Relocating Grizzly Bears: An Imperfect Band-Aid

Last week, a sub adult, female grizzly bear was relocated from the Pinedale area of Wyoming to the upper portion of Grand Teton National Park due to livestock predation. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t anything unusual. Relocation is a common tool to manage so-called “nuisance” bears–bears that are having some kind of too close encounter or conflict with humans. 

Of course, most of these conflicts are due to our errors, because we are grazing animals in prime grizzly habitat, or because we lure in bears with irresponsibly stored garbage, bird feed, dog food or other attractants. 

What is bear relocation?

Relocating a bear is exactly how it sounds: the bear is moved by humans to a different area. But it’s no small feat trapping and transferring a wild animal that can weigh up to six hundred pounds. Relocation requires capturing the (right) animal, sedating it, transporting and releasing it again. And where exactly do you put a bear? 

Bear managers must ideally find a new area that is far away from the conflict and remote, and where the bear won’t be in competition with other grizzlies.

As Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel explains, “We just don’t have a lot of country.” 

Remote landscapes that are thirty-plus miles from high human use areas are scarce, even in Montana. Relocation requires coordination with multiple agencies, be it other bear management areas, national parks or the Bureau of Land Management. Not every agency will accept a bear, particularly if they are fearful of a “nuisance” bear. 

And then there’s the public to contend with, which rarely wants a bear relocated into their backyard. As a result, the FWP must work hard to be transparent and alert the public whenever a bear is being relocated.  

The Challenges of Relocating a Grizzly Bear

Given all that, Jonkel says, it takes a lot for him to relocate a bear. “They have to work pretty hard for me to actually set a trap, unless it’s a dangerous situation… unless they’ve cleaned everything up,” he explains. 

By “they,” Jonkel means the public who are calling in reporting or complaining about bear activity, and who are usually the culprits of the negative bear encounters due to irresponsible food storage or bear aware practices.

The best case scenario is that once relocated, a grizzly bear never returns to its original range. It dens and establishes a new home range in the relocation area, and does not encounter further conflict. 

But grizzly bears are territorial and can be quite faithful to certain areas. Once relocated, there’s also a high probability that the grizzly will return in a matter of days, weeks, or even a year. 

A 2018 study in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that out of 110 relocations in Canada, only 33 were successful. 

Mike Gibeau, Parks Canada Carnivore specialist, describes in this video how he “trapped, tranquilized and hauled bears away” with frequency through the 1980s and 90s. 

“Most of them were unsuccessful,” he says. Once the bear came back “two or three times, the bear was destroyed.” 

While relocation has not been associated with higher mortality in bears in and of itself, a bear plopped in a new area may experience stress as it tries to find new food sources, den areas and mates. If it attempts to migrate home to its original range, the bear could be forced through densely populated areas or across highways, exposing the bear to further harm.  

Once a bear returns, one can only hope that the disturbance of relocation was enough to deter the bear from the original problem behavior. 

Yet again, that’s also not necessarily the case, especially if the source issue was human attractants that are still present or learned behavior is already deeply ingrained in the bear.

A Slim Chance for Survival

Still, relocation is one tool in the toolkit of bear management, and is highly preferable to killing a bear.

“If a bear gets relocated, at least it gives them that reprieve,” Jonkel says. 

Relocation can keep a bear from being killed if the bear is wandering near a landowner, for example, with a particular penchant for shooting grizzlies. It’s also one of the few options bear managers might have before removing the bear from the populations. 

“I’ve had quite a few different bears that were allowed to live out the rest of their life due to relocation,” Jonkel adds. 

Relocation, therefore, is not the perfect tool we often imagine it is. More often than not, it is an expensive and time-consuming band-aid that treats the symptom of bear conflict rather than the true problems.