One Wyoming community hands out bear-resistant trash cans to reduce wildlife conflicts
At the National Elk Refuge near downtown Jackson, Wyo., in early August, Drew Gath helped unload a semi-truck jam packed with hundreds of bear-resistant trash cans. They’re made of a thick black plastic and feature an automatically locking lid and notches even the most nimble paws couldn’t break into.
Gath is program director for Jackson Hole Bear Solutions, a new nonprofit delivering these cans to Teton County residents.
“They're [trash cans] tested up at a wilderness refuge in Montana where they have grizzlies and wolves,” Gath said. “And they fill these with fish meal, rotten meat, anything bears really want to get into, and let them hammer on these for an hour or two.”
A common saying around the Northern Rockies is, ‘a fed bear is a dead bear.’ They’re opportunistic, omnivorous, and not picky. Gath said if a grizzly or black bear finds an open dumpster, or livestock feed, or even a bird feeder, they’ll become habituated to those foods.
“They have a really good memory, really good sense of direction,” Gath said. “If they get into your trash one time they get a food reward.”
That puts people in a dangerous situation. Last fall, arguably the most famous bear in the world, Grizzly 399, went viral when she waltzed right through downtown Jackson with her four cubs.
Local photographer Ann Smith found a massive paw print the next morning outside her house just a five-minute drive from the antler arches in Jackson’s Town Square.
“I'm pretty sure what they did was climb the fence through the next door neighbor's yard, and then on my fence and then by the garage,” Smith said.
That bear family was eventually escorted out of town by police.
Other high-profile cases have made headlines this year around the West. A 500-pound black bear called Hank the Tank broke into several homes near Lake Tahoe. Another black bear was relocated to the wilderness after it got trash and bird feeders north of Boulder, Colo.
In Montana, wildlife investigators recently concluded that a grizzly bear that fatally mauled a woman who was camping about an hour east of Missoula last summer had likely learned to seek out human food, which led the bear to her tent.
Dan Thompson heads the large carnivore section of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. He said food-conditioned bears become increasingly bold over time if they aren’t dealt with.
“They start doing things. Pushing people out of hammocks. Taking food, literally from people in their backpack holding it. We don't have a lot of options if it gets to that point,” Thompson said.
One of Grizzly 399’s young cubs was killed by wildlife officials earlier this summer because it was hanging around homes. Someone spotted the cub getting into a refrigerator on a porch, and a man opened his screen door right into the animal’s rear end.
In Wyoming, grizzly and black bear conflicts with people and livestock have risen by more than 30 percent in the past decade, according to Game & Fish. The department killed 30 bears last year, in several cases due to food conditioning.
Thompson said the main reason is that more people are living near public lands or recreating there. Plus, grizzlies and black bears are actually expanding their territory and their numbers have recovered.
“People use the term 'coexist' all the time. Well, the reality of that is there's going to be conflicts,” Thompson said. “There's going to be negative things that happen to people and negative things that happen to bears if you're going to have a high density of both in the landscape.”
That’s why officials passed a law this year trying to reduce future conflicts. They’re now requiring people in some parts of Teton County to secure their trash and other attractants because they're a major cause of human-bear friction.
Other communities – like Durango, Colo., and West Yellowstone, Mont. – already have such laws. Kristin Combs, the executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, pushed for these changes in Jackson Hole.
“Our ecosystems desperately need these, you know, large apex predators, and large carnivores in order to function properly,” Combs said. “A lot of times this place looks like a wildlife paradise, but then you scratch a little deeper beneath the surface, and you find out that things could be healthier. Things could be better.”
There’s still a long way to go. These new laws need to be enforced, and an estimated 3,500 cans also need to be distributed. Gath at Jackson Hole Bear Solutions is taking donations for people who can’t afford to pay $300 for a can. And he’s hoping to get the latest delivery out to people as soon as possible.
“As we start to move deeper into the fall, closer to the fall, bears, they're really trying to stock up for hibernation,” Gath said. “They increase their appetites, and they'll travel farther to get food at that time. That's called hyperphagia for bears, and that's definitely the time when conflicts are more likely.”
Ann Smith said most longtime locals like her are willing to devote time and energy to keep more humans and bears safe, especially as Grizzly 399 and her cubs continue to interact with humans.
“She's been an outstanding mother and guarded her cubs fiercely from predators. And when she crosses the road with them, she's always looked both ways,” Smith said. “She really has brought attention to the plight of why we need to save these iconic bears.”
The Jackson Town Council voted earlier this month to extend bear-resistant trash can requirements to more “high-conflict” parts of the town’s municipal limits. Gath hopes to hand out every can in this most recent delivery “before the snow falls.”
Reporter’s Note: An earlier version of this story was published by Wyoming Public Media on Aug. 12. This version has added a few characters and facts, but no original content was corrected.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2022 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.