Grizzly bear 863, also known as Felicia, lives on Togwotee Pass with her two cubs, and she’s gotten habituated to living near the highway. That’s been causing problems for federal agencies who are concerned about the safety of drivers, tourists and bears on the pass. KHOL’s Will Walkey talked with journalist Mike Koshmrl of the Jackson Hole News&Guide about his recent reporting on human-bear conflicts in Jackson Hole, which are growing more frequent as the Valley’s popularity continues to explode. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Walkey: Mike Koshmrl reports on environmental issues for the Jackson Hole News&Guide and has been following this story. Mike, thanks so much for joining us and for talking with KHOL.
Koshmrl: Happy to be here. Thanks, Will.
Walkey: Let’s start with just some background. Who is Grizzly 863, also known as Felicia? What’s currently going on with her?
Koshmrl: I first kind of became familiar with her, well, for one, because she’s like the only bear outside of a national park that really kind of gained recognition and became known, you know, by a name, Felicia. Going back a few years when she first started getting called Felicia, a lot of the bear-watching community really hated it. But it stuck. And so now here we have Felicia. Now, she’s seven or eight years old. She’s on her, I believe, her second litter of cubs right now.
When she has cubs—and this seems to be kind of common to all habituated female roadside bears in this area—that tends to make her stick even tighter to the road. And the theory—and I don’t know if there’s really been research that confirms this—but everyone speculates that the reason they do that is kind of to take refuge from big male bears. They believe that the previous two cubs of 863 were killed by male bears. And so she’s learned from experience to, you know, go to the highway.
And actually, just on Monday, I didn’t see this, but I heard this from Steve. Steve Stawinski, who is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service retiree brought back to help manage the situation up on Togwotee pass. And he told me that he watched a male grizzly chase 863, and she ran right for the road. She crossed over the road, but she crossed over in a place where there was some kind of—like a barricade or like a wooden wall or something. And one of her cubs got separated from her, and was on one side of the road. She was on the other. The cubs started doing a little bawl sound. You know, crying for mom, and eventually, they found each other. But I don’t know, Steve brought that story up both, I think, to kind of illustrate the chaos and the danger. You know, if there is a big crowd there at that time, can you imagine, you know, you got a sow grizzly on one side of a road and a little cub on the other side that’s crying for mom? I mean, that’s a dangerous situation for people to be around.
Walkey: And so what’s happening with her now in terms of, I guess, the potentially sort of dangerous situation that she’s in?
Koshmrl: Yeah, so I’d say the entire time Grizzly 863 or Felicia has lived along the highway, there’s been concern. It’s mainly been the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that’s dealt with it. I was one time accidentally copied on an internal Game and Fish email where in this correspondence they were talking about the situation up there. And I believe the word that they use to refer to the Felecia situation—her along the highway—was “annoying.”
It just takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to have a grizzly bear that is always along a road. And people there, you know, in the National Park (Grand Teton), they have like legions of volunteers to deal with this kind of thing. But there has not historically at least been that level of manpower available on the national forest, which is where this is located. And so it’s just, I think, been a challenge and a time suck for the agencies to deal with it. And so I think that that’s kind of the backstory of why they described it as “annoying.”
Not everyone knows how to behave around grizzly bears. I’ve been on Togwotee Pass and seen people who have never seen a grizzly bear before and they get super excited. And, you know, they probably don’t understand the danger inherent of approaching an animal like that. And then, you know, there’s also issues with photographers getting too close. Of course, you know, they’re trying to get close to get a good shot. And, you know, there can be a mob mentality deal that happens where someone gets closer and someone gets closer and someone gets closer. And then all of a sudden, you know, you have a dangerous situation.
So, yeah, there is this push to kind of get some kind of staffing up there. They are trying to make sure that there’s like three-plus people up there at all times. Like sunup to sunrise, which right around the solstice is, you know, 18 hours a day almost. And whenever people are trying to stop, they try to kind of keep them going. And whenever Grizzly 863 comes near the road, they haze her.
Walkey: Can you explain what hazing is and specifically some of the methods that folks are using to try to chase her away from the road?
Koshmrl: So in the past, Felicia has been hazed primarily by Game and Fish, and they’ve used cracker shells, which it’s just like a small explosive device. Interestingly enough, I heard that she basically got used to it and stopped caring about the cracker shells. She was just kind of like “whatever.” You know, maybe move a little bit. But it didn’t really affect her too much. Didn’t scare her too much. And so this last week where they’ve been hazing her, primarily what they’re using to try to actually instill kind of a fear into her of people and of cars stopping is hitting her and aiming for her butt with rubber bullets. And it hurts. They aim for her rump because it’s a fatty area and it avoids injury.
And the cubs, presumably the cubs will learn as well. As mom is, you know, running in panic and they’re following her. Hopefully, the cubs are instilled with a similar fear of people and vehicles because, apart from the danger and kind of chaos from people, Togwotee Pass is actually also really dangerous for grizzly bears. I think in the decade-plus that I’ve been in the Valley, there’s been three grizzlies hit and killed on that road. I’ve seen really brutal photos of cubs that were just smeared into the pavement. I mean, yeah, I think that there’s almost a consensus out there that, you know, it’s for the best that she is not as habituated while she has a home range like she does because she is living alongside a highway. The speed limit up on the top of that pass is 55 miles an hour. But anyone who drives over can see a lot of people are going a lot faster than that. And there’s commercial truck traffic, and there’s streams of tourists and it’s just tough.
