CHEYENNE — A growing number of grizzly bears are moving outside their established habitat in and around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, causing more conflicts with humans, according to wildlife managers.
In 2016, Wyoming recorded 223 cases of conflicts between grizzly bears and humans outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
It was by far the highest number of conflicts among the three states in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Montana had 118, and Idaho just two last year.
“It’s a potential human safety risk and it’s not conducive to the long-term conservation of grizzly bears to have them in an area where they’re getting in trouble,” said Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
A wildlife advocate says grizzlies shouldn’t be penalized for roaming into areas where they are native.
“When there’s suitable habitat in forested areas and public lands, in our view there shouldn’t be a limit on where they can expand,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The conflicts in Wyoming resulted in 39 grizzly bears being captured by state game managers in 2016. Twenty-two were killed for various reasons, such as a history of problems.
Federal protection of the bears was lifted earlier this year and management of the species was turned over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
At the end of 2016, there were an estimated 690 grizzlies in the area that includes northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the population had recovered.
The Center for Biological Diversity and other wildlife advocacy groups are seeking to restore federal protections.
“One thing that we’re worried about with management returning to the states is that they will be looking to lethally remove grizzly bears that are outside what they consider suitable grizzly bear habitat more so than they were doing when grizzly bears were federally protected,” Santarsiere said.
Thompson said the state has initiated programs to minimize grizzly bear conflicts, such as erecting electric fences around bee hives and giving away bear spray.
“But as bears move beyond the suitable habitat areas it makes that more difficult,” he said.