‘Bear Jam’ 2020: Wyoming grizzly-viewing experience getting hairy

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Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region remain a federally "threatened'' species protected by the Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service technically calls the shots. But jurisdictional boundaries can be a little fuzzy. (Photo by Bob Drieslein)

JACKSON, Wyo. — Near mile marker 11 on Togwotee Pass, Tiffany Huynh wanted to know what all the commotion was about.

Two grizzly bears, someone informed her, were snoozing.

A look came over her. Fists started pumping in the air.

“Yessssss,” an exhilarated Huynh hissed. “Bears.”

“Oh, my god,” she said, “I’ve never seen a bear.”

The Los Angelino roadtripper was invited to step up to Jack and Gina Bayles’ spotting scope, through which she peeped a heap of chocolate brown fur. Her gaze fixed on a grizzly bear boar that slumbered in the timber, resting between unsuccessful efforts at courting a sow known as “863” by wildlife managers and “Felicia” by most people at the scene.

A mid-May Saturday afternoon it was a relatively calm day of watching the grizzly boar’s hapless attempts at ursine romance. Mostly the bruins stayed at a distance, slept and then slipped out of sight over a ridgeline, with the chocolate male dutifully tailing his uninterested quarry.

Still, an air of commotion and tension hung along the highway.

At all times in the couple of hours that surrounded Huynh’s sighting, a few dozen people lined the highway, inquiring what everyone was seeing and pinching the thoroughfare with their parked vehicles. A pickup truck driver jammed on his horn, voicing displeasure with an RV stopped in the middle of a 65 mph highway. A Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden lingered in the distance, using binoculars to keep eyes on a crowd of people who themselves were focused on the bears. Among the ranks of the grizzly watch party the somewhat surreptitious surveillance drew sneers and snide remarks.

Starting soon, the faithful Togwotee grizzly followers will have more company, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.

Joining them is a new full-time Bridger-Teton National Forest volunteer who will be staffing the scene. For years grizzly watching along the highway east of Moran has been the antithesis of the park’s “bear jam” experience, where there are crews of volunteer “brigadiers,” traffic cones and rangers aplenty. On Togwotee there were no chaperones, and people were mostly left to police themselves. Sometimes that went smoothly, but other times it’s proved to be an ugly affair – and the stakes are high when large carnivores, naive tourists and high-speed traffic are all part of the equation.

This past weekend, wildlife photographer Savannah Burgess said “unfortunately” people were venturing well off the Togwotee highway to snap face-on pics of the still actively courting grizzly duo at close range.

Such behavior is putting the bears at risk, Burgess said, and inviting conflict.

“I don’t think people understand how precarious that situation is,” she said.

Wildlife, land and highway managers started planning to boost their presence on the pass after the summer 2019 grizzly-watching season, when the drama crescendoed. Grizzly 863 emerged from her den that spring with two cubs, but early on one of them went missing. The remaining defenseless cub, nicknamed Pepper, was then separated from mom for over a month but miraculously reunited in mid-July. That cub evidently perished over the winter, because when Felicia came into view this spring she was sans the young one.

In the interim the involved agencies and even county attorneys convened over several long conference calls to discuss what to do.

Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region remain a federally “threatened” species protected by the Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service technically calls the shots. But jurisdictional boundaries can be a little fuzzy.

“When there’s a roadside bear in Grand Teton National Park, the Park Service can manage that well because they’re the agency in charge of the park,” Fish and Wildlife special agent Steve Stoinski said. “When we get a roadside bear outside the park, suddenly it gets a little more complicated.”

The Wyoming Department of Transportation takes the lead in managing the road and addressing hazards to travel, he said. The Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish jointly handle the bears. Two national forests control the surrounding land: the Bridger-Teton on the west side of the pass and the Shoshone on the east.

The agencies agreed to focus on educating the public, confining motorists to designated pullouts and parking areas and cracking down on violations.

“We’re just trying to keep people safe and protect the bears, because they have no voice,” Stoinski said. “We aren’t looking to try to bust people, though some people do push the envelope.”

Impeding the movement of a grizzly bear, even to take a photo, is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, he said.

Stoinski has ventured up to the pass three times this spring, though never managing to lay eyes on Felicia. As soon as next week he’ll have some steady assistance from a federal sister agency. The Bridger-Teton is bringing on a full-time volunteer, an Oregonian named Dale Barker, who will wear an official uniform and drive an official vehicle, and whose duties as a bear “ambassador” entail no shortage of time spent on Togwotee Pass.

Blackrock District Ranger Todd Stiles is welcoming the help.

“Sometimes 863 is out for 10 hours a day,” Stiles said. “We just haven’t had the staff to have someone up there all day engaged in conversation.”

Although Barker is technically a volunteer he will receive a stipend and incurs some costs. Two nongovernmental organizations are splitting that expense: the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Friends of the Bridger-Teton.

Sarah Walker, who heads the friends group, is also trying to flex her social media muscle by getting photographers and public officials to take the #100yardpledge on Instagram, encouraging compliance with viewing guidelines.

“The 100 yards pledge is a good golden rule, and if you only have three words, those are the ones,” Walker said. “But obviously there’s a lot more nuanced issues, and you can’t always be 100 yards away.”

Walker has also reached out to Togwotee Pass regulars, like Burgess and Jack Bayles, asking for assistance in encouraging good behavior.

“If Felicia is out, the same 10 of us are going to be out here doing what we can do,” Bayles said, “but it will sure be nice when somebody can come out and have our backs.”

Bayles’ hunch is that the Togwotee grizzly-watching affair will correct itself this year. When Felicia has been without cubs like she is this year, she’s typically headed into the backcountry for the summer, out of sight of the highway. He’s hoping that will again be the case.

“I wish she’d just go over the hill,” Bayles said. “It would suck to not see her, but I think she’d have a lot longer life than I think she’s going to have.”

But in the meantime, the habituated sow is sticking around – with the brown boar hot on her heels.

Such was the scene Saturday, when photographers trying to document the courtship were reportedly behaving badly.

“There were six, eight, 10 people lying in the grass 50 feet from Felicia, with the male chomping and snapping his jaws in the background,” Bayles said. “Game and Fish and the highway patrol made everyone leave, and then they started fire-crackering Felicia.

“It’s got to a point where we didn’t even want to be there,” he said, “because we didn’t want to be a part of that problem.”

Another factor that’s making the Togwotee grizzly mania abate at times is other grizzly bears.

Jackson Hole wildlife videographer Jeff Hogan was up on the pass among the masses last Thursday when a friend whispered to him that grizzly 399 and her four cubs had reemerged into view after a couple of days hidden. His friend slipped away stealthily, leaving the sighting a secret.

“Two minutes later, this guy goes, ‘399’s out!”’ Hogan recounted.

Within minutes the crowd cleared out to chase sightings of the more famed park bear and her four cubs.

“It was unbelievable,” Hogan said, remaining behind to watch grizzly 863 in relative peace.

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