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The strike was sudden but by no means subtle, for a grizzly bear in a sheep camp creates a commotion not unlike that of a great white shark cruising amid swimmers off the shores of Martha's Vineyard.

© 1998 by Richard Menzies.

Copyright ©1998 Susan Marxer
Photo ©1998 by Richard Menzies.
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"Bears are curious and may approach to determine what you are," says Earthwalk Press. "Remain quiet and make no abrupt moves; try not to show fear. Once you're identified, the bear may leave. A grizzly possesses keen sense of smell, good hearing, but poor eyesight. It will often rise on its hind legs to investigate. If it does, it may be helpful to speak softly in a steady monotone; this may reassure the bear you aren't a threat."
     Then again, the grizzly may decide that since you pose no threat, he might as well eat you. In which case, you'd better reach for a gun and fast: but not too fast. Unless it can be proved the bear struck the first blow, you will wind up in a heap of legal trouble. That's because Ursus horribilis is on the endangered species list, and to harm one except in defense of one's life is a federal felony.
     "The only time you can shoot one," explains Barbara Franklin of the U.S. Forest Service, "would be if he had a hold of your leg and was eatin' you."
     Ranger Franklin and I were standing on a high forested ridge in the Gros Ventre Mountains, about 60 miles south of Yellowstone National Park. At our feet lay an eviscerated ewe, one of at least half a dozen sheep that only hours earlier had met a most horrific demise. The grizzly had snatched only his favorite body parts-the brisket and udder-then left her to bleed to death in the dust.
     The strike was sudden but by no means subtle, for a grizzly bear in a sheep camp creates a commotion not unlike that of a great white shark cruising amid swimmers off the shores of Martha's Vineyard. Horses bolt, dogs bark, and sheep scatter like buckshot-crashing through deadfalls, tumbling off cliffs, running until their legs and lungs give out. Meantime, herdsman Andy Charley can do little but try to lie still in his tent, a can of pepper spray in one hand and his Holy Bible in the other. And speak softly in a low monotone, much the same as government agents will the following morning when they come to assess the damage.
     Among the first to arrive is Wyoming state game warden Chris Queen, whose unenviable task it is to autopsy the mutilated ewe, then drag her through the brush to where his All Terrain Vehicle waits, already heaped high with dead lambs. Looking on are Dick Thoman and his sister Mary, sheep ranchers and reluctant caterers for this particular grizzly bear's picnic.
     "You know," sighs Dick, "the sad part about this endangered species, the grizzly bear, is that if you came here and you tried to steal something from this sheep camp and I shot you, I could probably get off by saying I was defending my personal property. But if a bear comes and takes our sheep, which is also our personal property, and I shoot the bear...well, that's a whole different case."
     Mary continues the thought: "So we're just caught here; we can't do anything to defend ourselves. We have to sit here and helplessly watch it kill our animals. And wait for them [game wardens] to get their act together enough to get it out of here, and by then some more animals suffer. And you gotta go back and see the walking dead; I mean, that's even worse. There's a sheep down in there with her udder eaten off, and here's the little lamb following her, and there's nothing we can do-nothing-just sit here and wait. And then hope that we can find them all to submit the claim. That's the hardest part for us. It seems something's gone wrong in this country."
     When Dick and Mary tell of hard times, they know whereof they speak. Only three weeks earlier their father Bill Thoman had been killed in an accident. The 77-year-old mainstay of the family ranch died on the job, about 16 hours into a working day that typically began at four o'clock in the morning and didn't end till 10 at night. The day after his death, Bill's kids observed what Dick describes as "probably one of the toughest memorials of all times, and that was that we had to go haul some sheep. We had all these sheep in the corral and the trucks lined up. The sheepherders were all ready to go and everything, so we had a pretty tough call. But finally we just opted to go ahead-and hell, it was a pretty tough thing to do. just gotta keep going."
     It wasn't the first tragedy that struck the Thoman family. In 1974, Dick and Mary's 23-year-old sister Catherine drowned in a river while riding her horse. Six years later, their brother Bill was killed in a trucking accident, leaving behind a widow and two sons.
     Today, Bill's widow Mickey and daughters Mary and Laurie hold down what's left of the home ranch near Kemmerer. As often as they can get away, they're joined by another Thoman son, Bob, who runs a farm on the far side of the Wind Rivers, and also daughter Kristy, who lives in Big Piney.
     When he isn't counting dead sheep, Dick Thoman runs a small trucking company, while Mary, who holds a Ph.D. in vocational education and school administration, earns her keep as a sales director with Mary Kay Cosmetics. "It's sort of a weird thing," she explains, "but it's the only thing I can do with a ranch schedule."
     As children, all the siblings took an active part in the livestock operation that's sustained three generations of Thomans. Winters they hit the books in a small ranch school, summers they lived in the saddle, riding the family's Elk Ridge grazing allotment in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
