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Grizzly sighted near Lander again; large numbers still unlikely in southern Winds

Aug 7, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

This year marks the third consecutive summer that a grizzly bear has been sighted in the mountains outside of Lander, but officials said the news shouldn't change the habits of responsible forest users.

Brian DeBolt, large carnivore conflict coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Lander, said people should take precautions against bear encounters whenever they enter the animal's habitat, "whether grizzlies are around or not."

"I guess if people are overly concerned about grizzly bears they need to be more cautious, (but) it's just common sense," DeBolt said. "You store your food and keep everything unavailable to bears, whether black or grizzly. It's just good land stewardship and good wildlife stewardship to not let these wild animals get fed."

He said black bears, which are more common in the southern Wind River Mountains, can be just as dangerous as grizzly bears, especially when the animals grow accustomed to finding food around local campsites.

"That's the worst type of black bear you can have," DeBolt said.

Grizzly bears are known to be more aggressive by nature, but DeBolt said most grizzlies are acting defensively when they attack a human.

"They're characterized as ... more dangerous, and that's true," DeBolt said. "But they're reacting basically to defend themselves. They see people as a threat, either to their cubs (or) their food."

A food-conditioned black bear, by contrast, may go on the offensive against a human if it thinks it can get a meal.

"They actually see humans as food," DeBolt said. "It's more rare for that to occur, (but) a bear that consistently receives human foods and associates ... human developments and camps with them being able to fill their belly can become aggressive toward people."

More bears

This year's grizzly was spotted by a trail camera in June, but DeBolt said that by now the animal "could be anywhere."

"How far they wander in a given year varies quite a bit," DeBolt said.

He has no way of knowing the age or gender of the bears that have been seen in the Lander area; DeBolt said none of the animals has been marked or tagged.

"We haven't documented who they are, and we have no history with them," he said. "They're anywhere from 4- to 6-year-old males, and it could be the last three years (it was) the same bear. ... We really don't know."

He doesn't think the southern Wind River Mountains have become an established grizzly habitat, though he said bear populations seem to be increasing and spreading throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem. Similar grizzly sightings have been recorded north of Cody, on the Greybull River below Meeteetse and as far south as Big Piney, according to DeBolt.

"This is a function of that," he said of the local bear reports. "You'll typically see the younger males starting to utilize habitats on the periphery of the range. They're the ones that usually search a little further to establish some kind of home range."

The presence of female grizzlies with cubs would mark the transition to an established habitat, Debolt continued.

"If you have a grizzly bear sow with cubs, that means they're pretty much staying put," he said. "You can pretty much say that constitutes a population of bears. But we haven't seen that yet."

Regardless, he said with three consecutive years of confirmed sightings in the Wind River Mountains, "the writing is on the wall (that) bears are moving this direction."

"The facts are the facts --the grizzly bear is well-recovered biologically," DeBolt said.

The animals still are listed as endangered, however, and DeBolt said his agency can't do much to keep grizzlies out of the southern Wind River Mountains. But he said the Game and Fish Department identified the local area as one that would be unsuitable for grizzly bears because of the presence of humans.

"The amount of human use is tremendous, with livestock grazing and dispersed recreation," DeBolt said. "The Winds are heavily used by people, and there's a lot of backcountry use. The potential for conflict is pretty high."

He said he appreciates any information from the public about bear sightings in the area. To contact DeBolt, call the Wyoming Game and Fish office in Lander at 332-2688.

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