People in bear country adapt to growing numbers

2011-11-06T14:45:00Z 2011-11-08T08:53:46Z People in bear country adapt to growing numbersBy CHRISTINE PETERSON Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

CODY -- Green eyes bobbed in the night, reflected by beams from a headlamp.

Cody hunter Dan White stared across a creek two years ago and knew a grizzly bear waited in the woods. Wet tracks led from the stream to his camp before they turned away.

No big deal, White told himself. He'd been hunting in the Shoshone National Forest for decades and had seen countless grizzlies. His camp was clean; the bear had no reason to cause problems.

The next afternoon, he went back to the stream about 70 yards from his tent and saw why the grizzly lingered in the woods. It had killed an elk.

Too late to move their camp, White and his buddy curled up in their wall tent. By nightfall, they heard roaring coming from the creek.

"We had to put ear plugs in that night to get some sleep because the bears were fighting so loud over the elk," White said.

"I don't know how many bears were there, but they were bawling."

The next day, he and his friend packed up and didn't go back to that spot until the carcass was gone.

Hunting, hiking and living in grizzly country is a choice, White said.

During the last 30 years, he figures he's seen at least 10 to 50 bears every year.

"I don't want to be foolish and I'm not going in tempting them, but it's absolutely beautiful country," he said.

Many people recreating in Wyoming's bear country have simply adapted to living with grizzly bears. One mauling victim nearly lost his life and still believes humans and bears can coexist.

While many recreationists would like to see bears regulated, they don't want bears to go back to near extinction like in the 1970s.

Grizzly bears make an area wild, and it wouldn't be the same without them.

Hunting

Nearly 70 percent of people injured by grizzly bears in Wyoming in the past decade were hunters. Most of those were bow hunters.

 

For successful hunts, bow hunters walk silently through the woods, often before or after dark. It is exactly what people should not do in bear country, said Upper Green River Basin hunter David Brady.

Brady has been hunting the Green River Basin for decades, first on vacations and now during retirement. He hunts every year in bear country and figures an encounter will happen eventually. It's only a matter of time.

A couple years ago, he was sitting in camp just before dark and saw a huge animal about 80 yards away. At first it looked like a moose, with binoculars he could see it was a grizzly.

He drove toward the bear on his 4-Wheeler, stood up and scared it away. That night every twig snap and leaf crunch sounded like a bear.

Lander elk hunter Bob Joslin said it's a matter of adaptation. Hunters learn what they can and can't do and adhere strictly to the rules.

Joslin has been hunting above Dubois for the past 30 years, watching bear populations rise from virtually nonexistent to more than 600 bears. He and about a dozen other people have an elk camp they use in the fall. Hunting in the area is a tradition and not one they're willing to abandon because of a possible bear encounter. Joslin always carries bear spray, and if he has to leave an elk carcass overnight, he won't go back without other people making plenty of noise.

"I used to go out and after I was done hunting in the morning, I would take my horses into a nice area and lay down and take a nap," Joslin said.

"I don't do that anymore."

Rural living

Carl Sauerwein was born in a white, 1902 Sears and Robuck kit house perched in a valley up the North Fork of the Shoshone River outside of Cody.

As a child, he wasn't allowed to play by the river because his parents worried about the dangers of water. Now, as a parent himself, his three daughters can't play outside alone because of grizzly bears.

The house sits in a natural drainage area where bears seem to migrate back and forth between two hills. Carl and his wife, Michelle Sauerwein, operate an outfitting business, Boulder Basin Outfitters, and have horses, goats, pigs and rabbits. The couple lives in relative harmony with the bears now, but that wasn't always the case.

About 11 years ago, Michelle ran down to their barn while her 4-month-old daughter was sleeping in her crib in the house. Michelle only needed a couple of minutes to feed her horses.

When she stepped out of the barn, she was face to face with an irritated sow and cub. Michelle quickly climbed onto a fence and then to the roof of the barn.

"She wouldn't go away, she just laid there," Michelle said.

"That was before we all had cell phones, and there I was stuck on the barn roof without anyone knowing where I was."

Four hours later, the sow finally wandered off and Michelle ran back in the house.

Bears used to surprise her when she'd slip on shoes and wander out the back door to move a sprinkler, only to be yards away under her apple trees.

Michelle knows her apple trees, which sit about 10 yards from their house, attract bears. When ripe apples fall, she's careful to clean them up every day so none rot on the ground. It helps, but isn't always a deterrent.

"I usually make about 20 quarts of apple sauce a year from those apples. My husband's grandmother planted those trees," she said.

Now, when she sees a bear under the tree during the day, she talks to it to let it know she's there and then she goes back in the house.

"No matter where you live there are hurricanes or tornadoes or crime rates. We all have inconveniences you have to adapt your life to," Michelle said.

"If it's hurricanes, you have to store extra water and use a generator. We have bears, so we don't have garbage or food sources."

Michelle and Carl agree they'd rather live with bears than put bars on their windows because of crime.

Ranching

If people stay in bear country long enough, they begin to see patterns in bear behavior.

