Grizzly bears are, undoubtedly, one of North America’s largest predators.
They hunt alone and can take down a moose or bull elk.
But for all their power and fury, they will also sit on their haunches for hours delicately picking huckleberries off overgrown bushes or licking ants off their paws.
They’re one of the most controversial species in the West, once numbering around 50,000 before plummeting to fewer than 1,000 in the lower 48 states.
Federal protection led to their comeback – hailed as a success by nearly everyone from state wildlife managers to hunters to conservation groups. But those current protections are also the source of ire by many in a state like Wyoming.
In September, a federal judge placed grizzly bears back on the endangered species list. For the public, it meant a halt of a planned grizzly bear hunt – the first in more than 40 years – that could have killed more than 20 bears in Wyoming. For Wyoming’s bear biologists working on the ground, the relisting didn’t change all that much.
Since bears were given federal protection in 1975, Wyoming has spent more than $50 million managing the species. Unlike wolves, which were darted, studied, shot and corralled all by the feds, day-to-day management of grizzlies has been handled locally. Final decisions, like whether to kill or relocate a problem bear, are decided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana. But conflict prevention, resolution and study is mostly done by Wyoming biologists in coordination with their counterparts in Montana and Idaho and at the U.S. Geological Survey and Park Service.
Between early June and the end of August, when Wyoming still controlled management of grizzlies, biologists like Dan Bjornlie captured 17 bears in some of the state’s wildest country for research purposes. Across the greater Yellowstone area, 129 grizzly bears were captured in 2018 because of conflicts or for monitoring.
A large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, it’s Bjornlie’s job to add DNA to a growing Yellowstone grizzly family tree to better understand population growth and changes. It’s also his job to affix collars around the furry creatures to track their movements. All of the data ultimately leads to population estimates that tell managers how the population is faring and were used to decide the number of bears that could be hunted.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely push for delisting again once it has addressed the judge’s concerns. For a third time, grizzly bears will likely be taken off of the endangered species list.
But in the midst of the political maneuvering for the future of grizzlies, Wyoming biologists will continue their work on the ground trapping bears.