Where Do All the Problem Bears Go?

THE GRIZZLY had already managed to trip, and escape, two metal box traps. It had even swiped a piece of the nasty roadkill-deer bait from inside the trap and escaped before the door closed. It had been wandering through in the middle of the night to feed on a dead cow in a pit behind a rancher’s house in rural Wyoming—understandable, but not acceptable, bear behavior.

So state biologists set a snare. The rancher called the following day to let them know the boar had finally been caught by its ankle and was deeply unhappy.

As we drove up to the snare in the hazy morning light that day in May 2010, the grizzly rose on his hide legs, roared furiously, and summersaulted against the end of his tether. I waited in the truck, sandwiched between two Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists. Mark Bruscino, WGFD’s bear conflict manager at the time, loaded his rifle with tranquilizer darts and rolled down the window. He shot once, waited 20 minutes, then shot again. Within minutes the bear was out, breathing quietly beside the pit he’d been frequenting for dinner the previous two nights.

After taking blood and hair samples and measuring its head, neck, and paws, Bruscino called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consult on the bear’s fate. The boar was probably 25 years old by Bruscino’s estimate, and hadn’t been in trouble before. His ears showed no marks from an ear tag and his bottom lip revealed no tattoo—both signs of a bear that had previously been caught and released by officials. A decision needed to be made: Move the grizzly somewhere else and hope he would leave the rancher alone, or euthanize a 520-pound animal that appeared to have a clean track record.

Like his fellow biologists in Montana and Idaho, Bruscino consulted the feds to make that same calculation dozens, if not hundreds, of times since grizzly bears were first placed on the endangered species list in 1975. Biologists moved the first Wyoming bear in 1976, and they’re still collaborating with federal officials to decide the fate of nearly every grizzly bear that conflicts with humans. And until federal officials delist the grizzly bear, politicians will keep arguing, environmental and agriculture groups will keep suing, and biologists on the ground will have to keep making these kinds of calls.

What Makes a Grizzly Bear a “Problem Bear”

Most Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming residents who live in or around grizzly country refer to bears like the one on the ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming, as “problem bears.” They’re the grizzlies that pad too close to houses, dig through unsecured garbage cans, camp out under apple trees, climb through cabin windows, and ransack chicken coops.

They’re also the ones WGFD must decide to move or kill. But Dan Thompson, the agency’s large carnivore section supervisor, doesn’t like the term “problem bears.”

bears in campsite with cooler
Grizzlies that are conditioned to associate humans with an easy meal are typically bears that will be euthanized if captured, not released. Mat Hayward / Adobe Stock

“We do not move any bears that we feel are a direct human safety threat,” says Thompson. “But the media headlines in the public are ‘another problem bear was dumped on top of us.’”

If a bear is causing problems related to public safety and biologists think that bear is likely to keep causing those problems, chances are the bear will be killed—not relocated. So what’s the difference between a “problem” bear and one that’s more of, let’s say, a naughty bear? A whole host of factors, Thompson says.

When a homeowner calls WGFD about a grizzly bear wandering through a residential garden and eating their salad fixings, for example, biologists first try hazing the bear out of the area. Hazing techniques include yelling, honking or, if needed, shooting the bear with shot that stings but doesn’t injure it. If the bear runs off, officials then work with the landowner to make the garden a bit more grizzly-safe, often by surrounding the veggies with an electric fence. If the bear won’t leave the garden with hazing or is aggressive toward homeowners or other locals, this probably isn’t the bear’s first garden raid, and it won’t be its last unless wildlife officials euthanize it.

If a bear is caught rummaging through a cabin, opening cabinets or refrigerators searching for snacks, biologists will likely trap and kill the bear. Too much familiarity with human food and human housing is too dangerous, Thompson says. But what about those bears that kill a calf in the spring or happen to wander into a rural apple orchard?

subadult bear with collar and ear tags
One of the sub-adult cubs of infamous Grizzly 399 sports a tracking collar and ear tag. Patrick / Adobe Stock

“If it’s a 4-year-old sub-adult female, it has no conflict history, it’s never been handled before and there’s only evidence that one calf was killed, we’re probably going to move that bear,” says Thompson.

