Unbearable Decisions

To kill or not to kill: How wildlife officials decide what to do with “problem bears.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Credit: Photo: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

As temperatures drop out West, bears are trying to pack on the pounds, consuming whatever food they can find to sustain them through their long (or long-ish, thanks to climate change) winter nap. In their quest for calories, however, black bears and grizzlies sometimes get tangled up with people. Drought years, like those the West has been experiencing of late, tend to see more conflicts as the omnivores are driven toward towns in search of nourishment—whether it’s a candy bar left in a car (yep, a black bear can smell that), an overflowing trash can, or backyard chickens. Of course, run-ins with the ursine set also arise when people wander into the bears’ backyards.

Whatever the encounter, bear experts have the unenviable duty of determining what to do with a wild animal that gets into trouble: Relocate it in the hope it doesn’t return, send it to a zoo, or kill it? The following are three recent incidents from around the West and how they were settled.

Imminent Danger

The bears: A black bear sow, known as 317, and her two cubs, 315 and 316

Where: Boulder, Colorado

Backstory: Communities along Colorado’s Front Range this year have experienced “unprecedented” black bear problems, says Larry Rogstad, a wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, or CPW. Multiple cold snaps over the last year have caused berries and woody vegetation to be in short supply. “Usually bear issues start in August, as hibernation draws near,” says Rogstad. “This year, they started back in late May, early June.” In town, they eat whatever their highly sensitive noses lead them to: trash, fruit trees, bird feeders, and more.

Conflict: Around Labor Day, the sow and her two cubs made their way into the city center. People liked them. A lot of photos were taken. “Then we started to get reports of the she-bear getting grouchy and charging people,” says Rogstad. So CPW decided to relocate the trio. After tagging each of them, “we moved them as far away as we could,” says Rogstad, noting that there’s only so much space habitat left in a state with such a sizeable black bear population (around 19,000). Three weeks later, the family was back—and the sow seemed even more irritable. One man walked outside, and she chased him right back in. When he slammed the sliding glass door behind him, the bear bounced off of it.

Verdict: “That was just one of the reports of this bear being pretty darn aggressive,” says Rogstad. “At that point, she went from a problem bear to a potentially dangerous bear in our mind.” Despite public opposition, CPW decided to euthanize her.

Action: A couple of weeks later, on October 15, Rogstad’s team found 317 and put her down. The cubs, which were with her at the time, were “in robust health” and weighed in at more than 60 pounds—hefty enough to make it through the winter. The duo was transported 140 miles away and released.

Takeaway: Rogstad, who has worked with bears for 34 years, says that euthanizing the animals never gets easier. “It’s beyond horrible; it’s absolutely devastating,” he says. “Bears above all other critters we deal with have incredible personalities. Each one is different.” To help protect bears and people, he emphasizes the importance of securing all trash in bear country—and that means clearing those empty latte cups and gum wrappers out of your car, too. “They’re adept at opening car doors. If you’ve got a bear in a Subaru Outback for 10 minutes, it’s going to get totaled.”

End of the Line

Bears: Grizzly sow and her two cubs

Where: Yellowstone National Park

Backstory: In the 143-year history of Yellowstone, bears have killed eight people; seven were grizzlies, and one was either a grizzly or a black bear. On average, biologists have to put down one bear every three to five years, says Kerry Gunther, the park’s head bear biologist. These days, Yellowstone is home to about 750 grizzlies and hundreds of black bears. Most human-bear conflicts occur during the park’s busiest months, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. “We have had a very good year,” says Gunther. “Other than this one incident—and it just so happened that our only injury was a fatal one”

Conflict: At around 11:30 A.M. on August 7, a park ranger found the partially consumed body of Lance Crosby, 63, a hiker who died as a result of traumatic injuries sustained from a grizzly attack. The autopsy concluded that the puncture wounds were inflicted when the man was still alive. When retrieving the body that afternoon, Gunther says they “heard cubs bawl and got a glimpse of a bear running away into the forest.” That night, officials caught a female bear in a trap 30 feet from where the body was found. Evidence quickly piled up against her: She was the same size and had the same markings as the one they saw fleeing the scene. The teeth closely matched the puncture wounds, and the DNA collected from fur and scat nearby “was a slam dunk,” says Gunther.

