The goal of the Game and Fish was to listen. The near capacity crowd had five topics to consider. The most controversial, management of grizzly populations through hunting, provided the night with the most animated discussions.
After a short introduction describing the format, the meeting broke up into 10 discussion groups. Two employees for the Game and Fish led each one. Wildlife biologists and large carnivore experts circulated between the groups to answer the tough questions.
Among those in attendance, stories of encounters and conflicts with grizzly bears outnumbered a small contingent speaking out against trophy hunting.
“There was more of a focus on hunting,” said Dan Thompson, Game and Fish large carnivore section supervisor. “People in the Cody region are very aware of conflicts with grizzlies.”
The event was the seventh of eight scheduled public meetings hosted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to discuss management plans of the state’s most iconic species. And it was by far the largest of the seven — easily doubling attendance at any of the previous six events. The sign-in sheet had 176 signatures, not including two dozen Game and Fish employees and at least a few entered the meeting without signing in.
Dan White, a former biology teacher at Cody High School, recalled finding himself closer to a grizzly than anyone wants to be.
“I was on my back with a grizzly’s jaws about a foot from my face,” the Cody resident said.
The grizzly had charged through the cloud of bear spray White had put down. In the flash of terror, he gave his spray one last try, spraying directly into the bear’s mouth. Luckily, the bear turned and ran, leaving White shaken but untouched.
Others told of large populations of grizzlies moving to their ranch properties, fears of allowing children to play outdoors and grizzlies becoming conditioned to hunting seasons — hearing the sound of gunfire and becoming curious if a meal could be near. White is an avid outdoorsman, but the point of his story was the effectiveness of bear spray.
Others turn to guns. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department says there have been more human-bear conflicts this year than average. Eight grizzlies have been shot in 13 incidents where bears were charging or attacking; that includes a Powell area game warden who shot a charging bear in the Sunlight area in October after reportedly not having enough time to reach for bear spray. Four of the incidents resulted in human injuries.
Some attribute the increase in conflicts to a growing population, too large for the carrying capacity of the demographic monitoring area (DMA), the prime habitat for grizzlies. Others believe grizzlies are redistributing while looking for easier food sources. There are between 700 and 1,100 grizzlies in the DMA, but the census is hard to take.
“700 is a conservative estimate,” Cody Regional Wildlife Supervisor Dan Smith said. “It’s the working estimate.”
Only the grizzlies inside the DMA are included in the census. When bears outside the DMA are killed or removed, they don’t count against the population estimates, Smith said. Many grizzlies venture outside the DMA and the population is believed to be much higher than the working estimate.
“I found a big grizzly in a sugar beet field by Willwood Dam last year. He’s way outside [the DMA]. He should count, I think,” White said.
Many of those in attendance would like to see a web-based public reporting portal, one of many suggestions coming out of the group sessions.
A sampling of the conversations revealed groups eager to tackle all five topics with equal enthusiasm. The topics included population monitoring, research opportunities, conflict management, outreach and education and harvest management. While conflicts and harvest were the hot topics, group leaders came away with many suggestions on each topic.
Thompson expects to pull together a list of suggestions from the meetings, but cautioned not all suggestions are realistic. One suggestion was to collar and track all grizzlies.
“This format is a great tool for us to hear what the public think, but we have to work within our budget,” Thompson said.
About 70 grizzlies, or 10 percent of the conservative population estimate, are collared in Wyoming.
Game and Fish biologists can relocate grizzlies caught in conflict at their discretion, no longer needing to coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the species was delisted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem earlier this year. Yet they can’t return bears to Yellowstone National Park, according to Luke Ellsbury, large carnivore biologist for the Game and Fish in Cody.
“We ask if we can bring bears [to the park] every year and every year they say no,” Ellsbury said. “We’re just dumping bears on top of bears. We’re trying to figure out new areas to move bears, but to be honest, it’s tough.”
Game and Fish officials will take stock of the suggestions from the public and start defining their plans — including a possible hunting season — in the next few weeks. If they decide to propose a season, the plan will be finalized in April when the commission sets season dates.
“We are not going in with any foregone conclusions to this,” Smith said in advance of Thursday’s meeting. “It’s up to the public whether we even take a hunting recommendation to our commission. I can’t see that not happening, but if that’s what our constituents said, that’s where we would go.”
If there is a season, the expectation is that quotas will start out with conservative numbers. Thompson said if there would have been a 2017 season in Wyoming, the quota would’ve been for six boars and four sows. The number is based on a calculation of all bears in the ecosystem, which includes Idaho and Montana. In those two states, another five males and three females could have theoretically been hunted under the 2016 numbers.