JACKSON, Wyo. — As Grand Teton National Park prepares to cull mountain goats to protect bighorn sheep populations from disease, conservationists are sounding the alarm about the potential harm to endangered grizzly bears if hunters are sent in to do the job.
Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, has sent a letter urging park officials to think twice before sending hunters deep into undisturbed bear country as bears are out feasting before hibernation.
“It just seems like the chance for an encounter with bears is pretty high here,” Combs said. “And so, we’re concerned that some bears might be injured or even killed during this process, and just want to make sure that the park is doing everything possible in their power to reduce the risk.”
Wyoming Game and Fish condemned the park’s initial plans to cull goats using aerial sharpshooters, arguing the move would waste meat. The agency also said not tapping hunters to harvest goats would set a dangerous precedent.
Grand Teton National Park officials say hunting will not put grizzlies at risk, noting the conservation of native species is a priority of the National Park Service.
If hunting does go forward, Combs said it’s important that volunteers travel in groups of three or more to better alert bears and avoid conflict. She also pointed to studies showing bear spray is far more effective than bullets in preventing injury or death to bears and people.
“Making sure that every single skilled volunteer that’s out there has bear spray. If any bears are suspected to be in the area, they need to have that bear spray out and ready rather than their gun in their hand,” she said.
Mountain goats are not historical residents of Grand Teton National Park. They likely migrated there after being reintroduced in the Snake River range in the 1970s. The park’s last remaining bighorn sheep are currently healthy, but they are highly susceptible to contracting diseases from mountain goats that scientists fear could wipe out the herd.