JACKSON — Felicia had been separated from her cubs on the morning of May 14, likely while dodging an aggressive male. The mother grizzly had spent hours fruitlessly searching for the two younglings, her first litter. Later that afternoon she lay down to rest on a patch of snow.
The drama played out before a flock of photographers and countless motorists. Throughout the day they watched Felicia — officially known as grizzly 863 — as she wandered within view of, and sometimes crossed, the highway up Togwotee Pass.
So when Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Mike Boyce showed up he decided to shoo her away from the human throng and the travel corridor that has proven fatal to her species more than once. With a combination of horn honking and cracker shells he scared her deeper into the woods — and incensed onlookers.
“She took off running like a bat outta hell,” said Steve Franklin, a photographer who witnessed the episode. “I just think that was not the way to handle it.”
Now, two groups that don’t often see eye to eye have both seized on the incident to demonstrate the unique problems posed by the phenomenon of “roadside bears” like Felicia, that make a habit of hanging around thoroughfares.
Photographers and bear advocates are taking the opportunity to argue for a more sensitive and nuanced approach to “hazing,” or “aversive conditioning,” the practice of convincing an animal that human haunts are not pleasant places.
Wildlife and land managers, on the other hand, counter that Ursus arctos horribilis simply doesn’t mix well with fast-moving vehicles, nor with people, no matter how comfortable the animals seem in their presence.
Doug McWhirter, wildlife management coordinator for the Jackson area, spoke in Boyce’s stead. He said public safety and animal welfare are “the overarching motivators for what to do in any particular situation.”
“Our field folks have a wealth of experience,” he said. “They are trained. I would trust their on-the-spot decision-making in those situations.”
Several photographers said Felicia was at ease on the day of the hazing. But McWhirter said Boyce reported the bear was showing the classic signs of agitation — jaw popping, frothing at the mouth, head swaying back and forth. Based on that assessment he resorted to aversive conditioning.
No one denies the need for such techniques, and McWhirter said they are a common and accepted strategy for keeping grizzlies away from humans and roads. But some argue that, in certain cases, hazing may do more harm than good.
One example is the “roadside bear,” a term coined for grizzly 399, the world-famous sow that has for years roamed the asphalt of Grand Teton National Park.
Experts hypothesize that such bears, typically females, are making a strategic choice when they position themselves along busy roads. They’re trying to avoid murderous males that, in their attempt to mate with as many females as possible, will often kill a mother’s cubs to cause her body to revert to reproductive mode.
Faced with that choice the females may deem the road “the lesser of two evils,” said David Mattson, a wildlife biologist who worked on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team for more than a decade.
“Bears just don’t end up in that kind of a niche for no reason,” he said. “I think that’s critically important context.”
In such a case, forcing a sow away from the road could be synonymous with forcing her toward hostile boars. And if she is separated from her cubs, as Felicia was, further stress could jeopardize her search.
Felicia was seen with one cub by the next day, but two weeks later the other is still missing. It is presumed dead, leading some to speculate about what role the aversive conditioning played in its fate.
Longtime bear advocate Louisa Willcox, who did not see the incident firsthand, called it “cruel and unnecessary,” saying aversive conditioning is valuable but must be compassionate and consistent.
Above all, Mattson said, wildlife managers should be aware of an animal’s circumstances. Several people who were there said Boyce did not consult with the bystanders who had been following Felicia before compelling her into the forest.
“He really made no effort in trying to understand the situation,” said Will Hopkins, a photographer.
McWhirter, of Game and Fish, acknowledged that “there’s all those competing concerns. I’m not going to minimize them.”
But, he added, the road is no haven. Though bear 399 has survived more than a decade close to traffic, one of her cubs was struck and killed in 2016. And Togwotee Pass has spelled doom for at least two grizzlies in recent years.
Besides collisions, the risk of conflict between bears and humans increases anytime the two come too near each other. The standard buffer is 100 yards, and many on Togwotee Pass have admittedly watched Felicia from much closer than that.
Togwotee Pass slices through the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The forest’s Blackrock District Ranger Todd Stiles argued that Boyce, the Game and Fish biologist, was right to push Felicia away. He said he too has had to confront crowds behaving unsafely around the bear and has seen her acting agitated.
“In some instances we’ve had to kind of get after people,” Stiles said. “The public does have a responsibility to conduct themselves in an ethical manner.”
What everyone agrees on is the importance of bear safety education. Some suggest that officials replicate Grand Teton National Park’s Wildlife Brigade on Togwotee Pass. Brigade volunteers have smoothed interactions between humans and animals in the park since 2007.
Such a program would have to involve all the agencies with jurisdiction in the area — the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming Game and Fish and the Wyoming Department of Transportation — and it would be more difficult on a 55 mph highway.
But Stiles said the Forest Service is “pretty open-minded about how to get the message out better about human and bear safety.”
He and other officials have been working to adapt to the grizzly 863 dilemma. Stiles said he has posted reduced speed limit signs, bringing traffic down to 40 mph wherever she wanders. WYDOT has also placed digital signs just outside Jackson and just west of Dubois to alert drivers of possible grizzlies ahead.
Those measures have met with wide approval. But despite Felicia’s run-in with car horns and cracker shells, she hasn’t abandoned her roadside ways. And as long as she’s pounding the pavement, she and her cub — and the humans on the shoulder — are at risk. That’s a problem for wildlife officials and bear advocates alike.
“What really needs to happen here,” said Franklin, the photographer, “is a lesson needs to be learned on both sides.”