, being on edge seems to be par for the course in much of Wyoming’s backcountry, he said. 

“In the core habitat, it seems like the number of grizzlies has exploded,” he said. “And outside of that core area, a number of my friends have seen fresh grizzly sign in places where we traditionally haven’t seen any grizzly sign.”

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter