Relocated Meeteetse grizzly bear kills companion ewe, causes conflict on Wood river
Meeteetse – Levi Gitlitz knew something was wrong. Just three days after Easter on April 11, Levi’s pet ewe Velcro made a few frantic noises outside the living room window around 9 p.m. Levi’s mother Karla Gitlitz heard the distressed ewe and went outside with a light, but couldn’t locate her. When Karla took Levi to the bus Thursday morning, she assured him the ewe was missing because of the overnight storm, and she would find his pet. About that time, Levi’s father Chancy Gitlitz located Velcro’s carcass. A grizzly bear had entered their yard, chased the 12-year-old ewe, killed her beneath the living room window, and drug her through the fence and over the bank.
Velcro was a triplet born in March 2000.
“Fred and Kay Thomas gave her to me,” explains Levi. “She was so little, and it was below zero, so she slept in a box in the kitchen. We had diapers on her in the house, and cut a little hole in the diaper to put her tail through.”
Levi was two years old at the time, and, being fascinated with the Velcro on his shoes, named his new friend Velcro. The ewe grew to a hefty size, and was later nicknamed “Big V” or “Miss V.”
Levi Gitlitz is now 14 years old and attends school in Meeteetse. He likes school, especially math, and says his lowest grade is a 96 percent. He grew up on the 91 Ranch at the base of Carter Mountain west of Meeteetse. One year ago, Levi and his parents moved to the Larsen Ranch up the Wood River southwest of Meeteetse. Levi is legally blind and has cerebral palsy. Velcro was a companion animal that helped him get around.
“My sheep was a blessing to me; she was my family member,” Levi says. “I rode her when I was little, and she went on walks with me in my walker, because she was like a magnet to it. She thought she was a dog. She slept with the dogs in the dog house, and followed me around like a dog.”
“It’s like the nursery rhyme,” Karla jokes, “‘Everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.’ Well everywhere Levi went, Miss V was sure to go.”
Velcro didn’t like two things: being sheared, “because of her fatness,” Levi describes, “and cows. She was afraid of cattle, especially yearling heifers that chased her. She also let us know when predators were around; she bawled and was real clingy. She would try to get in the vehicle with us when predators were around. She was a good ‘watch dog.’”
The Gitlitz family has plenty of experience with predators. While at the 91 Ranch, they lost numerous cattle in confirmed and unconfirmed kills from grizzly bears and wolves.
“I lost my Cow #1 to a wolf,” Levi comments, “and my cow Shania died with wolf bites on her legs and grizzly bites on the back of her neck. Once while fixing fence out in pasture, a bear barked and charged me. I was scared to death.”
Karla adds, “That bear killed one of our yearlings. The next day the carcass was gone, so the kill wasn’t confirmed. Afterward, we could see bear tracks and where it had bedded down in the creek bottom below where we were fixing fence.”
Karla was charged by grizzlies twice in one summer on the 91. Velcro had attempts on her life, as well. She was stalked by a mountain lion that Chancy scared away, and she was attacked by dogs while pastured at Levi’s grandparents’ home.
On the morning of April 12, after what Levi refers to as “the attack,” Karla contacted Mark Bruscino, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Large Carnivore Supervisor. Kyle Bales, WGFD Bear Management Tech, and Dustin Lasseter, WGFD Bear-Wise Coordinator, confirmed the grizzly kill and set a live trap. On Friday evening, the same bear entered the yard, retracing its steps from two nights before, bit through the string holding the bait, stole the bait and escaped.
“They had set up a camera, and on the video, you could see a collar on the bear,” says Karla. “About 30 minutes later on the footage, there was another bear that was un-collared. WGFD rebaited the trap. On Saturday night we went to Thermopolis to an event honoring Levi’s great grandfather, Dr. Gitlitz. We stopped at the calving barn at 10:30 p.m. and went on home. As we drove in, our headlights caught the bear in our yard again. We parked right next to the front door, but Levi wouldn’t get out of the pickup. He was crying and shaking. There is no reason anyone should have to live like that. We had left all the lights on, the dogs were barking, and the bear still came back to the house.”
“That night Chancy and I sat with a window open, listening,” Karla explains. “We didn’t hear the trap door slam, but heard sounds like a pop can crinkling. We realized the bear was either playing inside or on top of the trap.”
The bear was, in fact, in the trap. The WGFD came out the next morning and took the bear to Cody.
“Bruscino asked if we were sure of the time when we saw the bear in the yard. We had gotten home after 10:30, but according to the video, a different bear was caught in the trap at 10:20,” she says.
There was one bear in the trap before they arrived home, and another bear in their yard. The bear in the trap was a large male grizzly weighing 497 pounds – a considerable weight for just having come out of hibernation. This bear was uncollared, and had apparently not been in trouble before. Since his paws were too large to match the smaller prints in the yard of the bear that preyed on Velcro, this bear was collared and released near Mormon Creek on the North Fork of the Shoshone.
The WGFD rebaited the trap. Tuesday morning, Levi announced to his parents, “Caught the bear at 2:40 this morning. I heard the trap door shut and then a roar.”
Levi had been too terrified to sleep much since Thursday, and was relieved to know the bear was caged. The WGFD determined this smaller, collared grizzly – weighing in at 330 pounds – was a Big Sandy bear previously caught near Pinedale for killing sheep. WGFD had moved it to the North Fork of the Shoshone, and the bear made its way to Wood River.
“They say bears become imprinted with a food reward, getting into people’s trash, for example. I think this bear was imprinted on sheep,” says Karla, “and he found the only one on Wood River. Each time this smaller bear came in, we could see its tracks. It knocked over the empty trash barrels, entered the yard and retraced its steps past the living room window, under Levi’s bedroom window, through the fence and into the willows. It was really scary that he kept coming back, right up to the house.”
The WGFD worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to determine the bear was a threat to humans, and lethally removed the bear.
“We try to prevent these things from happening, but when they do happen, we try to remove those problem bears,” says Chris Servheen, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator with the FWS. He adds that two problem grizzlies have been removed so far in 2012. Karla admits the WGFD was great about responding, and taking care of the problem bear.
“I got to see the bear in the trap,” says Levi thoughtfully. “My first question was, ‘Does it have a collar?’ I’m glad we got the bear. It terrified the heck out of me. I asked if I could tack the hide to my wall. They (WGFD) told me no, because grizzlies are on the Endangered Species List.”
Bruscino was unavailable for comment, but said in a previous interview that the WGFD supports the grizzly bear recovery program, but the best habitat areas are now full, and bears are moving into marginal areas. He favors delisting and hunting to effectively manage the grizzly population.
Echo Renner is a field editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup from Meeteetse and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.