The Wyoming Game and Fish is finally starting their bear trapping and collaring in my valley. They were supposed to start weeks ago, but the weather was too incremental, with several wet snowstorms, making it impossible to get far enough in to place the traps. I know this only because one of the students who worked on the elk project this winter was supposed to help with the trapping. Instead, because the work was delayed, he’s already off to Canada to work with bears there.
Our main dirt road travels directly west, ending about 7 miles from the Yellowstone boundary. But those seven miles are straight up, through the shale and scree of the Absaroka Mountains. If you can make it over the pass, you’ll end up in the Hoodoos, one of the most remote areas of Yellowstone.
The dirt road is maintained for about 25 miles from the Chief Joseph Highway. After that its strictly four-wheel condition, and mostly only ATV’s can cross some of the creeks at the upper ends.
About 20 miles from the main highway, the road is closed till July 15. That’s the ‘Bear Gate’. People ask “Is that so the bears don’t get into the populated part of the valley?” But the gate is so cars don’t go up there and disturb the bears. The idea is that the Grizzlies can have their own space, undisturbed by cars, atv’s, people, when they emerge from their dens. Its a great idea, but of course the grizzlies do what they want and roam free, which means they are up the valley this direction if they please. But it does help to discourage weekenders and reduce human-bear conflicts.
Where do they go after July 15th?
Just 10 or 15 years ago, no one knew where Grizzlies went when they suddenly disappeared from the Park in early July. One day a private plane was flying over the Absarokas and saw bears, lots of them, congregating on slopes of scree above timberline. They were turning over rocks and boulders. Usually solitary, this was a strange site to see groups of bears together. It turned out they were looking for cut-worm moths and eating them at the rate of up to 40,000 a day. I once saw these moths in the Wind River Mountains. Thousands of them hanging under a rock crevice. It was a sight I won’t forget.
The moths provide the bears with much needed fat for the winter. At the end of my valley there is a glacier. Its not uncommon to find the bears in the talus slopes in August.
Today I drove up the valley for a short hike across the river to a Sulphur Lakebed.
On the way, I stopped and chatted with some new young forest rangers. I asked about the collaring and if it had begun.
“They’re trapping at the bear gate. Just a bit beyond it.” They informed me.
I said I wished they’d let us residents know so we don’t hike there. They put carcasses out as bait and I don’t want to be nearby. “I wish they’d tell us”, the young rangers replied.
I suppose its good science to have them counted and collared. But I can’t help but feel “let the bears be bears.”
My hike today on the south side of the creek, quite a ways down from the bear gate, was full of fresh bear tracks and scat.
On the way back home, I met a neighbor who told me there were fresh tracks behind his ranch and he’d led the G&F fellows up to where they could place their traps. There was a huge pile of scat on the road as well. Last week I ran into fresh tracks in two drainages on the north side of the road.
My valley is where ‘problem bears’ are dropped off. They take them to the bear gate, or beyond, and let them go, with the hopes they’ll go into Yellowstone. A problem bear was dropped off just last week. I think we average about 4 or 5 problem bears a summer.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of riding around with Mark Bruscino for an afternoon of bear education up the North Fork. We didn’t see any bears, but I learned a lot talking with Mark. Mark is the bear specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish. He’s been working to restore the Grizzly population for over fifteen years. I asked about the problem bears.
“Tell people that the bears they really don’t have to worry about are the problem ones we drop off. Within days they ‘home’ back to where they came from.”
I think the relocation is an exercise in public relations, with a hope and a prayer that the bear learns something once he gets ‘home’.
The cool thing about hiking in grizzly country is the need to stay alert and aware. In California, I could hike, think, talk, and space out all at the same time. But hiking here, in the Greater Yellowstone area, I have to stay aware of my environment all the time. I listen, I slow down, I look around; and so I notice so much more. That doesn’t mean being tense. It means being conscious. I think that’s how we’re all meant to be living all the time. Taking the predators away, well, we’ve just forgotten.