Attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to impose stricter rules aimed at keeping food away from bears in northwest Wyoming's national forests may seem harmless. But when the government and grizzly bears are involved, folks in conservative Fremont County get suspicious.
The county, on the southern edge of grizzly country, is considering suing the Forest Service over the proposed food storage order, which has sparked resentment among lawmakers and residents who aren't fond of grizzlies to begin with -- and who believe the government already regulates too much of their lives.
"No one has spoken against using good backcountry ethics," County Commission Chairman Doug Thompson said. "We just don't like the Forest Service stuffing these orders down our throats."
The order, being revised in hopes of quelling opposition, spells out how food, pet food, dead game, livestock grains and feeds, garbage and hygiene items should be stored by forest users so that they don't attract bears.
Forest Service officials say the order, which covers parts of the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests, is necessary to address increasing bear and human encounters and ensure visitor safety.
Such rules already exist in both forests, but officials want to expand their reach into areas where they say grizzlies are becoming a problem and straining agency resources, such as the Wind River range in Fremont County. The huge county stretches from near Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming to the Great Divide Basin in south-central Wyoming
Wildlife biologists say more than 700 human-bear conflicts have been reported in the area in the last two years, and requiring all forest users to keep their food out of reach by tying it in trees or locking it in containers will help reduce those numbers.
"The fact is we have grizzly bears in the area, and we need to manage our food so they don't get food rewards," said Becky Aus, supervisor of Shoshone National Forest. "The person [who left food out] may not be affected, but the next person using the campsite, because the bear is conditioned to that site, the bear might come back in."
Aus and her colleagues in the Bridger-Teton forest to the west have been trying to get the expanded rules in place for two years, but have partly been held up by bad wildfire seasons and fierce opposition from officials in Fremont and other counties.
"I've seen some communities that are rather supportive and other communities that are not entirely accepting of the need for it," Bridger-Teton spokesman Jay Anderson said. "They aren't real thrilled with the idea of being further regulated."
The Forest Service doesn't need county approval to adopt the rules, but would like local cooperation in enforcing them, something at least one county sheriff has vowed not to do because "it's not our business."
County commissioners agree and have passed resolutions opposing such efforts the last two years. The county has even passed a resolution banning grizzlies, gray wolves and other "unacceptable species" -- a measure that federal officials say holds no merit but outrages environmentalists nonetheless.
"The bottom line is there is a percentage of folks there that are not interested in having grizzly bears in their county," Aus said.
The county contends that the area has no problem with grizzlies and suggests voluntary food storage education for tourists and others unfamiliar with the area instead of regulations.
"It's not like we have all these people running around and scattering food in the forest.... It's just a heavy imposition on people and most people are residents, and they know the area and they know what to do and how to do it," Thompson said.
He also said the order will hurt tourism and cost money for backcountry outfitters, who would have to buy $500 bear-proof containers and other equipment to store large amounts of food and supplies.
Local outfitter Jim Allen, who has guided trips through the Wind River range for 36 years, said it will cost him at least $25,000 to comply with the order, which he called illogical and unnecessary, and should be replaced by voluntary compliance.
"There's no empirical data to suggest we even have a [grizzly] problem," he said. "And who would better know than the outfitters who live up there half the year?"
Allen said few of the human-bear conflicts reported in the area occurred in Fremont County, and many that did were only sightings, not true conflicts.
Outfitters are also upset that they had no say in drafting the storage order and accuse the Forest Service of violating its own policies by not working with affected parties and local governments. Forest officials contend that letters were sent to everyone of interest in the issue.
"This is a huge public relations blunder for the Forest Service because now they can't back out gracefully," Allen said.
Aus has tried modifying the order to address these and other concerns, and is doing so again, cutting its coverage area in half and focusing more on areas where grizzlies currently live than those they are expected to.
She hopes to have another draft ready for public comment soon and although Aus expects more opposition, she has no plans to back down.
"Clearly, we're not ever going to agree on some of this stuff.... But if in fact there is no common ground, I still feel strongly obligated that this is a safety issue and I don't think it can be ignored," she said.