Having Grizzlies For Neighbors Just A Fact Of Life Near Cody, Wyoming

As Wyoming’s grizzly population continues to grow, they’ve become common outside of Cody. Famed outdoors writer Jim Zumbo says it's no big deal and going to an ATM in Denver is riskier than having a grizzly for a neighbor.

Mark Heinz

June 01, 20248 min read

This grizzly bear was in Jim Zumbo’s yard in the North Fork west of Cody in October of 2022. Grizzly sightings used to be rare in the area but are now common.
This grizzly bear was in Jim Zumbo’s yard in the North Fork west of Cody in October of 2022. Grizzly sightings used to be rare in the area but are now common. (Courtesy Jim Zumbo)

Seeing a grizzly bear much outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park east toward Cody used to be a pretty big deal.

But over the past several years, things have changed along the North Fork, a semi-settled area between Cody and the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest, which is just east of the park.

Now, the sight of a grizzly lumbering through the forest and sage, or even across somebody’s back yard, means it’s another Tuesday, some North Fork residents told Cowboy State Daily.

“If I saw a bear outside my house, and I’m looking out my window right now and if I saw one, I’d just tell my wife, ‘There’s a bear.’ It’s not a big deal to see them anymore,” said famed outdoors writer Jim Zumbo. “It used to be, but now it isn’t.”

He’s lived on the North Fork in the general vicinity of Wapiti, a tiny unincorporated community, for 35 years and can recall when grizzlies were all but unknown in the area.

Richard Jones is a retired Forest Service and National Park Service ranger who has lived for about nine years on the North Fork, right near the border of the Shoshone National Forest.

“There’s been two or three bear sightings in my neighborhood in just the past two or three weeks,” he said.

And just last week, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had to capture and relocate a male grizzly that had been killing and eating cattle near Cody.

Bears All Over Yellowstone Garbage Dumps

Jones first moved to Wyoming in 1953. His father was a ranger in Yellowstone Park.

Back then, grizzlies were extremely rare. They’d been pushed practically to the brink of extinction in the Lower 48, and only a scant few remained in or around Yellowstone.

It was a different story with black bears, Jones said. People had a terrible habit of feeding them, and they’d also congregate around open dumps in the park.

“The black bears were all over the place. And they were a problem then, because people were feeding them,” Jones said.

Grizzlies in the Lower 48 were placed under federal endangered species protection in 1975 so they’d have a chance at recovery.

Grizzlies Are Back Big Time

And recover they have, Jones said.

The target population for grizzlies was set at around 700-800 bears in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). That includes the park and surrounding wild areas in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Official estimates now put the number of grizzlies at about 1,000 in the GYE, plus about another 1,000 in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem radiating out from Glacier National Park.

Jones said he suspects there are likely far more grizzlies, perhaps as many as 1,500 in the GYE alone. That could account for their ever-increasing presence and visibility in the North Fork.

“The area is one of the premiere grizzly bear habitats,” he said. “The recovery of the grizzly bear has been a tremendous success story.”

Whether to delist grizzlies from federal protection and turn management of them over to the states remains a controversial topic.

Many, like Jones, advocate for delisting, citing the numbers.

Others argue that until there is full genetic exchange between the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide populations of grizzlies, the species won’t fully thrive here.

Repopulating the remote Bitterroot region in central Idaho with grizzlies is key to making that happen, conservationists argue.

Naturally A Plains Animal

The North Fork isn’t the only place in and around Park County that’s been seeing more grizzlies, Zumbo said.

They’ve been spotted well out in the open farm country between Cody and Powell, and around the base of Heart Mountain.

It only makes sense for grizzlies to head for such areas, Jones said. They were originally a plains species, after all.

How far grizzlies might push out into Wyoming’s prairie county remains to be seen.

But in Montana, they’ve been reclaiming the high plains, pushing as far east as the Missouri Breaks.

Zumbo said he and his family have never really feared grizzlies, but would sometimes go camping in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains just so they could relax the “camping in grizzly country” protocols.

But that might not be an option anymore either, Zumbo said.

After years of rumors about grizzlies being spotted in the Bighorns, there was confirmation of at least one grizzly there in April. Wyoming Game and Fish Department wardens killed the bear, which was preying on cattle near Ten Sleep.

Taking Precautions

Zumbo said he started seeing grizzlies around his place sporadically about a decade ago, and their presence has increased steadily since.

He recalled one of his first close encounters that happened several years ago.

“Our dogs were out on the back porch, barking like crazy. I went to go check, and there was a grizzly rolling around on the back lawn,” he said.

Over the years, grizzlies and humans have learned to share the North Fork, Zumbo said, adding that social media has helped keep people out of trouble.

“We’ll send post messages to each other in the Facebook groups, ‘Bear headed your way,’” he said.

There have been remarkably few serious grizzly attacks in the area, Zumbo said. He cited one fatality in June 2010.

Ewin Frank Evert of Cody was killed by an adult male grizzly that had apparently just recovered from being tranquilized and examined by biologists.

The attack happened near Evert’s cabin along Kitty Creek in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody. Evert’s widow later unsuccessfully sued the federal government on the claim that the trapping and examination site hadn’t been adequately marked with warning signs beforehand.

Zumbo said he takes the usual precautions.

“If I’m cutting firewood in my woodyard, I’ll have a handgun on the tailgate of my pickup, just in case,” he said.

Jones said he, likewise, usually has a firearm and/or bear spray handy.

What worries him is the possibility of starting a grizzly at close range, which is what usually triggers serious attacks, such as Massachusetts resident Shayne Patrick Burke, 35, getting mauled in Grand Teton National Park recently.

That attack ended when the grizzly bit into his can of bear spray, bursting it in her own face. The attack was deemed a case of a mother grizzly defending her cub, and the National Park Service opted to take no action against the bear.

Burke is expected to fully recover from his injuries.

Just A Fact Of Life

Jones said back when grizzlies first started showing up in the North Fork in big numbers, there was a lot of trouble. The bears were getting into poorly stored stashes of livestock feed and such.

Now there are more grizzlies than ever, but less trouble, he said.

For that, he credits Game and Fish helping to educate residents on the basics of living in grizzly county, such as properly storing grain, pet food or other possible temptations.

The concern now is the ever-increasing number of tourists taking to the backcountry in and around Yellowstone who might not be so bear savvy, Jones said.

“There’s more bears than ever here, and more and more people going into bear county. So, do the math,” he said.

Other carnivores seem to be moving in as well, Jones added.

“I might see a grizzly, followed by some wolves, followed by some mountain lions,” he said.

But that’s no reason to move, Zumbo and Jones said.

“I don’t live in fear here,” Zumbo said.

Jones said that if grizzlies are delisted, and some limited hunting of them is allowed, it might help instill them with a healthy fear of humans.

But concern over the North Fork’s grizzlies doesn’t keep him up at night. He still considers it a safe place to live.

“There a dangerous animal, but I’m more afraid of going to an ATM in Denver than I am of walking in the North Fork with grizzlies,” he said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

Share this article



Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter