Grizzly Feeder Faces Potential County Consequences

Federal investigators dropped the case against a Solitude homeowner who has fed grizzlies at her home for years, but the county could still enforce fines or take legal action.
Grizzly 399 and cubs
Grizzly 399 and her four cubs trundle on a snowy road this winter. (Ann Smith)

by | Feb 23, 2021 | Environment, News

Infuriating. Senseless. Dangerous. Those were just some of the words used by Jackson locals on social media in the outcry after learning that a county resident has been feeding grizzly bears. An investigation published Feb. 17 by Jackson Hole News&Guide reporter Mike Koshmrl found that a homeowner in the Solitude subdivision, north of Jackson, has fed grizzly bears at her home for years—including world-famous Grizzly 399 and generations of her offspring. 

While it may seem counterintuitive to invite a bear to your back porch, the homeowner claimed she was trying to help the bears. Prominent grizzly advocate Ann Smith said that’s faulty logic. “The old saying that a fed bear is a dead bear has proved to be true in so many cases,” Smith said.

Grizzly feeding

Grizzly 399 and her cubs eat feed left outside a home in the Solitude subdivision in the fall of 2020. This image was released to the public through a Jackson Hole News&Guide Freedom of Information Act request. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bears that associate people with food can become so dangerous to humans that they have to be killed, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Smith doesn’t want to see that happen to Grizzly 399, but she said anger at the homeowner is not the answer. 

“Everybody’s furious and wants to arrest her and run her out of town. I think we need to show a little compassion. Appreciation for wildlife and conservation can be enhanced by education.” 

The homeowner’s neighbors are calling for fines, not compassion. “She has created a dangerous situation for her neighbors,” Katherine Johnson wrote in a letter to the Board of County Commissioners dated Feb. 22. “We feel the increased threat to our safety as bears move through our property to get to hers.”

Also in the letter, Johnson said her neighbor has been feeding bears for the entire 20 years Johnson has lived in Solitude. The Solitude Homeowner’s Association declined to comment for this story based on advice from its legal counsel.

GPS bear tracking

GPS collar data from Grizzly 962, an adult offspring of Grizzly 399, shows the bear’s habit of spending time at the property in Solitude that was investigated by state and federal agencies. This image was released to the public through a Jackson Hole News&Guide Freedom of Information Act request. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The homeowner in question has not been named publicly because no charges have been filed against her. According to the News&Guide, Game and Fish officials tried to educate her about the harm her actions could cause bears and other wildlife, but she continued feeding them anyway. Grizzly bears in the Jackson area are protected as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.  

Following a lengthy investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Wyoming ultimately declined to prosecute. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, which was also involved in the investigation but does not make decisions regarding prosecution, closed the case. 

Teton County Commissioner Luther Propst said he’s disappointed in that decision. “I regret that neither the Endangered Species Act nor the state’s ownership and management of wildlife seems to have the ability to help avoid and prevent feeding the wildlife,” he said.

Moose at Solitude property

An aerial photograph of the Solitude property taken by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Feb. 2018 shows at least 10 moose clustered around the home. This image was released to the public through a Jackson Hole News&Guide Freedom of Information Act request. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

While neither the Wyoming Game and Fish Department nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office responded to KHOL’s interview requests for this story, Propst said the county has a process it can follow to try and make sure the homeowner faces some consequences. First comes a warning from the code compliance officer at the county planning department, which could issue a fine for the moose buffet line. That’s because it’s legal to feed moose in the State of Wyoming but not in Teton County. The homeowner evaded prosecution in part because she claimed the food was for moose, not bears, according to the News&Guide. 

County planning director Chris Neubecker said his office has contacted the homeowner. “We let them know that it is a violation of local regulations for feeding wild animals that includes both moose and grizzly bears.”

Neubecker also said the county had heard of problems in the Solitude subdivision but hadn’t taken action because it lacked details that were revealed in the News&Guide article.

Propst said he hopes the county can bring the homeowner into compliance, however, he doesn’t want the burden of future incidents like these to fall on the county’s sole code compliance officer. “The county doesn’t have the staff or the resources to do investigations like the federal agents did,” he said. “It’s not really the principal role of our zoning enforcement.”

If the homeowner still doesn’t stop after the county’s warnings, Neubecker said he could turn the case over to the county attorney’s office. 

Grizzly 399 with cubs

Officials from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Teton County urge valley residents not to feed moose or bears and to keep a safe distance from all wildlife. (Ann Smith)

Even if this homeowner puts away her molasses-enriched grain, she’s not the only one leaving food out for deer, elk, moose and other creatures. Neubecker said feeding wildlife is unhealthy for the animals and dangerous to humans and pets. “You know, we all love to see wildlife in our yards, but we need to keep our distance. And we need to let these wild animals be wild.”

To be part of the solution, both Neubecker and Propst encourage valley residents to report any incidents of wildlife feeding they may witness. Former Jackson resident and poet Lyn Dalebout, who has written about 399 and her cubs, has another suggestion: Emulate the bears.

“In my love of these wise bears and other wildlife, I know it is important to maintain this distance from them that they naturally maintain from us,” Dalebout said. “And so in that they are our teachers and we should learn from them.”

Meanwhile, Grizzly 399 and her four cubs were last seen in January crossing into Grand Teton National Park, presumably to den—safely out of human reach. 

 

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About Meg Daly

A former community affairs director for KHOL, Meg is a freelance writer and arts professional. Her work has appeared in Planet Jackson Hole, Homestead, Jackson Hole News&Guide, The Oregonian, and other publications.

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