When making relocation decisions, biologists also consider a bear’s condition. Is it a young, healthy bear taking advantage of an easy meal? Or is it an older, emaciated bear with few, if any, remaining teeth and short odds of surviving in the wild much longer? The young grizzlies get behavior redirection in the form of a tranquilizer dart and a truck ride. The old ones are often euthanized to prevent more conflicts and to give declining bears a quick death.

Once caught, biologists give each bear the same treatment: punch it with an ear tag, inject a microchip under its skin (similar to the one vets give the family dog), affix a collar around its neck, and tattoo a number on the inside of its lip. Bears often yank out ear tags while battling other bears and collars rarely stay on for long, but lip tattoos and microchips generally stick around.

Wildlife officials then load the bear back into a trap and tow it somewhere far away from that garden or apple orchard or dead calf, then work with the landowner to remove or prevent whatever attractant drew the bear in the first place.

It’s that relocation piece that’s creating increasing controversy from both sides of the aisle: Where do you put a potential problem bear?

Relocating Grizzlies on a Crowded Landscape

When USFWS first listed grizzly bears, fewer than 140 still lived in Yellowstone National Park and the mission was clear: Protect bears to increase their numbers.

As populations expanded and bears encountered humans—often on a landscape full of unsecured garbage cans, bird feeders, and bowls of dog food—biologists quickly darted and moved the bears. Each one was vital to the population, so only the ones posing very clear danger to humans were euthanized.

The grizzly population kept expanding and, by 2009, officials estimated more than 600 bears lived in the official recovery area. Grizzlies are notoriously hard to survey and count (officials are in the process of updating the formulas used to estimate numbers that many residents criticize as lower than reality), but the current population count is more than 1,000 bears in areas where they’re actively being monitored.

That increase is both a success story and a problem for managers, Thompson says. The numbers show bears are recovered, but it also means there are fewer and fewer places for bears to go without bumping into humans. Bruscino, now retired, said in 2010 that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was like a bucket—and grizzly bears had long since filled that bucket and kept pouring out. Thompson agrees.

sedated bear with eye covering and ear tag
Captured grizzlies slated for relocation typically receive ear tags, a microchip, a lip tattoo, and a collar before release. Suzanna Soileau / USGS

Between 2000 and 2010, Wyoming alone dealt with an average of 150 grizzly bear conflicts each year, moving about 18 bears per year and killing six per year, Thompson says. From 2013 to 2022, that conflict number jumped to 215, with about 18 bears relocated and 18 killed per year. Many of those bears that were euthanized, he adds, were trapped in areas that were not considered suitable bear habitat.

Combine more bears with record numbers of people recreating in the Yellowstone region, and biologists have a harder and harder time finding somewhere to place those young, dumb bears.

“There’ve been times we’ve showed up to a place that we’ve moved bears for decades behind a closed gate, and now there’s somebody camping there,” Thompson says. “So now we’ve got to find another place.”

Exactly where biologists take bears varies by the situation. Most release sites are on U.S. Forest Service land, and almost always behind locked gates. If a bear was trapped eating livestock, it will be relocated as far away as possible from the original site and far away from any grazing leases. If it was caught under that apple tree, it might not be moved as far away—but in the meantime, officials will help the landowner grizzly-proof the apples. Biologists in Wyoming never move grizzly bears to private land.

biologists measure bear
A team of biologists take blood and hair samples from a tranquilized grizzly. Suzanna Soileau / USGS

Wildlife managers are also increasingly less tolerant of bears outside of the official Yellowstone Demographic Monitoring Area, a wavy line drawn loosely around Yellowstone National Park, meandering around portions of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. It’s an area where officials say grizzlies have enough open space and habitat to survive. Outside that area is where they contend there are too many people—and too many opportunities for conflict—for North America’s largest land predator to live.

