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Missing Mama Grizzly

Last October our game warden was hunting in my valley when he was bluff charged by a sow grizzly bear.  This bear had three cubs of the year (COY) by her side. She first gave a bluff charge, but then turned around, huffed, and came at the warden again. It was then that Chris Queen discharged his hunting rifle and killed her. After some deliberation about what to do with her young, small cubs, the Wyoming Game and Fish decided to let nature take its course, giving them a slim chance to make a den and survive the winter.

Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for about 2 1/2 years. Born blind and helpless in the winter den, cubs need to learn everything about bear survival from their mother. What foods to eat and where to find them. One fall I was in Tom Miner Basin. A pair of two year old grizzlies were roaming together. I was told they’d lost their mother the previous fall, but somehow managed to survive the winter and thrive through the summer. COY surviving without their mother is a rare event.

Grizzly Cubs 2 years old

Tom Miner basin. Two cubs that survived when their mother was killed the previous year

When I heard about the sow’s death, my heart ached. I knew that bear. In fact, I’d just observed her and the cubs the week before. She was ambling across a pasture while the cubs pranced and played behind her. A few years ago, I watched her with two two-year-old cubs cross a meadow on the opposite side of the road. Every spring I would drive up the nearby drainage across from these meadows and find her tracks with cubs in tow. Little Sunlight, where the warden killed her, was not far from the area I’d observed the family. These were her haunts.

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Mama grizzly with her three COY in September shortly before she was killed

I wondered if those cubs survived. The Game & Fish said they counted them in their tally as dead bears. How many bears died in a previous year would determine how many could be hunted in the following. I’m sure they ear-tagged them though. My plan was to drive up their mother’s favorite drainage and see if I could either spot the cubs, or at best, locate their tracks. Mom always walked down the dirt road, then veered off into the meadows at a predictable place. Since I saw her there (either by sight or by sign) early spring and late fall, I thought maybe she tended to den in that area so the cubs might too. At the very least, I felt this was an area the cubs knew. To my disappointment, after an extensive search, the only tracks I could see were the faint sign of an adult male. That doesn’t mean the cubs didn’t survive, but the odds are low.

Grizzly print

Male griz about 12″ long and 5″ wide. He’s traveling towards the left of the print.

Just last week a person shot and killed a female sow in what they said was self-defense. She had several cubs with her. There was no mention in the article of the hiker carrying bear spray. It also appeared he was hiking alone, so his story can never be verified.

Last week I attended the very important Wyoming Game and Fish commission meeting. After hours of public comment, running 5:1 against a hunt, the commissioners voted unanimously within a few minutes to let the first grizzly hunt in the lower 48 in over 40 years proceed. We all knew the outcome of that vote before we even attended. Regardless, it was important we be heard. A spokesman for the tribes read a comment. The tribes requested that instead of a hunt, those bears be transferred to various tribal lands. If the Wyoming Game & Fish along with residents who say “have a hunt to reduce bear numbers” really believe that meme, then why not transfer bears to other areas where they once lived instead of killing them for trophy.

I was in Silver City, New Mexico last month. One of the last grizzly bears was killed in that area in the 1930s. An extensive study was done in the 1970s to see if the Gila National Forest would still support a small population of grizzlies. The study concluded that although there had been fire suppression which hindered some of their food sources, grizzlies could survive there. Since that time fires have come to the Gila and opened up the habitat. With livestock protections, grizzlies could once again roam the Gila National Forest and surrounding areas. The tribes could be the catalyst who help expand grizzlies into areas where they once lived where habitat is still suitable.

Grizzly habitat SW 1860

Yellow indicates grizzly range in 1860 in northern Mexico and SW USA

Wyoming has it backwards. The state feels it has to hunt the bear to reduce conflicts and bear population. Instead, they should be ramping up their efforts to teach people how to live around grizzly country, like carrying bear spray and protecting food sources. Plus they should cooperate with the tribes, transferring the 2018 hunt quota of 23 bears to tribal lands.

As William Wright so succinctly put it over a hundred years ago:  “grizzly bears are minders of their own business.” We can honor that bear temperament by leaving them be.

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Tired COY leans on Mama. I still haven’t seen any signs of the COY this spring

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