Walkey: I feel like a common theme that I’m seeing is the phrase “let the bears be the bears.” Just don’t do anything. Why are we even getting involved? Can you explain a little bit why we can’t just let the bears be bears in this situation? Game and Fish and the authorities up there, do they really have another choice right now in terms of what to do?
Koshmrl: I mean, sometimes there is no one up there. I know photographers that almost stop going up there when there isn’t an authority present up there because it gets so ugly and becomes such a mob scene and people are behaving so irresponsibly.
You know, that is a product of the fame of these bears. There are scenes where, you know, in Grand Teton National Park where there are 500 people looking at Grizzly Bear 399. And can you imagine how that would go if there was essentially nobody there? And so that’s the situation. There’s the potential for that, except they don’t have staff to deal with it. So in my opinion, it would have been extraordinarily risky and it probably would have been inevitable that something bad would happen either to the bear or to somebody.
I’ve seen a lot of conjecture online that this was like a ploy. That they’re basically trying to find an excuse to kill Felicia. And they did use the word “euthanize” as a possibility in a press release that U.S. Fish and Wildlife sent out. But this was a plan that was actually in place last year in the event that she would have come out with cubs. They would have done this last year. I mean, they knew they were doing this for a long time. They did not consider the situation up there sustainable.
Walkey: You were mentioning euthanasia. What would it take for it to get to that situation?
Koshmrl: I mean, I think that it’s always a possibility that something could happen that would change the calculus so that, you know, Grizzly 863, like any other grizzly bear, would potentially be subject to being put down or killed by a wildlife officer. But I’ve asked this question to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service folks, and, you know, they have no grounds to kill that bear. That bear has done nothing wrong. She never showed aggression to people, I believe, that they’ve documented.
You know, grizzly bears are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and you cannot just go kill them for no reason. I mean, not only can the public not go kill them, but the authorities can’t. I mean, they need cause. And in this instance, there is not cause. I mean, it might be a headache for them to have to manage this situation, and they openly don’t want to have to manage it as closely as they are. That’s why they’re trying to instill a fear in her. So she is not always along the road like she has been in recent years.
And if that fails, then it sounds like kind of the fallback option is relocating her, which is difficult because she has two cubs. I know that trapping grizzlies—one grizzly is difficult enough. Trapping three grizzlies, which is kind of what you have to do, would even be more difficult. But that is my understanding of what they would do if this just doesn’t work.
Now, I will add that I talked to the special agent guy who’s leading this, and he said that it was working very well. By the time I saw him a week into the operation, he was saying that she was starting to boogie just when people would park next to her because she was starting to put two and two together and realized that a car parking alongside her might mean pain in a couple minutes. And so she’s getting out of there. And so he was hopeful that the kind of solution that they’ve proposed here—which, you know, there’s a lot of money and manpower going into it. I don’t think it’s a normal thing to do for, you know, a bunch of federal agencies to come together and kind of concoct a plan to kind of alleviate a conflict that a single bear is involved in. But that’s what they’ve done here. And so far, at least according to the people who are leading the operation, they seem to be pretty optimistic about how well it’s working.
Walkey: My last question is a more general one. We know that Jackson Hole is becoming more populated and more popular from visitors. People are visiting national parks and state parks and national forest lands in record numbers. We also know that there have been a lot of early-season encounters with bears in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and also with Felicia. You’ve been a reporter here for several years. Do you think situations like this are just going to keep becoming more common?
Koshmrl: Not just talking about bear conflict, but talking about wildlife conflict generally, like, of course. You know, you put more people in the same size of the landscape, inevitably there’s going to be more interactions with wildlife and some of those interactions aren’t going to be good ones. And the frequency of those, you know, inevitably is going to increase as you put more people in the landscape. And it’s not like these are trivial increases in visitation. We’re seeing—I mean, it’s realistic that, you know, a year or two from now, there could be 50 percent more people coming to this area than there was a decade ago. That’s pretty dramatic.
With these situations—with celebrity bears—you know, to piece that out, I think a lot of what is leading to situations like Felecia and kind of the phenomenon around Grizzly Bear 399 is that just simply interest in these bears has skyrocketed. I think that what happened in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kind of rolling out their plan for Grizzly 863 is a great illustration of it.
You know, there was an immense amount of, we’ll just call it like online activism. You know, people creating petitions. People creating Facebook groups on her behalf. People creating Instagram pages on her behalf. People making, like, online pledges. I mean, all this stuff sprouted in like 48 hours. And invariably there’s lots of participation on all of these different platforms online. You know, a lot of people probably didn’t know anything about her, but now they do. And so, you know, it’s a feedback loop. And, you know, maybe next year it would be even tougher to manage Felicia if she continued to live right alongside U.S. Highway.
I don’t think it’s all bad. A lot of people—they’ve never seen a grizzly bear. It’s incredibly cool for them to come and see a grizzly bear. And I think it makes it even cooler when they, like, read about the legend of these bears online. And, you know, it’s not just some anonymous animal in the wild. There’s like an identity to it that they’re familiar with and a backstory that they’re familiar with. And it makes seeing them more powerful for them. I mean, I’ve seen people that are, like, floored by seeing a moose in Jackson Hole. You know, animals that we take for granted because they’re everywhere to us. But, man, a lot of people in a lot of the country and world don’t get to see these things. And, you know, maybe it makes them become more of an advocate for nature.
You know, it’s a total double-edged sword. It’s really hard on the individual animals. At the same time, I think that it does do a lot of good.
Walkey: Well, thank you, Mike. Thanks for stopping by KHOL and for talking about this important issue.
Koshmrl: Thank you, Will. It was a pleasure.