Verdict: “We wouldn’t want a bear out there that knows how easy it is to kill and eat people—even if it was an accidental encounter,” says Gunther. “Bears are extremely intelligent and adaptable. They readily learn new foods, especially ones that are easy to obtain and high calorie—like us.” So they decided to euthanize the sow and send the cubs to an AZA-accredited zoo (adult bears from the wild don’t do well in captivity). The cubs had only been with their mother for the spring and summer—not enough time to learn the ropes—and baby bears have pretty low survival rates even with their mother. “They didn’t have any education for putting on fat from fall foods,” he says. “And the last food that their mother did teach them was humans, and that would be a very difficult thing to un-teach.”

Action: To catch the sow and her cubs, they helicoptered in a door trap—a large aluminum structure with an entryway that slams shut when wildlife enters—and baited it with roadkill. Once they captured the sow, they tranquilized her and shot her in the head with a bolt gun, similar to those used to kill livestock. The cubs were sent to Toledo.

Takeaway: On average, there’s one bear attack in the park each year, and in most instances, everybody lives. Park officials temporarily closed the area where the hiker died to prevent further encounters. Gunther stresses the importance of following bear-safety guidelines, including carrying bear spray and staying more than 300 feet away (at least) from the powerful, fast-moving animals.

A Second Chance

Bear: Snowshoe, a female grizzly

Where: Near Avon, Montana

Backstory: Grizzlies are slowly expanding into more of their historical range. What made Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Jamie Jonkel especially interested in Snowshoe was the fact that she is the first female of her population to travel this far south. “Males aren’t important,” he says, explaining that the fellas tend to wander, while ladies stick closer to home and take on a portion of their mother’s range. That’s probably what this female did and likely just swung farther south. “As soon as you have two or three females show up and start reproducing in an area with no grizzly activity in 50 or 60 years, that’s significant,” Jonkel says.

Conflict: In August, the three-year-old, 217-pound bear killed two sheep on a ranch about 40 miles west of Helena, the state capital. She was in a riparian area, probably searching for chokecherry when she stumbled on sheep. She left the remains of one out in the open and cached the second elsewhere for later. The landowner notified officials.

Verdict: When grizzlies, which are federally listed as a threatened species, kill livestock, they’re given a second chance, sometimes more. “Unless it’s a real horrendous sort of thing, and he kills 20 sheep or adult cows,” Jonkel says. “Then he’s removed.” This was Snowshoe’s first known attack on livestock, and, in keeping with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee guidelines, officials decided to move her.

Action: Two agencies were involved in capturing and relocating Snowshoe. The day after she killed the sheep, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services set snares and trapped her. Jonkel and his team then handled her and attached a GPS collar (which, unfortunately, dropped off about a week later, as sometimes happens). The following day, she was released far to the north, on the South Fork of the Flathead River, near the edge of the Great Bear Wilderness.

Takeaway: Snowshoe may find enough food and stay far enough away that she won’t seek out such easy pickings next year, but she’s just one of many grizzlies that have been scavenging in lower elevations since late summer. “This year, in my area, we had the perfect storm of drought and warm weather,” Jonkel says. “Around August, serviceberry and chokecherry started coming on earlier than usual, so bears came down low to take advantage.” The food source soon dried up, but most bears stayed, eating apples, pears, trash, livestock—whatever they could find. “Sadly, we have a lot of new behaviors being learned,” he says. “Next year we might have a wonderful wet year with lots of berries, but they’ll have these memories of this Eden.”

* * *

These stories are just a sampling of the West’s bear troubles this year, but each case is a reminder that as ursine populations continue to recover and expand, we’re likely to have more interactions with these creatures—and that humans often help create the conditions that encourage the development of problem behaviors in bears. Experts expect more conflicts this season as the animals prepare for their long sleep. When they finally settle into their slumber, the biologists who manage them also get a break. “Oh man, I’m ready,” says Rogstad. Then, after a pause, he adds, “Unfortunately, with our warming planet, that seems to be happening a little later every year.”

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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