This is the story of 8-year old grizzly bear 863, better known to the millions of tourists who visit Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park annually as Felicia. A federally protected and endangered species who is unfortunate enough to live a few miles outside of an area designated as a National Park. This popular roadside bear has become so popular that a decision has to be made: manage the tourists or manage the bear. For now, the bear has drawn the short end of the stick, infuriating conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts.
Who is ‘Felicia’?
Felicia and cubs in 2021
Felicia is believed to be born about 100 miles northwest of her current home, as the crow flies, near the popular, historic town of Cody. Shortly after being born, she was relocated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife agency to her current location: a high mountain region with few, if any, human population and miles of wilderness in all directions. Whereas some relocated bears almost immediately return to where they were captured, Felicia accepted her new environment and settled down, denning every winter near the Continental Divide at an elevation around 9,500 feet and spending her summers grazing and hunting in the area located roughly in the middle between the small Wyoming towns of Moran and Dubois.
Keeping Her Cubs Safe
Felicia's two cubs in 2021
Like other well-known grizzly bear moms in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Felicia recognizes that staying close to the humans keeps her cubs safe as grizzly males (‘boars’); who are known to kill grizzly cubs in order to force the grizzly sow back into fertility; typically avoid humans. When she has cubs, she spends much of her time near a relatively busy road. Similar behavior is observed in other grizzly sows like world-famous grizzly 399, who lives a few miles down the mountain from Felicia and who spends most of her life in Grand Teton National Park, although 399 is also known to wander into the National Forest and nearby towns.
Felicia became a celebrity in her own right in 2019, when news spread like wildfire among wildlife enthusiasts and tourists that a grizzly sow with two cubs was regularly spotted and easily watchable along Togwotee Pass which crosses the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Inevitably, crowds started to drive up the mountain road, quickly followed by commercial wildlife tours and photographers, in the hopes of spotting this wild grizzly and her offspring. As people started to crowd the curvy mountain road, however, things started getting out of hand. Some uneducated tourists threw food at her or approached her much too close. Someone flew a drone over her. People parked their cars in the driving lanes or walked on the road to get a better look.
Felicia and one of her cubs in 2021
Heartbreak occurred later in 2019 as news broke that Felicia had lost her two coys (“Cub Of the Year”), named ‘Salt’ and ‘Pepper’ by local bear enthusiasts. In 2020, Felicia didn’t have cubs to protect so she was rarely seen along the road. She was however seen briefly in the company of a big male grizzly boar: a hopeful sign that 2021 would bring cubs again.
Felicia and her remaining cub Pepper crossing the road in 2019
Fast forward to the spring of 2021 when Felicia was spotted in early May with two coys! A few social media posts later and crowds once again started to gather along the mountain road. This being a curvy and steep mountain road, frequented by heavy logging and semi-trucks, complaints of dangerous driving conditions on the pass started reaching the authorities. Things looked like they were headed in only one direction: someone would get hurt. What to do however: direct traffic and manage people’s behaviors or manage the bears?
Haze The Bears
The government agencies involved; which include the National Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game & Fish and the Wyoming State Troopers; made the decision to try and keep the bears away from the roadside by heavily hazing the bears; which involves firing loud noises and non-lethal rounds at the bears throughout the day between sunup and sundown each time they approach the road; for a period of two weeks until late June 2021. The goal was to teach Felicia to stay away from the roads.
Felicia's two cubs play near the roadside in 2021
“I know people have trouble with hazing but this is a human safety issue. The bears, if they grow up roadside, that’s not a good way to grow up. So we want to change her behavior, help the bears out and keep people safe.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hilary Cooley told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. The fact that four different government agencies are involved with different jurisdictions doesn’t make it easier. “Unlike the National Park, the pass is not designed to support such roadside activity. We [the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Forest Service] don’t have any jurisdiction over traffic, it’s really different.”
As opposed to the ‘Wildlife Brigade’ in nearby Grand Teton National Park, which was specifically created to supervise visitors and wildlife in the National Park, federal and state agencies don’t have the staff currently to supervise visitors on Togwotee Pass at Felicia. “We just don't have enough staff to be there for the full season from dawn till dusk to manage, to enforce," said Cooley. "To do it consistently in a way to keep the humans primarily, but certainly the bears too, safe.”
By the end of June, the success of the hazing campaign would be evaluated. “If she doesn’t change her behavior at all, then the next step would probably be relocation. Hopefully this is successful and we don’t need to move her, but we might. Euthanasia would very much be a last resort.” said Cooley.
One of Felicia's cubs plays near the roadside in 2021
Endangering an Endangered Species
Wildlife enthusiasts feared the worst. The adverse effect of daily hazings; they argued; may be to turn Felicia’s docile character into aggressive behavior towards humans, triggered by fear of hazing. Another result may effectively doom the cubs: by hazing mom, she can easily get separated from the four month old cubs. An example was brought up in which Felicia was recently seen being chased by a male grizzly bear; almost lost one cub in the process and on top of that got hazed moments later when she attempted to cross the road during the two week intense hazing period. No doubt this all put an immense amount of stress on her.
Unsurprisingly, since the hazing started, activists and wildlife enthusiasts have spoken out against the decision. People management and crowd control is heavily favored versus negatively affecting the bears’ lives by hazing or relocation. With all the tourist dollars flowing into the economy; greatly affected by the popularity of the area’s wildlife; many find it hard to understand that resources are not available to manage the situation that occur with wildlife viewings outside of National Park borders. It may just be Felicia now but another grizzly sow; or a different wild animal; can take up residency near another roadway in the National Forest, now or anytime in the future.
