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A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, on Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)
How much are Yellowstone’s grizzlies worth? Here are the numbers

Wildlife » Researchers say the animals are worth the hassle to rangers.

First Published Jul 08 2014 09:34 pm • Last Updated Jul 09 2014 01:01 am

Casper, Wyo. • Yellowstone National Park visitors would pay an additional $41 to ensure seeing roadside grizzlies, a study shows, and the attraction creates 155 jobs and more than $10 million a year for the regional economy.

The $41 visitors would pay is on top of the $25-per-vehicle entrance fee. If Yellowstone no longer allowed grizzly bears to use roadside habitat — and instead chased, moved or killed them — the regional economy would lose more than $10 million a year and 155 jobs, according to the paper "The economics of roadside bear viewing."

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Allowing 500-pound bears to frolic by roads, back up traffic and entertain thousands of visitors comes with a cost, however. Park rangers and other employees spent more than 2,542 man-hours managing 1,031 bear jams in the world’s first national park in 2011, the study says. That amounts to more — probably much more — than $50,000 a year according to calculations made by WyoFile and based on other park figures and information.

"We’re spending a lot of time, staff time and overtime," said Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear management biologist and a co-author of the report. "Managers are wondering … should we do something different?"

The study shows that while changes to roadside bear management might appear to save Yellowstone money, they would have broader consequences amounting to perhaps 4 percent of the regional economy.

Gunther, Leslie Richardson, Tatjana Rosen, and Chuck Schwartz published the study in The Journal of Environmental Management early this year. It appears at a time of limited park budgets but increasing visitation.

"We definitely have to tighten our belts," Gunther said. "Budgets aren’t really keeping pace with visitation. Managers are asking tough questions."

Among those are whether the park should continue to pay rangers to be "basically baby-sitting people at bear jams," Gunther said.

That people would pay $41 extra to see grizzly bears by the roadside was unexpected.

"That kind of surprised us because people usually don’t want to pay higher entrance fees for anything," Gunther said. The study might have produced an even higher value had it offered the 663 respondents a hypothetical chance to pay more than $50 to ensure roadside bears, authors said.

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In any case, "It helps emphasize how important bears are to our visitors," Gunther said.

Yellowstone isn’t going to use the survey to start charging a $66 entrance fee anytime soon, park spokesman Al Nash said. Yet, "our management group certainly has had discussions."

"We continue to try and look at whatever the appropriate balance is when it comes to any kind of fees," he said. "We’re very conscious that changes, if they occur, need to be respectful of our visitor population and need to be incremental."

Park entrance fees are relatively insignificant compared to other costs associated with a Yellowstone visit, Nash said. The $25-per-car entrance fee is good for seven days and includes entrance to Grand Teton National Park.

"You spend more on gas to get from Jackson to the South Entrance than we’re going to get," he said.

Parks may pay attention to revenue these days now that they’re allowed to keep a portion of some money collected and other funds are scarcer.

"The percentage we keep has become more important to us even though there are significant restrictions on how that may be used," Nash said. "Ultimately, anything we do will have to be approved in Washington."

Bear jams occur in nearby Grand Teton National Park where bear 399 became a national celebrity while raising cubs near highways. A team of bear-jam volunteers led by a full-time employee patrols the roadside hotspots to prevent conflicts. The Wildlife Brigade program isn’t free to the Park Service, however.

"It does come with a cost," spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. "There’s a lot of support, training, uniforms, vehicles. "Most [volunteers] are retired who need some kind of housing, trailer spots."

Yellowstone roadside bear history stretches back the early 1900s when, former park researcher Paul Schullery wrote, a black bear cub earned the nickname Jesse James after persistently begging for food near the West Entrance. Soon enough Yogi and BooBoo, and even Mr. Park Ranger, became part of the American wilderness vernacular.

When mentioning Yellowstone "everybody thought ‘bears,’ first," spokesman Nash said about the park’s place in the American psyche. In spite of world-famous Old Faithful, "wildlife viewing is really the most popular activity," he said. "I’ve talked to people who thought there was ‘a’ geyser."

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