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Having grizzlies as neighbors is just a fact of life near Cody, Wyoming

It used to be a pretty big deal to see a grizzly bear far beyond the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, east toward Cody.

But in recent years, things have changed along the North Fork, a semi-settled area between Cody and the border of the Shoshone National Forest, just east of the park.

The sight of a grizzly lumbering through the woods and sage, or even someone’s backyard, means it’s another Tuesday, some North Fork residents told Cowboy State Daily.

“If I saw a bear outside my house, and I look out my window right now, and if I saw one, I would say to my wife, ‘There’s a bear.’ It’s not so bad to see them anymore,” says famed outdoor writer Jim Zumbo. “That used to be the case, but not anymore.”

He has lived on the North Fork near Wapiti, a small unincorporated community, for 35 years and remembers when grizzlies were virtually unknown in the area.

Richard Jones is a retired Forest Service and National Park Service ranger who lived on the North Fork, near the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest, for about nine years.

“There have been two or three bear sightings in my neighborhood in the last two or three weeks,” he said.

And just last week, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had to capture and relocate a male grizzly that had killed and eaten livestock near Cody.

Bears over Yellowstone’s garbage dumps

Jones first moved to Wyoming in 1953. His father was a ranger in Yellowstone Park.

At the time, grizzly bears were extremely rare. In the Lower 48 they were practically brought to the brink of extinction, and few remained in or around Yellowstone.

With black bears it was a different story, Jones said. People had a terrible habit of feeding them, and they also congregated around open dumps in the park.

“The black bears were everywhere. And they were a problem at the time because people were feeding them,” Jones said.

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 were placed under federal endangered species protection in 1975 so they would have a chance at recovery.

Grizzlies are big again

And recover they have, Jones said.

The target grizzly bear population was set at approximately 700-800 bears throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). That includes the park and surrounding wild areas in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Official estimates now put grizzly bear numbers at about 1,000 in the GYE, plus another 1,000 in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which radiates from Glacier National Park.

Jones said he suspects there are probably many more grizzly bears, perhaps as many as 1,500 in the GYE alone. That could explain their ever-increasing presence and visibility in the North Fork.

“The area is some of the best habitat for grizzly bears,” he said. “Grizzly bear recovery has been a huge success story.”

Whether grizzly bears should be removed from federal protection and turned over their management to the states remains a controversial topic.

Many, like Jones, are calling for the delisting, citing the numbers.

Others argue that until there is full genetic flow between the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide grizzly populations, the species will not fully thrive here.

Repopulating central Idaho’s remote Bitterroot Region with grizzly bears is crucial to making that happen, conservationists argue.

Of course an animal from the plains

The North Fork isn’t the only place in and around Park County where more grizzly bears are being spotted, Zumbo said.

They have been well spotted in the open farm country between Cody and Powell, and around the base of Heart Mountain.

It only makes sense that grizzly bears would head to such areas, Jones said. After all, they were originally a plains species.

How far grizzly bears will spread into Wyoming’s prairie province remains to be seen.

But in Montana they have reclaimed the high plains, all the way to the Missouri Breaks.

Zumbo said he and his family have never really been afraid of grizzly bears, but sometimes went camping in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains so they could relax protocols for “camping in grizzly country.”

But that may no longer be an option, Zumbo said.

After years of rumors that grizzlies had been spotted in the Bighorns, it was confirmed in April that there was at least one grizzly bear. Wyoming Game and Fish Department rangers killed the bear, which was hunting livestock near Ten Sleep.

Take precautions

Zumbo said he started seeing grizzly bears sporadically in his area about a decade ago, and their presence has steadily increased since then.

He recalled one of his first meetings that took place several years ago.

“Our dogs were outside on the porch and barking like crazy. I went to look and there was a grizzly rolling around on the lawn,” he said.

Over the years, grizzlies and people have learned to share the North Fork, Zumbo said, adding that social media has helped keep people out of trouble.

“We send each other post messages in the Facebook groups, ‘Bear coming your way,’” he said.

There have been remarkably few serious grizzly attacks in the area, Zumbo said. He mentioned one fatality in June 2010.

Ewin Frank Evert of Cody was killed by an adult male grizzly that had apparently just recovered from being anesthetized and examined by biologists.

The attack occurred near Evert’s cabin along Kitty Creek in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody. Evert’s widow later unsuccessfully sued the federal government, alleging that the capture and research location was not sufficiently marked in advance with warning signs.

Zumbo said he is taking the usual precautions.

“When I’m cutting firewood in my lumber yard, I keep a gun on the tailgate of my pickup just in case,” he said.

Jones said he also usually keeps a firearm and/or bear spray on hand.

What concerns him is the possibility of launching a grizzly at close range, which usually prompts serious attacks, such as 35-year-old Shayne Patrick Burke, a Massachusetts resident, who was recently mauled in Grand Teton National Park.

That attack ended when the grizzly bear bit into its can of bear spray and burst it into her own face. The attack was considered a case of a mother grizzly defending her cub, and the National Park Service chose not to take action against the bear.

Burke is expected to make a full recovery from his injuries.

Just a fact of life

Jones said when grizzly bears first showed up in large numbers on the North Fork, there were a lot of problems. The bears ended up in poorly stored stockpiles of livestock feed and the like.

Now there are more grizzly bears than ever, but fewer problems, he said.

For that, he credits Game and Fish with helping educate residents on the basics of living in Grizzly County, such as properly storing grain, pet food or other possible temptations.

The concern now is the ever-increasing number of tourists traveling to the backcountry in and around Yellowstone who may not be wise, Jones said.

“There are more bears here than ever, and more and more people are moving to bear province. So do the math,” he said.

Other carnivores also appear to be moving in, Jones added.

“I might see a grizzly bear, followed by some wolves, followed by some mountain lions,” he said.

But that’s no reason to move, Zumbo and Jones said.

“I don’t live in fear here,” Zumbo said.

Jones said delisting grizzly bears and allowing them to be hunted on a limited basis could help instill a healthy fear of humans in them.

But concerns about the North Fork’s grizzly bears aren’t keeping him awake. He still considers it a safe place to live.

“There is a dangerous animal, but I’m more afraid of going to an ATM in Denver than I am of walking with grizzlies on the North Fork,” he said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at [email protected].

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