     Back in the 1950s, the Thomans were forced to sell almost 1,000 acres of their home ranch in order to make room for the Fontenelle Dam and Reservoir. In 1980 the Interior Department took the rest of it, which today is known as the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Raising sheep was becoming more challenging all the time-then three summers ago the first bear attacks began.
     Over the course of three months, 54 ewes and 62 lambs were confirmed as bear kills. Six black bears were shot; four grizzlies were taken prisoner and transported out of the area by wildlife officers. The following summer the casualty list swelled to 200 ewes and 220 lambs. When it came time to truck the herd south for the winter, the Thomans came up two semi-trailer truckloads short.
     "It was like I told the forest ranger this morning," says Dick. "I said, 'You know, we can't tolerate these types of losses here in the sheep industry.' So she alluded to the fact that it was about two days trail to where we could load the sheep on a truck. And apparently that was one of my options. The other one was, maybe, that they would let us use an allotment that was supposed to be in rest. Well, that messes up the grazing system."
     The Thomans worry that if they retreat from Elk Ridge, they run the risk of losing their grazing allotment. And according to the terms of the Endangered Species Act, should they take any direct action against the bear that's wreaking havoc on their livestock, they would most certainly lose it.
     "We can't even shoot across the draw at a bear heading towards the sheep," explains Mary. "They would get you for harassment of an endangered species. So you can't try to head the bear off or do anything except sit here and watch them eat your animals. Even if it's your pet horse, your pet dog."
     Aggrieved ranchers can appeal to the Wyoming State Department of Game and Fish for financial compensation-but once again, the rules of the game seem to be stacked in favor of the predator. For example, one can't simply subtract the number of sheep that come down off the mountain in the fall from the number that went up in June and then submit a bill for the difference. Rather, each dead sheep must be found, and it must be found within 24 hours while the cause of death can still be determined. In thick brush and tall timber that's no easy task-by Dick Thoman's estimate, only about one in three bear kills is ever found. And even if all the carcasses could be found, he complains that the current system doesn't take into account all the other negative effects of a bear attack.
     "The economic loss that we suffer isn't just the animals that they kill," he says. "The sheep are stressed. There's a number of those animals that're gonna be crippled up, broken legs. Later on in the summer they'll show up with an abscess or a rupture, and those are gonna have to be culled out and sold from the herd. The mothers that are killed, their lambs are gonna be left behind. They'll be less weight, lesser value than what the rest of them are at shipping time."
     There is no financial compensation available for time spent driving back and forth across Wyoming, no consideration for the many hours the Thomans must spend filling out and filing the requisite forms. Nor is there much in the way of a settlement at the end of the process. For instance, after losing $60,000 worth of sheep in 1997, Mary says she submitted an itemized claim to the commission in the amount of $27,000. After looking it over, the state offered to pay $6,600.
     Mary appealed the judgment to an arbitration board, and was eventually reimbursed $19,500-"which is still less than the $27,000 we submitted for, which is a whole lot less than the $60,000 that we lost."
     Short of a military counterstrike, what the Thomans would most like to see is a reevaluation of the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. According to the plan, only the area within the recovery zone will be managed primarily for grizzly habitat. Yet the bears that are currently snacking on the Thomans' livestock are 25 miles outside of the recovery zone. And since grizzly bears, unlike tourists, don't thrive in a crowded environment, trucking them back to Yellowstone doesn't appear to be a workable solution.
     "All the grizzly bear studies I've read," says Mary, "say that they don't like to have more than one per 25 square miles. That's a normal territorial area, and I told the commission, 'You have more bears in there according to any study than it's possible to have. How could we help but have a loss when you have 'em that thick in here?' You know, we have more than one bear per square mile up here."
     And before the bears get any thicker or spread out any farther, perhaps now would be as good a time as any to ask just what they'll start eating once they've polished off all the sheep and cattle? Another question: Who's going to fatten up all those doomed recreationists once all the food suppliers have been put out of business by predators?
     "What I can't understand," says Dick Thoman, "is two percent of the population feeds this nation, right? Why should we have to fight and struggle so hard to feed the rest of the nation? The world? We could fold up tomorrow, and our neighbors, and so forth and so on, until pretty soon we eliminate the food supply. And then when the food's gone, then what?
     "You gotta look at the economics of this thing-weigh it out, dollar for dollar, what this little sheep operation contributes to the economy compared to one stupid grizzly bear. I mean, this is not just a nine-to-five job for me. I can't go home after five o'clock and have a beer and laugh about it with everyone else. Because...this is our life."

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Richard Menzies is a freelance writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. After being so close to grizzly carnage on this story, he says he's now hesitant to camp in case he becomes a fresh meal.



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