Talking a good game

By on October 1, 2014

Wildlife expert dissects status of Jackson Hole’s megafauna.

Wyoming Game and Fish public information officer Mark Gocke.

Wyoming Game and Fish public information specialist Mark Gocke.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – With the valley still buzzing about the incident at the Gros Ventre campground, which claimed the life of a cow moose and once again highlighted the voracious voyeurism often displayed at the first sign of roadside wildlife, Planet Jackson Hole thought it the perfect time to visit with an expert on all matters animal. We met with Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game & Fish public information specialist, to get his take on the human dimensions of wildlife management. Meddlesome bears, re-protected wolves and mule deer populations in frightening decline also were part of our topic of conversation with Gocke, as wildlife always seems to take center stage every autumn in Jackson Hole.

Black bears

Planet Jackson Hole: What’s got the phone ringing right now in the regional office?

Mark Gocke: The two different things that have been going on in our shop right now are bears and moose. And that’s common for this time of year. When it comes to bears, it’s been a relatively quiet summer. I will say that. We had good moisture and a really good berry crop. If there are natural foods out there on the landscape we generally don’t have a lot of conflicts in town. But this all changed about three weeks ago.

But the problem in East Jackson in particular is people have often been putting out their garbage the night before pickup and then the bears will come through and find it during the night. We’ve had a number of bear conflicts there in the last three weeks.

We had a family group of four [black bears] – mother and three cubs – that were hitting some apple trees over near Twin Creek on the Elk Refuge. Then they moved into town over by Nelson Drive and were in a tree over there. We ended up darting all four of them. This was about 10 days ago. We took them up by Squirrel Meadows. That’s where we’ve been taking a lot of the black bears.

PJH: Relocation is tough on bears this time of year. They are in a hyperphagic calorie craze prior to hibernation. They need to be eating constantly.

MG: Yes, but their survival rate is good. If anything they will return. Even when we move them, like grizzly bears, say, from the Upper Green River that have gotten into trouble with livestock. We’ll move them all the way to Cody and they’ve gotten back here in three weeks. We always try to give the bears their best chance to live out their life as a wild bear.

One bear we trapped out of East Jackson was a male that had been previously trapped doing the same thing, getting food rewards in the same place two years prior, almost to the day, according to our records. That was the one bear we had to put down this year. Otherwise we relocated seven other bears out of East Jackson.

You think that people know what to do but people aren’t taking care of attractants and that’s by far the biggest problem. The garbage and the bird feeders are the two biggest things you can take care of to keep bear conflicts down. Especially this time of year when they are feeding 24/7, trying to put on the fat before they go into hibernation. It’s really the time to button everything up.


Wyoming Game and Fish biologists collar a grizzly bear.

Grizzly bears

PJH: Grizzlies have been in the news. There was the family videotaped in the John Dodge area this spring. Lately, two attacks north of Dubois made headlines, one resulting in a fatality. That’s an area where griz are often relocated. Is that place full up now?

MG: I think the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is pretty full from what we can tell. Over the last 20 years, we’ve watched the bears expand their range and now we’re seeing grizzly bears in the Wyoming Range, which we never used to see. We are seeing grizzly bears in the Wind River Range down towards Pinedale, which we never used to see. And where the bears are showing up there tends to be a lot more conflict possibility.

Right now it’s hunting season so you tend to have a larger influx of people going into the backcountry and that’s generally when we see the number of conflicts go up. Part of that is just by the nature of hunting. You are trying oftentimes to be quiet. You are moving into the wind so elk don’t smell you. Then of course if you are successful that’s a huge attractant. You kind of, as a hunter, set yourself up for a potential conflict.


PJH: Moose can sometimes be more dangerous to encounter than bears, but it seems they’ve gotten the short end of the stick lately around here. Moose numbers are in decline. Car crashes, global warming, wolves – what’s to blame here?

MG: Teasing out a cause for the decline in population is really difficult. You see a lot of different factors working on the moose population. Springtime ticks eat on them real bad. They lose a lot of hair and die of exposure. The Elaeophora worm, the carotid artery worm, seems to be higher prevalence than it was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s for some reason. People are doing research on that right now. Increased temperatures [due to] climate change seems to be a factor as well. There are a lot of factors associated with climate change we don’t understand right now. When you think about it, moose are kind of on their southern range here. Most moose populations are north of us – Canada, Alaska, and so forth. So if you were going to notice an effect on a population due to warming temperatures it would probably be on the southern edge of their range first.

Moose are certainly struggling here in Jackson but we still have a lot of conflicts with moose, particularly this time of year because they are rutting. The bulls are chasing cows and they are covering a lot of ground. Anybody who knows anything about rutting behavior is the moose like to rub their antlers and thrash about on stuff. Now is when we start seeing them get caught up in things around developed areas. So far we’ve had two reports of moose bulls that have barbed wire wrapped around their antlers. Then we had one moose with Christmas lights in its antlers here in the last few days out north toward the airport. Last year, we had two of them with hammocks in their antlers in the same week.

PJH: And of course, there’s the tragic death of a moose last week at the Gros Ventre campground. Without assessing blame, can we agree that people can be careless, and sometimes clueless, with their behavior around wild animals?

MG: Obviously, the Park Service has rules about distances and so forth but our approach is to give plenty of space. Don’t push it, especially this time of year. These animals will go from mid-morning bedded down and practically sleeping, and I suppose you could approach them pretty close. But at the same time they are pretty juiced up with being in the rut and they can change on a dime as far as their disposition. And if it’s a bull and they feel a threat or somebody challenging for their girls, they will charge. No doubt about it. That’s why what might have been a safe distance a month ago might not be a safe distance now. Or what’s a safe distance with one particular moose might not be a safe distance with another.

