JACKSON — Five years ago, a grizzly bear family’s crossing of the Gros Ventre River marked the first verified sighting of Ursus arctos horribilis on the National Elk Refuge in nearly two decades.
Now, the large hump-backed omnivores seem to spend time on the federal property directly north of Jackson almost every year — and there’s one of the opportunistic bruins loitering on refuge grounds now.
“People should be cautious,” National Elk Refuge staff biologist Eric Cole said. “There’s one large grizzly that’s been down in the McBride area for several days.”
The hilly area where the animal has been posted up, located just north of where Refuge Road crosses Flat Creek, is off-limits to the general public, but accessible to elk and bison hunters. Through Monday afternoon, there had been no “serious conflicts” reported, he said.
“Some hunters have been surprised to see the bear,” Cole said, “but there hasn’t been any close contact between people and the bear.”
The grizzly appears to have buried an elk carcass on the hillside in the McBride area, he said, where the vegetation and terrain can make it hard to see.
Late last week there was also an unconfirmed report of a sow bear with cubs passing through the Gros Ventre River bottomland, Cole said.
The well-known bear that goes by grizzly No. 399 was hanging out in the adjacent south end of Grand Teton National Park last week, delighting photographers and passersby. The Gros Ventre River demarcates the boundary between park and refuge.
It’s not uncommon for grizzlies to be out and about during the late-season elk hunts in Teton Park, even as the snow piles up. A run-in once even turned lethal for the bear on Thanksgiving day in 2012, prompting park rangers to revise the rules for elk hunters, including closing down the timbered conflict-prone zone where gunfire ended the bear’s charge.
Grand Teton spokeswoman Denise Germann confirmed that grizzlies are again active during the park’s fall hunt.
“They are looking for food,” Germann said, “taking advantage of food opportunities, including large groups of migrating animals and bull elk injuries from rut season.”
The National Elk Refuge doesn’t yet have any rules geared toward reducing conflicts with grizzlies, such as mandatory bear spray, perhaps because it’s just recently that the species showed up. A visit by grizzly No. 399 with a former litter in 2013 marked the first time since 1994 that grizzlies were confirmed on the 24,700-acre refuge.
Since then, sightings have been much more commonplace.
A fast-learning species, grizzlies have made a habit of venturing to the refuge when the bison hunt starts each August to feed on gut piles, though Cole noted there’s been a lull in this behavior. There was also a grizzly bear lingering when the May 1 shed-hunting season began on adjacent forestland this spring.
“This is new for the refuge, but not unexpected given what’s been happening in Grand Teton National Park just north of the refuge,” Cole said. “The only thing surprising to me is that it has taken this long.”
To alert hunters readying to set into the field, an electronic message board on the shoulder of Refuge Road now flashes: “Hunters be aware; wait for daylight advised; bears bears bears.”