The Buzz: Wolf versus bear
Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Two big news stories about Wyoming wildlife and Yellowstone National Park made national headlines last week. The mauling and killing of a California man by a Yellowstone grizzly bear happened a day before Wyoming’s governor struck a tentative deal with the feds to let the state manage wolves.
The events cast light on a compelling and paradoxical juxtaposition. Wolves pose next to no threat to human safety. Still, scores of them would be killed outside the national park if the state seals its deal with the Department of the Interior. Meanwhile, bears pose a direct and acknowledged threat to human safety, but few cry out for their numbers to be culled.
As wildlife biologists studying the animals attest, public opinion of both wolves and bears covers a wide spectrum: some people like them, others are lukewarm, and still others hate them. And yet, bears by and large enjoy much broader approval—verging on reverence—than do wolves. But why do people adapt to and tolerate an animal as dangerous as the grizzly and actively vilify the wolf?
Bad news bears
As large as they loom in the public’s mind, grizzly bear attacks are rare, and fatal attacks are even rarer. Yellowstone bear biologist Kerry Gunther said the chances of being attacked by a bear in the park are 1 in 3 million (one for every three million visitor days). Only two human-bear conflicts occurred in the park last year. Nobody was injured in those attacks, and the last fatal bear attack was 25 years ago.
Roughly five people were attacked and injured by bears in Wyoming outside the national park last year. Most notably, 70-year-old Erwin Everts was mauled and killed in June 2010 by a grizzly in the mountains west of Cody, marking the first bear-induced death outside the park since Phillip Vetter was killed near the Grey Bull River way back in 1892.
Mark Bruscino, Wyoming’s human-bear conflict expert, said 2011 has been a quiet year for bear trouble. He chalks that up to a wet, late winter that resulted in abundant forage and kept elk in the low country where bears could more easily prey on them.
Both wolves and bears prey on livestock, though wolves are the more likely culprits. This year, wolves have reportedly killed six of Wyoming’s 1.3 million cattle, according to numbers from the Wyoming Beef Council, and one of the state’s 365,000 sheep.
Who’s afraid of whom?
Despite their relative infrequency, bear encounters remain a chief concern for people living and recreating in the expanding boundaries of bear country.
Teton County is relatively new bear territory. Grizzlies are re-colonizing Teton National Park and moving as far south as Teton Pass. Ten years ago, it was extremely rare to see a bear south of Moose. In 2009, the county followed the lead of other, more bear-seasoned municipalities when it instituted regulations intended to discourage bear-human interactions.
Prepared outdoor recreationists carry bear spray and sometimes even high caliber pistols to ward off bear attacks. Rarely if ever do people take such precautions when traveling or living in wolf country. Indeed, there have been no confirmed wolf attacks on humans documented throughout the Intermountain West in recent memory.
“Wolves are not animals to fear or even think of when you’re in the wild,” said Jeff Welsch, a spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Grizzly bears are the number one animal to fear out there.”
“Wolves aren’t aggressive towards people. They tend to split when people come around and not show dominance,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife wolf recovery coordinator Mike Jimenez.
And yet, as Jimenez says, people often take trouble-causing bears in stride, but they react in shock to similar behavior by wolves.
Humans and wolves have competed for the same territory and prey for millennia. The wolf is cast in popular culture as a greedy, destructive, nasty creature, the “big bad wolf.” Think of Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, or Peter and the Wolf. Bears, on the other hand, are often cast as jovial, peaceable and lovable: Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Fonzi Bear, Yogi Bear.
“Grizzly bears are considered a wilderness species, evidence of wild country, wild nature,” said Chris Servheen, the Fish and Wildlife grizzly bear recovery coordinator.
Bruscino says people are awe-inspired by the physical appearance of bears. Unless you work in a zoo’s bear den, their form and presence is uncommon in day-to-day life. The wolf’s form is ubiquitous: it’s mirrored in myriad shapes and sizes in every domestic dog. That familiarity, says Bruscino, leads us to be less amazed by wolves.
Even people who don’t like bears hold a certain amount of reverence for them.
“I was with a rancher in Teton County when he saw his first grizzly bear,” Bruscino said. “Bears had killed one of his calves. But looking at the animal, he still thought it was a magnificent sight.”