Overkill: “Predator Attack Team” Over-gunned and Under-explained

The name “Predator Attack Team” conjures images of a superhero-like squad swooping into the rescue against the nasty villain–the “predator.” The reality is… less impressive. It’s more like a group of people practice-rescuing dolls from Walmart. 

According to a July 2020 article in the Powell Tribune, Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department  (WGFD) has a “Predator Attack Team”–which has been around for a decade–to “assist, investigate and make management decisions” in the event of “predator attack.” The group is currently asking for funding to buy tranquilizer guns, rifles, inert shotguns, and cadaver mannequins; the mannequins are intended to replace the Walmart dolls they have been using to practice wound care. 

While collecting and communicating data are undoubtedly important, it’s unclear exactly what role this group plays or what risk they are responding to with human-animal conflicts in Wyoming. 

The Predator Attack Team exists, according to WGFD Large Carnivore Conflict Specialist Brian DeBolt in a 2018 video, “in response to the ever growing need and professional response in any situation where a person may have been attacked by either a mountain lion, grizzly bear or black bear.” 

Indeed, the Powell Tribune article, written by Mark Davis, clearly identifies grizzlies as the biggest concern of this team, describing bears as hostile and dangerous. “Grizzlies aggressively protect their young, food stashes and have occasionally attacked humans when surprised in the region,” reads the article’s photo caption. 

It’s an old adage but truly, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than be attacked by a bear–and yet, no “lightning strike response team” exists. 

Yet in the article, DeBolt clarified that the Predator Attack Team exists in response to conflicts with “any kind of wildlife, even if somebody is killed by a moose or something like that.” 

So if the team exists to respond to “any kind of wildlife,” why is it called the “predator attack team”? The simple reason is the pervasive and negative narrative surrounding large predators like grizzly bears, which paints bears as frightening, hungry and out to kill you. That narrative couldn’t be farther from the truth, and when we consider how many people are moving through grizzly bear habitat, the number of conflicts and deaths due to human-bear encounters is extremely low. 

Let’s take Yellowstone as an example. In Yellowstone National Park–which has the second largest population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 and sees about 4 million visitors a yearonly eight people have died due to conflicts with bears since the park was established in 1872. Comparatively, 121 people have drowned in Yellowstone. In 2015 alone, five people were gored by bison in the park. 

Beyond fatalities, injuries from human-bear conflicts are also extremely rare in Yellowstone. For the roughly forty year period between 1979 and 2019, only forty people were injured by both black and grizzly bears combined, which equates to about 1 injury per 2.7 million visitors. It’s an old adage but truly, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than be attacked by a bear–and yet, no “lightning strike response team” exists. 

Part of the problem is our risk assessment of bears is incredibly skewed. According to the National Park Service, “Although bear attacks on visitors are rare, they generate intensive media attention when they occur. Intensive media coverage of these incidents often leads to fear being the primary influence on the public’s perceptions of the risk of bear attack.” 

So if the team exists to respond to “any kind of wildlife,” why is it called the “predator attack team”? The simple reason is the pervasive and negative narrative surrounding large predators like grizzly bears, which paints bears as frightening, hungry and out to kill you.

The argument that is frequently shared as justification for groups like the Predator Attack Team is that our grizzly populations are growing, and therefore conflict between humans and grizzlies are increasing. Indeed, grizzly bears in the West are expanding their range, as is to be expected over time as populations rebound. But such arguments tend to view grizzlies as the sole problem, rather than identifying the challenges of human attractants like trash or any issues with human behavior that also contribute to human-bear conflicts.

The grizzly-human conflict numbers from 2020 are unusually high, which has been attributed to the influx of people onto trails during the global pandemic. As more people recreate in new places and in bear habitat, we must put funding towards proactive educational efforts. Between 2010 and 2018, there were eight people killed by grizzlies in Wyoming and Montana combined. That is both tragic and higher than in past decades. When we look at the specifics of these deaths, however, we see that 4 of the 8 deaths were men hiking alone without bear spray. Another was a couple, also without bear spray, that attempted to run away from a grizzly. 

These details hammer home the fact that education and training for the public is essential in peacefully co-existing with bears and preventing loss of life, of humans and bears.

The Predator Attack Team aims to share accurate information about incidents to the public, but their name alone suggests their bias. Teton County in Wyoming, following the death of Jackson hunting guide Mark Uptain in 2018 by a grizzly bear, has created a similar “animal-attack response team” this summer that will assist Search and Rescue and other agencies in responding to incidents. The name is better and its goals of coordinating care, communication and outreach are important, but why another response team is needed on top of the Predator Attack Team remains to be seen, as does why such teams are preparing to be ready for the increased risk of incidents during hunting season, while the state of Wyoming still refuses to require hunters to carry bear spray