JACKSON – Range riders and wildlife biologists have discovered, examined and confirmed more than two dozen calves that have succumbed to grizzly bear attacks within the sweeping Upper Green River cattle grazing allotments this summer.
In the most conflict-prone portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for grizzlies and cattle, that’s a big win.
“We aren’t losing the numbers right now that we have been in the last two or three years before,” fourth-generation Sublette County stockman Albert Sommers told the Jackson Hole Daily. “It feels like it’s a less intense year.”
Sommers estimated that the Upper Green River Cattle Association’s total loss to this point in the grazing season is 27 head. Last year, he said, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department confirmed 84 cattle depredated by grizzlies in the massive Bridger-Teton National Forest grazing complex that stretches between the Gros Ventre and Wind River ranges. Several years ago, the toll was 90.
“In the last four or five years, there have been over 200 calves a year that don’t come home,” Sommers said, citing a figure that includes calves lost to disease and other natural causes. “Our loss rates before grizzlies and wolves was about 2%,” he said, “and now we’ve gone to 10 to 15%.”
The situation is only tenable for cattle ranchers because of Game and Fish-funded reimbursement programs that compensate for losses. Those payments amount to several hundred thousand dollars in a big Upper Green conflict year.
Grizzly bears are classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it’s state biologists and technicians who have their boots on the ground dealing with day-to-day management. The point person who responds, biologist Zach Turnbull, has still been busy up on the rangeland, but not at the frenetic pace of past years, Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson said.
“We’re probably about half the amount of depredations we were at last year, and I know we’ve had a lot less management actions,” Thompson said. “Last year by the end of July, we’d moved and removed several more than we have this year.
“So that’s positive,” he said.
Putting some numbers to it, the state agency has made the call to euthanize two grizzlies that have developed a taste for beef so far: an adult boar repeat offender July 21, and another bear that fit the same description Thursday morning.
Another two calf-killing bruins that didn’t have quite the same rap sheet were given another chance. A subadult male was hauled away from the Upper Green to the Shoshone National Forest’s Clocktower Creek area July 21, and on Aug. 1 a subadult female got a lift to the Shoshone’s Mormon Creek.
By comparison, at least seven depredating Upper Green grizzlies were killed by Game and Fish last year, when the state decided whether to remove or relocate an animal instead of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Both Sommers and Thompson made the point that the deadly 2018 might have influenced this year’s conflict level.
“We removed a lot of bears last summer, so you would hope to see a reduction in that depredation,” Thompson said. “That’s the reason we do that.”
Sommers, also a Wyoming House representative for Sublette County, said he doesn’t have a good feel for conditions that make for a bad, or good, conflict year. He attributed a particular skilled range rider and her dog for finding a lot of the killed calves in recent years. Game and Fish, he said, has become better at trapping grizzlies, which partly explains why relocations and removals have climbed.
A solution to the chronic grizzly-cattle Upper Green conflict remains unclear. The Upper Green River Cattle Association experimented with a cattle bunching technique several years ago, but it wasn’t effective. Sommers is toying with the idea of trying out less-vulnerable breeds of cattle and is also intrigued with guard dogs.
“I still go to conferences,” he said, “and listen to ideas.”