Grizzly Death Triggers Park to Weigh Options for Elk Hunt

Feb 1, 2013

Federal and state agencies have been feeding elk for more than a century because human development has taken up the valley floors, curtailing access to natural forage for elk.

The death of a grizzly bear in Grand Teton National Park on Thanksgiving Day of 2012 has triggered calls for ending the park's annual elk hunt. A hunting party shot the grizzly after the hunters said the bear charged them. Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott calls the bear's death a travesty. It's the first hunting-related grizzly death in the park. But Scott says her agency, the National Park Service, can't just end the hunt. Rebecca Huntington has more.

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott says she understands the public outrage over the bear’s death.

MARY GIBSON SCOTT: I saw the grizzly bear, the dead carcass, on the back of a truck, on Thanksgiving morning. Don't think that I don't take that extremely, deeply personal.


HUNTINGTON: But Scott says it's not that simple to end the park elk hunt. The law that expanded Grand Teton National Park in 1950 requires the National Park Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to work together, to jointly come up with recommendations for an elk reduction program -- basically setting a hunting season for elk in the park.

SCOTT: It's in the legislation. Legislation can be amended. But that's not within my authority. My authority is to implement and administer the law. I don't create law.

HUNTINGTON: Scott says one reason the hunt endures is because conditions, including elk migration patterns and a lack of natural winter range, haven't changed since that act was approved in 1950.

SCOTT: And one has to ask the question: Why have conditions not changed? Why do we have such a high elk population, the largest in the country, that it requires a harvest every year in Grand Teton National Park? And the answer is because of supplemental feeding. The winter range for this herd comes in on flatbed trucks.

HUNTINGTON: Federal and state agencies have been feeding elk for more than a century because human development has taken up the valley floors and that means less access to natural forage for elk.

STEVE CAIN: The system from an ecological standpoint is highly artificial.

HUNTINGTON: Steve Cain is a senior wildlife biologist for the park. He's been working on how to manage the elk herd for many years. He says artificial feeding has implications not just for elk but also for other wildlife. Artificial feeding prevents elk from starving in the winter and leaving carcasses for grizzlies to scavenge when they emerge from hibernation in the spring. Instead, the bears now dine on gut piles left by hunters in the fall, which can sometimes lead to encounters like the one that killed the grizzly on Thanksgiving morning.

CAIN: Clearly, predators have increased since 1950. We now have healthy populations of grizzly bears and wolves back in the system and they are doing their share at taking elk calves and regulating the population. But we still have literally thousands of elk that migrate through the park and that's the one opportunity that the agencies have to harvest and manage the elk herd.

HUNTINGTON: Environmental groups have sued to stop artificial feeding. But that could mean fewer elk for hunters, wildlife watchers and even predators, such as grizzlies. If feeding stopped, elk may look for their next meal on cattle feed lines, where they could increase the risk of spreading the disease brucellosis. All that makes ending feeding a politically and economically dicey decision.

HUNTINGTON: Even so, Scott says park officials are looking for options to tweak the park hunt.

SCOTT: Whether that's changing areas, hunter density, number of bullets whatever you can think of, we are internally analyzing and discussing that to mitigate to the degree that we can.

HUNTINGTON: But Scott says she can't end the hunt unilaterally. And park biologist Steve Cain adds that ending the hunt would essentially create a giant safe zone for elk. It wouldn't elk long to figure out how to outsmart hunters by essentially staying in the safe zone. And that would impact hunting outside the park. Although the hunt is likely to continue, Scott agrees with critics that it's an awkward fit for a national park.

SCOTT: An elk reduction program, or a hunt, is not consistent with traditional values of national parks. Hunting in national parks is extremely unique. So it does have inconsistencies with the values of wildlife viewing and visitor experience. We know that. But the law is the law.

HUNTINGTON: If people want to see that change, she says they'll have to take it up with the body that writes the law, and that's Congress. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.