The Island Park Issue
Grizzly awareness isn’t just for Yellowstone.
ON AN EARLY SEPTEMBER MORNING in 2011, Rich Paini and
Jon Stiehl, owners of TroutHunter Lodge in Island Park, Idaho, were
archery hunting for elk in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Finding
only wolf tracks and a few flushed grouse, the two decided to call it a
day. They were following a cattle trail back to the truck when a grizzly
crashed through the trees and onto the trail. The 625-pound male was
likely resting on a nearby daybed and startled from its slumber.
The grizz threw Paini to his back and bit into his bow and quiver of
arrows, which he had held up to shield his face. Stiehl only had the
chance to douse the boar’s ass with bear spray as it tore off into the forest. Paini was lucky, walking away with a few broken bones, a missing
ring finger, and a shattered recurve bow.
“The whole incident has really stuck with me, even though it didn’t
last very long,” says Paini, pointing to the gap where his wedding band
formerly sat. “It’s humbling that we aren’t the apex predator in this ecosystem. When I’m in the woods now, I have a level of hyper-alertness
that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the encounter.”
Until the past decade, grizzly bears were merely a footnote in this
region. Yellowstone National Park (YNP) offers sporadic human-grizzly
incidents that receive sensational attention–such as the backcountry
hiker from California who was mauled in 2011, marking the first fatal
attack in the Park in 25 years. But the federal, state, and private lands
surrounding YNP offer their own grizzly lore, including this corner of
southeast Idaho, defined in recent history more by the trout of the
Henry’s Fork. (Island Park is less than 30 miles from West Yellowstone,
the closest entrance by road to YNP. But as the crow flies, it’s only a few
miles from the YNP border.)
In 2002, a grizzly sow and cub were poached in the area, an incident
that incriminated former NFL running back Merrill Hoge and resulted
in heavy penalties for his hunting partners. In 2006, a sow with cubs
mauled a hunter on National Forest land near the Velvet Elk Ranch, an
operation that, at the time, according to Idaho Fish and Game, dumped
gut piles outside their fence to deter bears from digging under game
enclosures. After raiding a poorly kept camp in a dispersed campsite in
2007, a sow and two cubs were sent to zoos.
These and other regional bear encounters are not the norm, but they
do highlight the new reality of angling, hunting, hiking, or owning
a home in southeast Idaho: grizzly bears inhabit this corner of the
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and are here to stay.
The grizzly historically inhabited ranges that spread far beyond present-day population islands. Since hitting all-time lows in the 1970s—
estimated at 100 or fewer animals concentrated in the heart of Yellowstone—the GYE grizzly population is now estimated at a minimum
of 716 bears. Males cover more than 500 square miles per home range.
With this space requirement, it was only natural that over generations
the bears spread into Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. For the past 20
years, the grizzly population within YNP grew at four to seven percent
annually and has now plateaued at two to three percent. “The Park is
at or near carrying capacity,” says Bryan Aber, a carnivore biologist for
Idaho Fish and Game. “For those bears to make a living, they have to go
elsewhere and find suitable habitat outside Yellowstone.”
Grizzlies found beyond park boundaries are not necessarily Park
natives. Researchers with the US Geological Survey Interagency Grizzly
Bear Study Team are tracking 10- to 16-year-old bears that breed, den,
and raise cubs in the Idaho portion of the Ecosystem. This indicates
that some of them may have spent their entire lives using the region as
core habitat. The majority of these “study bears” avoided people,
NOT TAKEN ON THE
versial. Food conditioning is a tremendous obstacle to grizzly recovery,
but one that is conquerable with intensive public education. Frontline
communication primarily falls on government natural resources agencies, which are often under-equipped in the PR department. But many
factions of the general public have a natural talent for retaining and
disseminating information, such as flyfishing guides. Spending a full day
on the Henry’s Fork with a client provides ample time to be a naturalist
as well, so maybe mix in a little grizz knowledge along with the lifecycle
of a mayfly? Besides, if a guide can land a client a twenty-inch fish and
spot the only grizz that person will ever likely see in a lifetime (at a safe
viewing distance, of course), it could translate to one fine tip.
Anglers in the GYE run the same risks as hunters, quietly traveling
alone in the early morning or evening when grizzlies are on the move,
using the same stream corridors that grizzlies prefer for travel and
daybeds, and at times, keeping the catch of the day, the scent of which
can attract bears. At a minimum, anglers should be packing a can of
For federal and state wildlife managers, the plateau in Yellowstone
grizzly numbers indicates that the Recovery Act worked. In spite of
population numbers meeting goals, the USFWS reviewed the grizzly’s
case in 2012 and ruled to retain the species on the “threatened” list.
The bear’s presence beyond Yellowstone represents hope for carnivore
conservation. Places such as the Henry’s Fork, renowned for trophy
trout, must be equally recognized as Grizzly Country. The greatest task
regarding the grizzly is this: to make room in our modern-day minds
for wide-roaming carnivores, and to know our place when we find
ourselves in their territory.
moving through undetected.
The Island Park area provides one of
the most critical pieces of habitat connecting the GYE to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE).
Idaho provides the smallest portion
of overall “socially acceptable” habitat,
but that terrain provides crucial opportunities for grizzly populations to
intermix, thereby improving longterm genetic vigor. But the grizzly
rebound outside the park is deceptive.
Grizzlies are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they can find a meal
just about anywhere. But several food
sources commonly used for sustenance—cutthroat trout, whitebark
pine nuts, many types of berries—are
threatened, either from drought or
from losing ground to humans settling
within the same habitat. Which is a
real problem for an animal that requires up to 40,000 calories a day
during the fall.
In 2008, I was hired by Idaho Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest
Service as a Grizzly Bear Education Technician, charged with covering
the area from Island Park to Driggs, Idaho. In the case of the grizzly,
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—in conjunction with participating state and federal agencies—has invested millions of dollars in the
species’ recovery from near-extinction in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana,
and Washington, only to have the American public feed the animals
(intentionally or unintentionally) as if they were still the circus bears of
The phrase is repeated ad nauseam, but merits repetition: A fed bear
is a dead bear. A grizzly or black bear that consumes an unnatural food
source—such as the contents of a garbage can or leftovers in a campfire pit—becomes conditioned to human food rewards, oftentimes
growing bold and aggressive in pursuit of an easy meal.
In my experience, few vacation homeowners were aware that grizzlies inhabited the area. Out-of-towners donning snakeskin boots
set flimsy garbage cans outside log mansions. Coolers filled with
Jell-O salads were strewn across families’ lawns. Retirees with Sierra
Club bumper stickers strung up birdfeeders. Some homeowners still
believed that a high fence surrounded Yellowstone to “contain dangerous animals.” But even multi-generation ranchers had to adapt. Some
lived in the area for decades, but rarely saw a grizzly outside the Park.
Fishing guides were generally more aware, but barely. Many left coolers
and garbage in trailered boats overnight, where an adult grizz capable
of smelling food miles away could utterly destroy a driftboat in pursuit
of a stray sandwich crust.
Trapping, translocation, or, in extreme cases, euthanizing bears due to
human-caused habituation and food conditioning is costly and contro-
WHO NEEDS THAT FINGER
ANYWAY? RICH & MILLIE
PAINI, ISLAND PARK, IDAHO.