Just in time for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore team’s busy season, wildlife biologist Mark Aughton has been added to the roster. He brings with him some skills …
Just in time for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s large carnivore team’s busy season, wildlife biologist Mark Aughton has been added to the roster. He brings with him some skills unusual within the department, including wrangling Burmese pythons and gators.
Aughton also has experience with bears. Few realize Florida has black bears, as well as big cats — two species he’ll deal with in northwest Wyoming.
“Southwest Florida and the Everglades and the Greater Yellowstone Area are the two most wild places left in the lower 48. We've got all the animals that we started out with — even the scary ones,” Aughton said. “But I’ve done all the Florida things, it was time for another challenge. And something I've always really wanted to do is work around grizzly bears and take on all this area has to offer.”
Aughton is the new Bear Wise program coordinator, splitting his time between field work and educating the public about living and recreating in an area with beautiful but dangerous apex predators. He’s already had his hands on several bears, working on eight cases in his first month in the state. He’s also participated in Bear Wise programs, including a bear spray and education opportunity in Cody last month.
“There's so many parallels. The animals may change, but human behavior around the animals is relatively consistent,” he said.
While working with the National Park Service as a contractor in Florida, Aughton developed an apex predator safety program similar to Wyoming’s efforts to educate residents and visitors about bears. He also spent time on the board of directors at the Kowiachobee Animal Preserve where he dealt with a wide variety of wildlife, including tigers, the world’s largest cat. The organization served as an educational and learning facility, as well as a shelter for hurt, or distressed wild, exotic and domestic animals.
“Unlike Wyoming, where you cannot own exotic animals, a lot of people [in Florida] get the terrible idea of wanting to go buy a tiger, because it's 600 bucks and it's less expensive than a golden retriever,” he said.
The preserve rescues many of those animals as they become unwanted by their owners. Aughton’s experiences, both with animals and education, will come in handy, said Large Carnivore Program Manager Dan Thompson. He also worked in area school systems to educate children on wildlife and the environment.
“We need someone just as excited about educating children and adults about carnivore ecology and safety as they are about getting their hands dirty in the field, skinning dead calves and rigging up electric fence. But we feel it is important for the point person doing outreach to also be in the trenches for that firsthand context,” he said, adding, “We're excited to have him and several new faces in our section throughout northwest Wyoming.”
The department has been busy because bears are currently on an endless hunt for food. During the fall months, bears eat and drink nearly nonstop. Called hyperphagia, they need to put on as much weight as possible to prepare for winter and hibernation. This creates a lot of opportunities for conflicts with humans as hunters are afield and bears move into river valleys near roads and parks, said Luke Ellsbury, the state’s large carnivore conflict manager.
“You're gonna see bears starting to use a lot of the lower elevations along the creek bottoms and river drainages seeking out what berries are left and any carcasses they can find,” he said, adding “you'll find bears are active a lot more through the daylight hours and they may become a little bit more aggressive about guarding food sources as well.”
A recent incident with a grizzly near a residential area south of Heart Mountain, where bears have increasingly been frequenting in the past dozen years or so, Ellsbury said, is a reminder that with more bears on the landscape, some will find food rewards at bird feeders or agricultural products. This particular bear — an untagged 3-year-old male — was hanging out near homes and a dairy farm along U.S. Highway 14A between Powell and Cody.
The department attempted to haze the bear, but it refused to leave the area. Considering the proximity to residences and with hunting season already underway, it was decided it wasn’t safe to relocate the bear and it was euthanized. The decision to permanently remove the grizzly bear, a species protected by the Endangered Species Act, was made by Wyoming officials after consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the final word on management decisions.
Making the call isn’t easy, but as grizzly territory has tripled since they first received federal protection in 1975, conflicts have become more common, including attacks.
Last year, the department captured 21 individual grizzly bears in an attempt to prevent or resolve conflicts. Of those, 10 captures were a result of bears killing livestock, and 10 were captures involving bears that obtained food rewards, including pet and livestock food, garbage and fruit trees, or were frequenting developed sites or human populated areas unsuitable for grizzly bear occupancy. Of the 21 capture events, 48% were in Park County and six bears were relocated.
Of the 15 euthanized, nine were found outside of the Demographic Monitoring Area, which is the area considered suitable for the long term viability of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. All 15 were euthanized for the same reason they were captured: killing livestock and “food rewards.”
The fatal offenses include: Frequenting a corn and bean field, obtaining unsecured garbage and pig slop, breaking into multiple chicken coops and crop and beehive damage, according to the 2022 annual report of Game and Fish management captures, relocations and removals.