CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Fresh tracks found on a dirt road in a rural, northwest Wyoming prairie are the latest example of grizzly bears roaming a type of habitat where they have not been seen in a century and risk more contact with humans.
The tracks, confirmed by state Game and Fish Department bear experts, were discovered Oct. 18 by Virginia Schmidt while she was hiking near her family ranch about 7 miles outside of the former frontier town of Cody.
"We've never seen signs of grizzlies back there — like it shocked me," the 27-year-old Schmidt, who was born and raised on the Double Doc Ranch, said in a phone interview.
The tracks indicated the bear walked by some cows and headed east away from Cody, she said.
The tracks show that grizzly bears are moving out of their current forested and mountainous habitat and into prairie and sage brush country where game managers haven't seen them in 100 years.
Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the bears are expanding out from the Yellowstone National Park region.
"You can only fit so much water in a bucket before it starts spilling over and that's kind of what we're seeing especially in some of that Cody front where we're just seeing these bears expand into new areas," Thompson said.
In the last several years, state wildlife managers have captured and relocated about a dozen grizzly bears in west of Cody, which is about 50 miles east of Yellowstone.
The area between Yellowstone and Cody is heavily forested and part of it is designated as proper grizzly bear habitat.
But the open prairie east of Cody is populated with agriculture operations that present many more potential conflicts between bears and livestock and humans and is not considered by wildlife managers to be suitable grizzly bear habitat.
"The problem is that there's a much higher potential for conflicts with people, and it's a safety risk for people and it's not good for bears either to be in these areas where they're going to get into more trouble," Thompson said.
About 700 grizzly bears roam the region in and around Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently determined that the Yellowstone grizzly population no longer needed federal protection and turned management of the species over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Conservation groups are suing to restore the federal protections, contending the bears are still threatened by a warming climate that limits their traditional food sources such as whitebark pine nuts and by increasing conflicts with humans.
Schmidt said she hopes people will recognize that grizzly bears are in the area and take precautions to avoid conflicts with the bears.
She has started carrying bear spray.
"I never would have carried bear spray back there, not in a million years — until now," she said. "Again, that's the best for the bears and me. You don't want anyone to get in trouble. I don't want to get hurt, and I don't want a bear to get in trouble."