Lee Livingston, a Park County commissioner in northwest Wyoming and longtime outfitter and guide, says WGFD is doing the best they can with the situation they’re in.

He’s had plenty of bears walk through elk camp, and likely had bears dropped somewhere near his rural home near Cody, Wyoming, but if he’s run into a relocated bear, he hasn’t been able to tell the difference.

“We’re also very cognizant of the fact that we’re living and working in bear country and that’s part of what keeps our wilderness wild,” he says. “And we’re very cognizant of keeping our camp clean and doing things to mitigate having bears there and making it to where they preferably don’t want to come back.”

Even once grizzlies are delisted, Livingston says, some bears should still probably be moved.

“I think it should be case by case,” he says. “I think there are some bears that are not going to do well in society and some that deserve an opportunity prove that they can.”

Why Don’t We Relocate Yellowstone Grizzlies to Other Recovery Zones?

Unlike in Wyoming, Montana state officials work with USDA’s APHIS on trapping or relocations when the conflicts involve livestock. And as of 2022, the Montana state legislature mandated that state wildlife officials can only relocate conflict bears if they are captured in federal recovery zones. Environmental groups are suing as a result.

Part of the lawsuit argues that bears dispersing from their core range are key to connecting populations in northern Montana and eastern Idaho. In other words, populations can’t reconnect if bears aren’t allowed to move around. Two of six grizzly bear recovery zones—the Bitterroot and North Cascades—currently have no bear population at all.

Wyoming recently made an agreement with Montana and Idaho to move bears into the Yellowstone area if needed for genetic diversity reasons, but the state does not have an agreement to move Yellowstone bears to other areas. Montana has previously moved bears into the Cabinet-Yaak area, including four between 1990 and 1992. A paper in 2005 showed the relocations, or augmentations as they called them, “succeeded in preventing the CYE population from becoming functionally extinct.” But the state’s 2022 preferred alternative is to allow bears to naturally recover the Bitterroot Ecosystem by allowing bears to disperse naturally to the region.

biologists with trapped bear

“Some citizens view animals that are brought into new areas by people very differently than they would view the same animals who arrived on their own,” reads Montana’s 2022 Grizzly Bear Management Plan. “Also, agencies typically have been reluctant to move an animal that has the potential to cause conflicts in its new home.”

Many hunters and outfitters, like Livingston, are waiting for bears to come off the endangered species list in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and for hunting seasons to begin. The last time the feds delisted bears (in 2017, before USFWS was sued to relist them), Wyoming proposed hunting up to 22 bears: 10 in the Demographic Monitoring Area and 12 outside of the region. At the time, Idaho proposed hunting one bear and Montana declined to hold a season.

Some argue the best way to deal with problem bears, or bears engaging with humans, is by hunting. Livingston acknowledges this is a tricky solution. Hunters may not be able to target just the problem bears unless WGFD starts guiding those hunts. But even if hunters aren’t killing the bears likely to get in trouble, they are freeing up space in the recovery area for bears to be relocated.

“That’s why we have problem bears,” Livingston says. “They’re pushed to the front country because the populations in the backcountry are so high, yet have to go somewhere.”

Read Next: Are Grizzly Attacks Really on the Rise?

Ultimately, bears seldomly stay where they were dumped. Instead of euthanizing that cow-eating boar near Meeteetse, the feds and Wyoming biologists decided to relocate him. They drove for hours around the periphery of some of the most remote country in the Lower 48, ultimately dumping him about 40 miles away from where he was caught, with rugged mountains in between. A few weeks later, as biologists conducted routine aerial bear surveys, the bear’s signal popped up on a radio transceiver back near Meeteetse. But the bear wasn’t near the ranch and appeared to stay out of trouble.

More than five years later, Bruscino told me that the rancher occasionally picked up the old boar on his trail cameras at night. The bear wasn’t digging in the garbage or pawing at house windows, just wandering through the ranch—one more bear on an island surrounded by humans.

Read more OL+ stories.