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Recipe for disaster
The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has strict guidelines for its employees when it comes to potential conflicts with grizzlies. Specifically, herders are instructed to do “everything possible” to avoid encounters. If a bear is threatening sheep, herders are allowed to haze the animal off by discharging a rifle into the air. The USSES says it conducts a twice-annual seminar for employees in effectively identifying grizzly bears and black bears. Shooting directly at a grizzly is only permissible if “personal safety is threatened.” It’s a scenario the USSES claims has never happened.
Federal documents paint a hazy picture of the history of grizzly conflicts on sheep station property. The biological opinion issued by FWS in 2011 noted that run-ins have been “minimal,” and a draft biological assessment by the Forest Service from 2009 listed only three confirmed accounts of grizzlies on USSES land—in 1985, 1999 and 2008. The last encounter occurred on the Odell Creek allotment, but “no control actions were taken and sheep were moved without further incident.” Both documents state there have been no grizzly captures, relocations or mortalities relating to sheep station activities.
However, a draft environmental assessment of USSES operations reveals that in August 2007, a herder found several dead ewes on the Odell Creek allotment. Although the evidence was inconclusive and no management action was taken, grizzlies were not excluded from suspicion.
The concerns some environmental groups are espousing for grizzlies in the Centennials aren’t far removed from the issue of how wildlife officials have handled wolves on the USSES landscape. In 2009, the Sage Creek pack was found responsible for killing more than a dozen sheep station sheep. FWP removed six adult wolves from the population throughout that summer, before deciding to remove the entire pack. Black bears have proven a similar problem for the sheep station. In 1988 alone, wildlife officials killed 11 problem black bears on the Odell Creek allotment, though according to federal records, fewer than 15 have been killed since.
Further adding to the question of grizzly mortalities on sheep station property is a document secured by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center this May. The two pages are described as meeting notes between the FWS and the USSES from a “formal consultation” in March 2010. The document states “we also have information that grizzly bears have killed sheep on allotments adjacent to the Sheep Station. Additionally, within the past 8 years, there have been several grizzly bear mortalities near the Sheep Station.”
The document raises a broader question for the USSES and the Centennials as a whole. If an expanding grizzly population becomes habituated to feeding on the sheep station’s livestock, the habit may carry over to neighboring private pastures. That impact hasn’t specifically been addressed in reviews of the sheep station. And it could have dire consequences not just for the bears, but for the willingness of local ranchers to accommodate their presence.
“The problem with the sheep station is a fed bear is a dead bear, and there’s been plenty of conflicts of bears eating sheep on sheep station property and around the area in the past,” Meyer says. “It’s a recipe for disaster. If we want to recover grizzly bears, if the U.S. government is serious about … delisting them, it needs to do everything in its power to ensure that they can maintain genetic connectivity and that they’re not getting in trouble, getting shot or getting habituated to eating sheep on sheep station property.
Bill West hasn’t noticed any overt hostility toward grizzlies in the larger Centennial neighborhood. Ranchers don’t necessarily have “a hyper-passion for them,” but they appreciate the occasional sighting from a distance, as a reminder that “they’re living in wild country.” West remembers talking to one rancher whose family sometimes grazes cattle on the refuge. He’d seen a sow with cubs near Red Rock Pass, and West got the notion it was a “top 10” experience for him. That sentiment could shift if depredation becomes an increased problem.
“It’s like a 50-50 mixed review, I think,” West says. “I’ve talked to ranchers down there where it’s just like the wolf. It’s one more thing they don’t want to deal with.”
With biologists still working toward delisting, ranchers like Hagenbarth will have to decide how best to coexist with bears. Delisting happened once before in Yellowstone, a development that promised to ease the prospect of livestock conflicts for ranchers. But environmentalists succeeded in having the species relisted in 2009, positing that reduction in white bark pine due to climate change has left grizzlies without a staple food source.
“The livestock people are going to have to live with the wolf and the bear,” Hagenbarth says. “But we can only do it if they allow us to manage the problem bears.”
There’s no indication 726 himself was a problem bear. According to Whitman’s report, there were no dead sheep in the Odell Creek area in the wake of 726’s disappearance. The Agricultural Research Service has publicly stated that there were no known grizzly sightings or conflicts on USSES property at the time. Evidence of dead sheep—or any evidence of a conflict at all—would go a long way in explaining why 726 went missing to begin with, and which suspects would have had motive.
“The bear’s dead, there’s no question about that,” Hagenbarth says. “But lord knows who shot him.”