Ranchers like Joe Thomas understand bears are a critical part of the ecosystem. Thomas manages the Turnell Cattle Company and lives on the Whit Ranch where the first bear of 2011 was caught near Meeteetse.

He doesn't mind seeing them in the wild, but when a bear comes too close to his cattle, he wants the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to move it before it causes problems.

Meeteetse rancher and Turnell Cattle Company owner Jack Turnell refers to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a zoo. Humans have surrounded the area so completely there's nowhere left for the bears to go but into human areas.

As a result, bears need to be managed to live within the area humans forced them to be.

Meade Dominick runs and partially owns the 7D Ranch, a dude ranch in the Sunlight Basin outside of Cody. The first grizzly bear was collared there in 1976, after bears were placed on the Endangered Species List.

As part of a briefing for the ranch, Dominick tells guests that they share the wilderness with grizzly bears. Everyone must be careful not to leave food out and always take a ranch dog and bear spray on a hike, especially if a guest is going alone.

He doesn't think the ranch has lost business because of a threat of bears, though some will ask if there is a risk.

"We tell people they shouldn't be afraid of bears. They should respect them," he said.

Not a deterrent

Grizzly bears are expanding both in numbers and in range. A hunter's trail camera took a picture of a grizzly bear at the end of June, nine miles southwest of Lander. That's farther south than any other confirmed grizzly sighting on the eastern side of the Wind River Range.

Locals and travelers seemed undeterred by the possibility of a grizzly bear on the Popo Agie Trail where the bear was photographed.

Lander hiker Alan Culver routinely walks alone on the trails in the southern Winds. He bought bear spray last year because he wondered if grizzly bears were going to wander farther south.

"I don't fear grizzlies like they're going to seek me out, I just worry about coming up on them," he said.

More than 800,000 people visited Yellowstone National Park this August, the second-highest August visitation in the park's history. Summer visitation increased by nearly 50,000 from 2009 to 2011, according to a press release from park officials.

Two Yellowstone visitors died this summer as a result of grizzly bear attacks, the first deaths by grizzlies in the park in 25 years. Those attacks haven't seemed to deter people from visiting, said park spokesperson Dan Hottle.

"There are a lot of people here to see the bears and are out there with their spotting scope trying to find one," Hottle said.

Animals and thermal features are the park's biggest draw, he said.

"Without polling everyone, we wouldn't know if people stayed home because they were afraid of bears or not. But visitations continue to increase," he said.

'Not her fault'

The chances of being mauled by a grizzly bear are statistically low. In Yellowstone National Park, being killed by a grizzly is only slightly more likely than being murdered.

Inside and outside the park, grizzly bears maul an average of two people per year. Many people sustain mild injuries; the bear attacks only long enough to establish the person isn't a threat.

Jerry Ruth wasn't so lucky two years ago. A female with cubs lunged at him from behind sage brush and ripped off his jaw. He nearly died, but he doesn't blame the bear.

"She was doing what she does naturally and protecting her young from what she thought was a threat," he said, sitting on the porch of his house outside Cody.

It was a beautiful, sunny day in July 2009. Ruth and a friend, Shane Manning of Baltimore, went for a walk in the sage brush, several miles from Ruth's house. The forest, typical grizzly country, lined the horizon. Seven or so miles of sage and prairie stretched in front of them. Ruth's wife and some friends had seen elk in a draw the day before, and the friends wanted to check them out.

Manning walked about 50 to 75 yards in front of Ruth through the six-foot-tall sage brush.

In a flash, a blur of fir and claws lunged at Ruth. The bear bit his face and shook him like a rag doll. Ruth heard himself scream. His voice pulsed with each shake from the bear.

The bear dropped him, and he passed out.

Seconds later he woke as Manning came running from behind. Ruth, a retired Baltimore County police officer, grabbed his pistol, aimed at the bear as she stared at him and shot.

"I think she would have finished me off and probably killed Shane, too," Ruth said.

"Shane had run right to where I was laying. He had no idea what had happened. He could hear all the ruckus but couldn't see because his line of sight was blocked by the sage brush."

Manning carried Ruth out on a 4-Wheeler, and through a series of hand-offs between Ruth's wife, firemen and paramedics, Ruth survived.

The bear ultimately ripped off his jaw and broke it in six places. It ripped out his tongue, broke a rib, punctured a lung and caused permanent nerve damage to his leg.

The female grizzly died, and Game and Fish gave its three cubs to the Memphis Zoo.

Two years later, many of Ruth's injuries are healed. He can't feel parts of his face, and the brain injury causes memory loss. But, he still hikes, fishes and explores the woods around him.

He hopes people will learn from his attack: Always be aware, even in places unlikely to have bears. He doesn't advocate people carry guns, only if they're comfortable using them. Carry bear spray or a blow horn, any type of deterrent.

"To be honest, I'm more scared of high sage brush" than of bears, Ruth said.

Ruth likened the experience to a bad car wreck. It happened fast and he didn't see much.

"After a car accident, do you get back in the car and drive?" he said.

"Yeah, you do. It's the same thing."

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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