- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Kate Wilmot was walking down Pilgrim Creek Road under the impression she’d had a reprieve from managing grizzly bear jams for the moment.

Grizzly 679, a lumbering boar with a home range that stretches all the way to the Madison River, had been paralleling Pilgrim Creek Road, to the delight of a few dozen early-season bear watchers. But then the big male crossed the gravel road, scratched his back on a pumphouse wall and disappeared into a grove of trees along Pilgrim Creek.

Interest waned, and the crowds dissipated and began retreating back toward the highway, the Jackson Hole News and Guide reported (http://bit.ly/1X41pVP).

But then, to the north, Wilmot spotted a brown mass off in the distance. It was a different grizzly. Grand Teton National Park’s bear management specialist, without warning, took off running.

“Will you guys stop, please,” Wilmot pleaded with the crowd encroaching toward the grizzly, known as No. 610. “Clump with each other and keep 100 yards back.”

It was May 13 and Wilmot’s third “bear jam” in three hours. A 10-year-old sow, 610 had emerged and was tailed by her two yearling cubs. Camera shutters went off nonstop.

At the same time the big boar had also come out of the trees only a few hundred yards distant. Grizzly 610 stood up and took off out of sight, spooked by the crowd or by the male grizzly, who was a threat to her cubs.

In a decade of working for the park, Wilmot had never seen an unrelated male-female grizzly interaction. It was a crisp, beautiful morning, the crowds were mostly cooperating and four grizzlies had shown up in the first few hours of daylight.

“This is awesome,” Wilmot said. “Yellowstone’s opening and everybody’s happy. Come July 1, I might not be so happy.”

The chaotic, sometimes stressful nature of roadside grizzly management was on display less than an hour later. Grizzly 610 and cubs re-emerged within eyeshot of the highway. Traffic had to be ushered along, and the number of spectators grew from dozens to hundreds. Wilmot had to cone off and maintain a people- and vehicle-free “bracket” along the roadway to give the bruin space to cross over.

That’s a routine situation in Grand Teton National Park.

A year ago Wilmot and her team of “Wildlife Brigade” seasonal employees and volunteers managed 88 grizzly jams in Teton park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, she said. That was a slow year, and it was still plenty demanding.

“All bear jams are a lot of work because they’re so dynamic,” Wilmot said. “You’ll come around a corner and there’s cars everywhere. Monkey-see, monkey-do. When you roll up on a scene like that, it can be overwhelming.”

Yet, by the numbers, allowing grizzly and black bears to roam roadside areas in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks has not produced conflict.

Teaming with Yellowstone bear management biologist Kerry Gunther, Wilmot assessed the situation in an article that published in a recent all-grizzly edition of Yellowstone Science.

Yellowstone, the site of 12,386 bear jams over a recent 25-year period, recorded zero bear attacks on visitors who had stopped to watch and photograph habituated bears.

“The concern that tolerating habituated bears along roadways would lead to increases in bear-caused property damages, bear attacks, management removals of bears, and bear mortality from vehicle strikes was unfounded,” the Yellowstone Science article says.

“In fact, humans and vehicles turned out to be more dangerous than roadside bears,” Gunther and Wilmot wrote. “Park staff recorded several minor vehicle accidents, and at least five people have sustained injuries when they were hit by vehicles at bear jams.”

There are undoubtedly tense relations, at times, between Grand Teton staff and the avid wildlife photographers who frequent the park. Rules, such as the 100-yard viewing limit, are often pushed. Management decisions - such as a vehicle closure on Pilgrim Creek Road back in mid-May - are easy fodder for griping.

But on the whole, roadside relations between photographers and park wildlife managers are “smoother” than they were a few years ago, professional photographer Tom Mangelsen judged.

“I think people are trying to work together more,” Mangelsen said.

It can be a frustrating double standard, he said, for out-of-state residents to be given more leeway because they’re unfamiliar with the wildlife viewing rules. But the photographers and wildlife tour guides also help out by trying to keep those people in line.

“A lot of us, as photographers, certainly care about bears,” Mangelsen said. “We want to help people protect the resource and help people have a good time. It’s not all about getting the picture.”

Wilmot’s jovial approach to policing bear jams helps maintain the harmony.

First thing in the morning on May 13, the tall, blond and authoritative bear management specialist came around a corner on a back road to find a small group of photographers way too close to grizzly 610. A rangefinder marked 610 and cubs at 41 yards away, and the bruin was headed in the direction of the lensmen.

“Let’s figure out how to do this,” Wilmot said, “because I want you guys to see her but I also need to do my job.”

At her prompting the group backed away.

“Thank you, guys,” Wilmot said. “I want you guys to see the bears, but if we give them their space it’s better for them in the long run.”

Even though it’s been a decade since grizzly 399 first started raising her cubs roadside to the delight of Grand Teton tourists and photographers, allowing bears to habituate to the crowds is still in the experiment phase. In other parks, like Glacier, grizzlies that venture near roads are hazed away into the backcountry.

That’s a possibility here, too, if there’s a tragedy like a mauling tied to roadside bear viewing, Wilmot said.

“God forbid.” she said. “If something happens, this whole thing is over.”

___

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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