Felicia and one of her cubs in 2021
Wildlife enthusiast Ronnie Sue Ambrosino writes, “The problem is not one of a bear being aggressive or being habituated. The problem is traffic control. I suggest the true problem should be addressed and the lives of the 3 bears should not be held as collateral damage for the lack of law enforcement enforcing the laws. [...] If you have no compassion for a grizzly bear in nature, please don't lose sight of the financial benefit gained by tourism to the area. She is a living example of what Wyoming, Montana, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park offer to thousands of visitors each year.”
Wildlife enthusiast Crystal Deatherage says, “At the end of the day Felicia is a National Treasure. A young, breeding, endangered species. She is absolutely no less important than bears 399 or Blondie or 610 who among others, are all roadside bears in the Teton National Park, a mere 25 miles away. These special bears receive effective crowd and traffic control from park managers and volunteers which enables them to coexist with thousands of visitors experiencing up close encounters annually. Consider the bears with names like Obsidian or Beryl or the black bears on the road near Roosevelt in Yellowstone, (where I might add there is almost no available parking), or Snow, or Raspberry and her cub who live on the road in Yellowstone National Park next door to Felicia’s home. The National Park staff there also manages all these roadside bears. Their tactics work. Won’t they please give a tried and true management style a chance?”
Felicia in 2021
Several pages have been created to support Felicia on social media including a Facebook and Instagram page. A petition on change.org, which has been signed over 31,000 times at the time of writing, reads: “The bear is located on public land and has done nothing “wrong,” she and her offspring have the misfortune of existing in a place where wildlife managers are choosing not to deal with traffic problems. This bear has shown zero signs of aggression, has not sought out human food rewards, or posed a problem with residents or campers. [...] Numerous sows have sought out the roadside for protection to rear their cubs. This behavior has been very well-documented, as reports show that it protects the mother and her cubs from nearby large grizzly bears. When did it become unacceptable for bears to simply exist near the roadside in a national forest? [...]The narrative that this is a traffic issue or a safety issue for people present in the area is unacceptable. This situation is not the result of people admiring bears but because of inadequate and inefficient bear management by a government agency that does not wish to manage the bear the way the national parks do.”
Was the hazing campaign successful?
The Execute Director of non-profit Friends of Bridger-Teton, Scott Kosiba, spoke to us once the hazing campaign concluded at the end of June. He said, “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hazing campaign was a success. Grizzly 863 seems to have taken to the hazing quite well as she now seems to avoid being near the road. Hazing is not the ideal solution for a grizzly sow with young cubs, but for now, this is an absolute win. Felicia and her cubs are staying away from the road and U.S. Fish & Wildlife has no plans to either relocate or euthanize 863. To avoid Felicia re-habituating to being close to the road; now that the hazing campaign has finished; there is a plan in place for the government agencies to have someone up on the pass through the end of the season. If she attempts to live close to the road again, they can manage the people or haze the bears.”
Scott continues, “In every communication I’ve had with the government agencies, nobody wanted to relocate or euthanize her. We all want what’s best for her. It’s a difficult situation however because of the interagency issues: the Forest Service or Fish & Wildlife cannot direct traffic or cite people for getting too close. Highway patrol has the ability to disperse crowds but they don’t have the capacity to place a squad car up there. With so many cooks in the kitchen, it was never as simple as if you have a bear on the road in the National Park.”
Felicia and Pepper in 2019
What happens next?
With the agencies concerned about their ability to manage similar wildlife viewing outside of National Park borders, Felicia’s situation points to the need for a longer term solution. Like in the neighboring National Parks, where celebrity bears like 399 and 610 live near the roads under the watchful eyes of the park’s Wildlife Brigade – with a perfect record of keeping visitors and bears safe, do they have the capacity, the coordination and the funding to deploy something so that they are not faced with a similar traffic situation at any point in the future?
At the end of the day, when things go wrong, wildlife typically pays the price. Says Scott, “Our community values celebrity bears like 399 but also the species as a whole. How does our behavior impact the wildlife? We need, especially in Teton county, to be having this conversation. We all care about these bears, whether we are in the general public or in a government agency. If we do care, what is the best thing we can do to guarantee their future? Hazing was a last resort. In the future I would like us to not get to that point but this will require buy-in from the community. Educating the public to keep the bears wild. We are really grappling with how to educate the public to recreate responsibly and it’s an ongoing challenge to reach all visitors. It’s a huge challenge.”
We can all do our part by acting responsibly around wildlife. That includes easy things like keeping a safe distance from wildlife, not feeding wildlife (a fed bear is a dead bear) and paying attention to traffic rules if we do decide to pull over in our car. This also includes being responsible on social media by not sharing specific locations, as this inevitably draws crowds. We all seem to love our wildlife but let’s be careful not to love our wildlife to death.
I will post updates as this story evolves.
One of Felicia's cubs in 2021
Update July 1, 2021
Update July 4, 2021
Walter Ackerman, a Wyoming resident, created the following write-up of what happened with Felicia since she appeared in May 2021: read it here.
Update July 5, 2021
These past two days, I have driven Togwotee Pass. Two government vehicles (U.S. Forest Service) were patrolling the road. Luckily (for Felicia), she hasn't been out near the road.
Update July 18, 2021
Maintenance hazing" is ongoing when Felicia comes close to the road; luckily, per reports, this happens rarer and rarer (fingers crossed). She was last seen by the Continental Divide up on the pass. Good news is also that no crowds have been gathering along the road since the hazing campaign began in the middle of June: let's keep it that way. Felicia's future is still highly uncertain!