Biologists collar a moose.

Biologists collar a moose.

Whenever there is a conflict between people and an animal, nobody wins. Sometimes people get hurt or sometimes the animal gets hurt or has to be put down. Usually, we as responsible people can do things to prevent that from happening. We can make good choices. We need to be cognizant of that as residents here amongst an abundance of wildlife. I kind of liken it to living in a metropolitan area. You don’t leave your keys in the car because you know there could be a problem. It’s just a part of living in a place like that. Well, living here, there are certain things you don’t do. You don’t leave your garbage out at night. We need to make good decisions.


PJH: The feds relisted wolves in Wyoming again. They are such a polarizing issue. One camp says they are non-native and whacking our elk something awful. The other side says reintroduction has been a great success story and the wolves are playing their part in the ecosystem. Where is your department?

MG: As the state of Wyoming, we feel we’ve done a good job of managing wolves. It’s a tough balancing act. You’ve obviously got people on both sides of the spectrum – pro and against. All the legal action that has taken place recently, I’m not the best person to speak on that. I’m no lawyer or anything. But things have definitely changed. The result of the ruling of the judge is that we will not be hunting wolves on October 1 when we would normally be opening the season.

As far as balance, I feel like we have been managing for a publicly acceptable number. You are never going to please everybody but we have been managing for a number that is well within the recovery goals.

Mountain lions

PJH: We had a mountain lion sighting last summer on school grounds. More reports of lions on North Fish Creek Road.

MG: We’ve had some mountain lion reports out on the north end of Fish Creek Road. And that’s not a first by any means. That’s such good habitat right up against the forest interface. It’s not uncommon for them to come down into those developed areas. By and large, though, we just haven’t had a lot of conflict with lions. They tend to be more secretive than bears and stick to themselves.


PJH: Elk season’s begun. How are their numbers?

MG: The Jackson elk herd is the largest elk herd in the state. The goal is 11,000 and we’ve been traveling along at right about 11 or 12 thousand for the last several years. That population is doing pretty darn well.

PJH: The cow-calf ratio in the Gros Ventre is improving I heard.

MG: I don’t know those numbers off the top of my head but I think it did bump up over last year from what we had seen in the years prior. We had some red flags going up there and there was concern about it but it did bounce back last year. We’ll do those counts after the hunting season, usually in February. It’s always good to look at trends when you are looking at cow-calf ratios, or bulls, or numbers in general. You’ll see blips on the radar now and then where things change from year to year but it’s always been best to look at that 5-year, or even that 10-year trend. That’ll give you a better picture of what’s going on with the population.

Mule deer

PJH: Mule deer have suffered. Whitetail are pushing them out and their migration routes have been disrupted.

MG: We’ve been hunting mule deer ultra-conservatively for many years just because they have been in decline over the past 20 years. And that’s not just a Wyoming thing, it’s West-wide where mule deer numbers have been in decline. Wyoming Game & Fish started a mule deer initiative a few years back, realizing mule deer in particular were a species we needed to focus our efforts on. We developed one for the Wyoming Range mule deer because that is probably the highest profile herd we have in the state from a hunting perspective and for people that are just concerned about it. They’ve got some good, cutting-edge research going on there now with the University of Wyoming.

Researchers emancipate a mule dear.

Researchers emancipate a mule dear.

Migration routes continue to have more and more obstacles that dissect those. Energy development you can’t ignore. We’ve had an extended period of drought, which has really affected their forage and winter range. And we’re realizing now that the transitional range – that area between summer range and winter range – is actually really important, nutritionally, for those animals. If they can really bulk up on this transitional range before they get to winter range, it increases their chance of survival a lot. We’re starting to focus our improvement efforts more on the transitional range to make sure that’s really good groceries for them coming into winter so they can withstand a hard winter if they are bulked up.

Bighorn sheep

PJH: Are bighorn sheep the most in peril? They appear to be a fragile species.

MG: Bighorn sheep have always, in my career anyway, struggled. They are pretty fragile. They seem to be more susceptible to disease as much as anything else. They are constantly battling pneumonia. Not only here in the Jackson herd but all of the sheep herds that I can think of, particularly the Whiskey Basin herd over towards Dubois. That herd has really had some setbacks when it comes to pneumonia. You can actually see sheep coughing. Why they get pneumonia is really hard to determine. We have a really good staff down at our state vet lab, and some really good veterinarians in our state department, trying to figure out why these animals are getting pneumonia.

They are holding their own right now. I’m not going to paint a picture that says they are in a nosedive or anything like that because they’re not. But their numbers aren’t particularly robust like they were 20 years ago or more.


PJH: Going into last winter, we heard about a small band of pronghorns that were trapped in the valley or chose not to migrate. How did they fare? How are the antelope doing in general?

MG: I know a number of those animals survived and made it through the winter. They were spending time on the Refuge and Eric Cole, the biologist there, was keeping pretty good tabs on them. I think he counted around 35 or something from the group of 50 or so. We definitely lost some. To my knowledge, that’s the first time I’ve heard of pronghorn making it through the winter here in Jackson Hole. Typically, they don’t survive when they try. That migration to the Red Desert and those areas down south are what they need to do to survive. They might get lucky here and there, but they are not going to make it here for a winter in most years.

Pronghorn, in general, are doing pretty well. Again, the extended period of drought we’ve seen here in the state definitely affects them but the good thing about pronghorn, unlike some of these other animals like mule deer or elk, is they typically produce twins pretty regularly. So they can bounce back from a down here quicker than most of these other big game animals.

Photos by Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish

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