Dan Bjornlie, large carnivore biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish, is no longer surprised when he hears reports of grizzly bear sightings in new places or when tracks from grizzly bears appear in areas they haven’t been seen for years.
“Every year it seems we see a bit of expansion, bears showing up in a place here or there they haven’t been seen before,” he said.
And that means people who hunt, hike or recreate in areas that have long been bear-free, need to be aware they may now be in bear country, he said.
It also means that bears from the Greater Yellowstone area may soon be able to connect and genetically with bears of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier National Park.
Last year a bear was spotted almost directly between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Biologists don’t know which bear population the animal belonged to, but it’s indicative of the bears dispersing farther from the national parks, and a sign that eventually the populations could intermingle.
“It’s absolutely feasible and I don’t think it’s going to be too terribly long,” Bjornlie said.
He thinks within the next five to 10 years male grizzlies will cross between the two ecosystems. That is still down the road. Today, bears are occupying new areas in Wyoming.
Last year there was a report of a bear in the Greys River area, a region grizz hadn’t been spotted in for years, Bjornlie said. A few years ago a bear started frequenting the South Pass area near Limestone Mountain and the popular Wild Iris climbing area. There’ve been sightings there each year since, though Bjornlie isn’t certain it’s the same bear.
People come to places like Wild Iris from around the world and don’t usually think “now I’m in grizzly bear country,” when they go to climb, Bjornlie said. Climbers might have frequented the area off-and-on for years and never thought about bears.
“And now we’ve got at least one grizzly bear running around that area,” he said.
Bears are also becoming more common in areas south of Jackson, such as in the Hoback area and on the western side of the Wind River Mountains and have spread from Cody to Thermopolis.
“They are just kind of filling in available space,” Bjornlie said.
He recommends people keep bear spray handy, but the bigger issue is food storage. There are more bear boxes at campgrounds across the state and people should use them, but also think about where they are keeping coolers and food in areas without the bear-proof storage.
“It’s not just grizzly bears we are talking about when we are talking about being bear aware,” he said.
Too often people don’t take black bears as seriously as grizzly bears and neglect best practices when it comes to food storage.
“Now that we have a few grizzly bears running around, people are paying more attention,” he said.
Last year there were an estimated 695 grizzly bears in the Demographic Monitoring Area — the part of the ecosystem where bears are counted — Bjornlie said. That figure doesn’t include bears outside the DMA — a larger and larger population as animals roam farther and farther.
Biologists recently finished annual aerial observations, and while final numbers from the observations and overall population monitoring were not yet available, it seemed a standard year, he said. Bjornlie did say he expected there would be a slight increase in females with cubs based on observations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzly bears from the threatened species list earlier this summer, although several conservation groups have filed at least six lawsuits challenging the decision. Wyoming Game and Fish expects to release it’s a plan to manage grizzly bears in the spring. Wildlife managers in Wyoming have planned a series of public meetings in Casper, Laramie, Sheridan, Green River, Cody, Lander, Pinedale and Jackson.