One day last fall, Cody rancher Tom Bales counted no fewer than 10 grizzly bears in his cornfield outside Cody.
The rancher didn’t have any direct conflicts that year with the large carnivores better known for preying on livestock and big game than crops. And he has been lucky so far this year.
“We’ve had probably six or seven bears trapped and removed from less than a quarter of a mile from our house over the years,” Bales said. “Haven’t had physical problems, most of the time I got my dogs with me, and they will get after a bear in a hurry.”
But that hasn’t been the case for everyone as bears continue expanding to the fringes of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem where they haven’t been spotted in more than a century.
Four people have been injured this year by grizzly bears, and seven bears have been killed, said Brian Nesvik, chief game warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
In total, the department has recorded 13 bear-human conflicts in 2017. It’s not a record number, but it is high compared to recent years. In 2010, 10 bears were killed in self-defense and six people were injured, he said. In 2008, seven bears were killed and two people injured.
“You have this large space and because of deep snow, a significant portion of it becomes unavailable to find food sources and pushes bears into a smaller area,” he said. “You have an increased density of bears, humans in the picture because of hunting season… that’s potentially one of the reasons this year was high conflict.”
The incidents come months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzlies from the endangered species list.
As department officials settle in to managing the apex predator again, they are holding listening sessions around the state to ask people how they believe bears should be managed. The first meeting was a week ago in Casper, and the final one will be Dec. 4 in Lander. Wildlife officials expected between 200 and 300 people its meeting Wednesday night in Jackson.
Hunting grizzly bears has been a source of controversy and litigation for years. Many environmental groups and Native American tribes oppose any hunting, while most livestock and hunting groups support it in some form.
The focus of the listening sessions, however, isn’t to debate the specifics of bear hunting seasons, Nesvik said. It is to collect opinions on all forms of bear management including hunting, research and public education.
About 15 people showed up to the meeting in Casper and mostly asked questions about bear DNA, connectivity and hunting. Some offered ideas for management such as requiring that all hunter education classes include a portion about bear safety.
Dan Bjornlie, large carnivore biologist for the department, also broke down exactly how many bears could be killed if the Game and Fish Commission decides to hold a hunting season. The commission has not yet discussed whether it will allow bears to be hunted, or approved a season.
Some hunting rules are already set in Wyoming’s bear management plan – including maintaining a minimum of 500 bears in the ecosystem, a certain distribution of females with young and keeping bear deaths within designated thresholds. But others, such as bear hunting boundaries and how licenses would be allocated, are not decided.
If a hunting season proceeded, the number of bears that could be killed in any given year would be decided based on the previous year’s population estimate and number of bears that died that year, Bjornlie explained.
In 2016, for example, wildlife biologists estimated there were 695 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes portions of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
To maintain population levels required in the management plan, 48 adult males and 19 adult females could die from any cause including car wreck, fights with other bears, disease and old age or removal because of conflicts with humans.
That same year, 37 male bears and 12 female bears died, leaving a maximum of 18 bears that could be killed during a hypothetical hunting season based on 2016’s numbers.
Because about 58 percent of the bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem live in Wyoming, the Cowboy State’s quota would be 10 adults: six males and four females without young.
That means in years like 2017, where a higher number of bears have been killed by people than usual, next year’s season would either be reduced or potentially cancelled, Bjornlie said.
Even offering estimates makes a hunting season sound like a foregone conclusion, said Casper resident Jeanne Leske. She came to the meeting last week with talking points offered by the Sierra Club, one of a handful of groups suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over delisting.
Other groups have come out with statements ahead of the Jackson meeting either opposing completely grizzly bear hunting or asking the department to consider the economic impact.
The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday that: “Trophy hunting of bears is controversial to some potential tourists both nationally and internationally. In the Jackson Hole region (and potentially other tourism focused communities) trophy hunting could potentially impact our tourism economy that is highly dependent on wildlife watching opportunities.”
They asked the department to prohibit grizzly hunting in tourism communities such as Jackson and target hunting pressure in areas where there are high conflicts.
Some ranchers, like Bales, the Cody-area rancher who frequently encounters bears on his property, believe a hunting season could be a useful management tool in areas where bears are a problem.
Elk hunters such as Richard Hauber believe bears should learn to respect humans, which can only happen with a hunting season.
Hauber and his family have been hunting in grizzly country near Dubois, Jackson or Cody for the last 48 years. He’s watched their numbers expand, and this year his brother-in-law lost half his elk to a grizzly.
“The one thing I think non-hunters need to understand is that the Game and Fish (Department) is funded by the sportsmen,” he said. “Not the state Legislature, and so the whole grizzly program is funded by sportsmen.”
Game and Fish officials plan to gather input from each of the meetings and take it to the commission for further review. The commission will discuss grizzly bear management at a series of upcoming meetings this winter and spring.