- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

CORA, Wyo. (AP) - In early July Albert Sommers was in an all-terrain vehicle checking up on the thousands of cattle that graze the vast rangelands near the headwaters of the Green River.

Sommers is Sublette County’s representative in the Wyoming House and president of the Upper Green River Cattle Association. On that day he was also looking for signs of grizzly bear activity: a dead calf, a spooked herd of cattle or even tracks. Keeping tabs on bears and their doings is a part of daily life on Union Pass.

An hour into the drive Sommers opened a barbed wire gate to access the Mud Lake East grazing unit, the first parcel he reached that day that had cows in it.

Not far down the road past the gate, a grizzly bear track as wide as two human palms was imprinted in the dirt on one side of the two-track.

“A 7-inch track is a big bear,” Sommers said as he hunched down to give it a look. “You see we didn’t hit any of these tracks until we got in here. It’s where the food source is.”

There were no grizzly-killed cattle to be found on that early summer Wednesday, but the lack of activity made it a rare day.

Zach Turnbull, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department carnivore biologist, said managing bear and wolf conflict in the Upper Green is essentially the entirety of his job from when livestock are released until they’re herded off the landscape Oct. 15.

“Since cattle have been on, there’s been maybe one day I haven’t got a call,” Turnbull said from a Pinedale diner in September.

A short time later Turnbull’s cellphone rang and he stepped away to take a call. One of Sommers’ riders was on the other end of the line, and had found a cow hide in the Fish Creek grazing unit that might have been the work of a carnivore.

Conflicts in the Upper Green, Turnbull said, have “increased every year.”

Sommers said he can still recall the first bear-killed calf he encountered, back in 1993.

“I didn’t know what it was,” he said.

The numbers affirm the trend of increasing conflict.

Five years ago wildlife managers confirmed 20 Upper Green livestock depredations that could be attributed to grizzlies.

In 2014 the count of grizzly-killed cattle was 66 - at the time a record. In response, last year eight grizzlies were relocated from the Upper Green and managers killed two more bears that had a history of killing cows.

This year was even worse, preliminary Game and Fish data shows.

Grizzly bears this summer and fall were confirmed to have killed 79 head of livestock. Five grizzlies that made a kill lost their lives in response, and another nine bears were captured and relocated.

“This was the worst year we’ve ever had - worse than last year,” Sommers said. “The last two years have been pretty wild.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “It’s difficult for the riders to keep cattle in the grass. It’s just difficult.”

The problem can be traced partly to the immensity of the Upper Green grazing area. Superlatives are easy to come by when describing the operation.

The pasture system is massive, at 132,000 acres the largest in the country on U.S. Forest Service property. The allotments spill over the hydrological divide between the Snake and Green rivers and into Teton County. The land leased from the Bridger-Teton National Forest is shared by a number of Sublette County ranchers who, counting calves, together pool around 15,000 head of cattle on the land.

The final version of a Bridger-Teton environmental impact statement that would repermit the grazing operation is due out this year, although the document’s release has consistently been delayed in the past.

There are lots of grizzly bears on the landscape, too.

In 2013 there were a dozen collared grizzly bears with home ranges that overlapped parts of the allotments, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency at the time estimated that the grizzly population in the Upper Green allotments and the immediate surrounding area was between 51 and 60.

This summer on one overflight wildlife managers found eight grizzlies that wore tracking collars using the rangeland, Turnbull said. But not all of the bruins in the region have a taste for beef, he said.

“That’s something that gets overlooked, I think,” Turnbull said. “There’s a lot of family groups and individual bears that are making a pretty good go of it in the Upper Green. They’re staying out of trouble.”

When Turnbull is investigating a depredation he looks for evidence that allows him to pinpoint which grizzly was the culprit. Cameras are left behind near carcasses to help determine if a trapped bear is the right bear. A camera once captured 13 grizzlies that showed up to a single carcass, he said.

GPS location data and track sizes are also used to make the determination.

“We’re trying to target individuals that are killing livestock, we’re not just trapping bears,” Turnbull said. “Some of these (cases) we’re building information as it goes.”

Grizzlies with a record of killing cattle oftentimes end up out of luck, and are captured and killed.

Nineteen grizzlies have been killed since 2010 for preying on livestock in the Upper Green. It’s a substantial figure considering that in the preceding decade, from 1999 to 2009, there were only five bears in the area killed in response to depredations.

As conflict has snowballed Sommers has become more dependent on compensation from the state to make his operation viable. The Upper Green River Cattle Association has received about $750,000 in payments from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department over a recent five-year period.

“If there’s compensation we can deal with it,” Sommers said. “If there’s not, we can’t.”

This year the depredations hit Sommers hard. Some 300 calves from the Sommers Ranch were herded onto the Upper Green rangeland this summer, and 30 of them - 10 percent - were killed by bears or wolves by the time livestock came off the land.

“Personally, it’s the most calves I’ve ever lost,” he said.

Sommers says he’s willing to try new techniques to diminish the chronic conflict. Guard dogs and changes to his rotational grazing schedules are among the strategies he’s considering to help cows and grizzlies coexist.

“As we go forward, I hope we find other ways to manage this,” he said.

The Sublette County rancher said he values the presence of large carnivores on the landscape but wishes they were fewer in number.

“We’re kind of at that line of grizzlies and man right now,” Sommers said. “It’s not going to be easy for anybody - for the bear, for the cow or for us - but I really think we have to try to make these things work, because you can’t abandon the entire western United States to accommodate all of the endangered species and all of the endangered species that will be listed in the future.

“You have to figure out a way to make these working landscapes work with endangered species,” he said, “and I think we’re just right in the middle of that.”

___

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

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