Where We Meet the Wild: Growth of Western Communities Requires Elevated Stewardship

Some people are calling it the Great American Migration of 2020. It’s the allure of the countryside. The appeal of long horizons, natural landscapes, wildlife, and the silence that accompanies unoccupied, open space. It’s the phenomenon of anxious city dwellers escaping pandemic hot spots for mountain communities and the promise of wilderness out the backdoor. 

This trend has led to an influx of people buying homes and ranches out West. And it has, in turn, put increased pressures on local workers and small-town infrastructure like hospitals and grocery stores to provide services to a growing populace. But the resettling of western America is impacting more than just the human communities in these places. It is also changing the way that people and wildlife interact in them, bringing into focus the need for growth (whether temporary or not) to be accompanied by efforts at responsible community stewardship for the wild species that live there, too.

Take Jackson Hole, for example. Jackson is a small town in northwest Wyoming known for its abundant wildlife and unparalleled mountain views, not to mention access to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. With a year-round population of approximately 23,000, the town has experienced a flood of Covid fugitives this year, both returned second homeowners as well as wealthy, new arrivals eager to purchase real estate with a view. 

Part of what draws people to a place like Jackson is its irrefutable wild character. The town is surrounded by a vast matrix of public lands that, collectively, comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)—the largest and most ecologically diverse landscape in the lower forty-eight and home to several keystone carnivores, including the grizzly bear. 

Just how close the wilderness really became apparent this fall with the southerly adventures of grizzly 399 and her four cubs-of-the-year through town. For nearly a month, the famous matriarch and her bruins spent time outside of Grand Teton National Park in the Jackson suburbs, challenging the community—both longtime residents and new arrivals—to practice mindful coexistence. Perhaps searching for accessible late season food sources, perhaps seeking protection from the territorial threat of other grizzlies, the clan cruised through residential neighborhoods and ranches, feeding on river bottom berries, deer and elk carcasses, and the unfortunate, occasional human food source.

When you put people and wildlife in close proximity, the level of responsible stewardship must increase in order to ensure that wild animals remain wild—we all know the old adage, ‘a fed bear is a dead bear.’ With many new property owners residing in the valley amidst the pandemic, the probability of a human-bear encounter was higher, and the grizzly clan’s suburban activities had people concerned and hoping for a positive outcome. 

Wildlife officials and bear enthusiasts pleaded with the community at large to be extremely cautious of the bears’ presence, even avoiding those areas they were known to be. Residents of all kinds watched the family’s movements anxiously, some from backyard windows and porches, and others by car along the Moose-Wilson (US highway 390), a notorious stretch of road known for its high incidence of wildlife-vehicle collisions. 

Their pleas highlighted an important question: What does it mean to live mindfully alongside wildlife, especially bears? 

For starters, it means maintaining a heightened awareness for bears in the area, learning about their seasonal behaviors and movements, and understanding how human activities on the landscape can impact bears and other wild species. It includes a willingness to modify familiar behaviors to improve outcomes for wildlife—actions such as driving more slowly at night, especially in areas where there are known wildlife crossings. For property owners, it means minimizing potential human food sources by securing trash and other attractants. The goal is to keep bears moving through a property rather than giving them a reason to stay. For ranchers, it means knowing how to store grain and other seed crops properly, as well as practicing bear-wise animal husbandry

“We encourage everyone to do a thorough review of their property and secure anything that might entice a bear,” said Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, in an October news article covering 399 and her activities through town. “Pet food, bird feeders, garbage, grain, horse feed, mineral licks, fruits from trees and shrubs, dirty grills, and grease are all things that may get bears in trouble. Properly securing these inside a building or garage or in a bear-proof container is of the utmost importance. Even if you are outside the priority areas for bear-proof trash cans, consider investing in one to help our wild neighbors.” 

Responsible community stewardship also means giving bears and other wildlife ample space to be wild. This means 100 yards for grizzlies (and wolves), and 25 yards for all other species. During their suburban sojourn, many community members—including new residents—mindfully kept their distance from the bears, allowing the family of five to navigate the urban-wild landscape a little more safely.

But despite best community efforts, a few reports surfaced of frenzied wildlife jams and viewers getting too close to the grizzly clan—inappropriate behavior for anyone claiming to value the wild character of the town and ecosystem. There were also reports that the bears got into some unsecured beekeeper’s honey and livestock feed on private property.  

Fortunately, nearly four weeks after first wandering into town, 399 escorted her cubs safely back inside the boundary of the park. It was Thanksgiving Day, and the grizzlies’ return gave the local community—alongside worldwide fanfare—reason to breathe a collective sigh of gratitude.

If part of the allure of the 2020 migration out West to mountain communities like Jackson Hole is indeed proximity to the wild, then any population growth or change in these places must be accompanied by a willingness on the part of every resident (new and old) to become more wildlife-wise, mindfully adapting to living alongside their wild neighbors. This diligence on the part of Covid fugitives and locals alike will be critical for sustainable coexistence out West. It is also key to maintaining and enjoying healthy, functioning ecosystems in the GYE and elsewhere—landscapes where large carnivores like grizzly bears can continue to roam unencumbered.