Local advocates for more black bear support, research

CODY — Black bears have been a source of passion for Joe Kondelis Jr. ever since he started hunting the species.

“The species drove me to want to know more,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot about it and I found it really interesting; no one taught a lot about bear hunting and biology.”

Kondelis is president and one of the founders of the Western Bear Foundation, an all-volunteer nonprofit officially started in 2010, dedicated to the protection and development of bears, bear habitat and bear hunting in the United States. He said their goal is to advocate for the conservation of the species from the viewpoint of hunters.

“Not a lot of organizations out there that are focused on better hunting and protecting those rights and give focus on black bears,” Kondelis said.

Kondelis said black bears are often overshadowed by their contentious cousin the grizzly, an animal many have sought to delist from Endangered Species Act protection and be allowed to hunt, two efforts others from the conservation community have actively fought. These debates have triggered countless lawsuits and millions of dollars spent supporting different approaches to conserving the species.

“There is so much time and money spent on the grizzly, people forgot about the black bear,” Kondelis said. “At the end of the day, money talks.”

There are black bears in nearly every U.S. state, Mexico and Canada, and Kondelis said people need to recognize and celebrate the resiliency of this animal.

He and WBF also tackle grizzly bear issues and fully support state-management of the grizzly and delisting it from the ESA, advocating for sustainable hunting of the species. Kondelis said he would like the black bear used as a case example for how a grizzly bear hunting season could be effectively managed.

The black bear is currently hunted in 28 states including Wyoming, where it can be harvested statewide and is offered in spring and fall hunting seasons.

While both bears are omnivores, the black bear relies less on hunting meat for its diet. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the American black bear at the lowest risk for endangerment because of its widespread distribution and a large population, estimated at twice all other bear species combined.

WBF aims to grow bear hunting and its advocate base by bringing more youth into the sport and also provide opportunities for veterans and the disabled to go hunting, partnering with Wyoming Disabled Hunters to provide track chairs.

“The barrier to entry into bear hunting is pretty big,” Kondelis said to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission during its meeting in Cody on March 19.

Kondelis recently took a combat veteran, who had three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, black bear hunting last year. He did the same with a woman who grew up in a troubled home.

In January the Bear Foundation hosted its first banquet, in partnership with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, drawing 240 attendees to the Cody Cattle Company. The event raised $14,000 for the Bear Foundation, which Kondelis said he turned over the very next day to the University of Wyoming for continuation of its black bear research.

In 2020 there were 5,367 bear tags sold in Wyoming, with about 4,800 made up by in-state residents, accounting for roughly $500,000 in revenue for G&F. 

Since 2011 there has been a 31-percent increase in black bear tags sold, with a 25-percent increase in harvests. Kondelis said 537 black bears were harvested in 2020.

“I don’t think a lot of people expected it to be that much,” he said.

Kondelis and his volunteers have been studying and tracking black bears in the wild, performing what he describes as some of the “most forefront research” of the species. Many of their projects are performed in collaboration with the G&F’s large carnivore and Bearwise teams, including the donation of $75,000 over three years to help fund black bear population and diet monitoring. This study is now well into its third year and is a collaborative effort of the Bear Foundation, Game and Fish, and University of Wyoming to study the vulnerability of the species under harvest management as opposed to initiating bait sites.

“By just doing some of the collar work and the hair collection we can utilize that and get so much information on black bear populations,” Kondelis said. “These population studies will be helpful when we’re looking at season settings and determining if we need to harvest more bears, if there’s more bear hunting opportunity or maybe less.”

With $20,000 spent in GPS collars, Western Bear was also able to start collaring bears in 2018. Using collars, the group tracked the travel patterns of nine bears, developing a grid that helped identify where to put hair collection sites. Nine hair collection sites were installed last summer in the Bighorn Mountains that provided 739 individual collections of bear hair. He said hair collection is critical as it helps balance against an over-reliance on harvest data.

Kondelis said a similar project will be started soon in the Laramie Range, and it is their goal to initiate this project in every Wyoming mountain range to better understand black bears statewide.

“Many of these sites are remote, so it is an incredible amount of work to get to these and you have to do it once a week,” Kondelis said. “Oftentimes you are hiking or driving extensive amounts of time.”

A recent expedition in the Bighorns took them across vast snowy plains on snowshoes to replace an aging tracking collar wrapped around the neck of a black bear sow that was first collared two years ago and now has cubs. Kondelis said this bear has provided a plethora of information and assisted their efforts to better understand black bear populations.

WBF is also studying the interaction of black and grizzly bear cohabitation in areas like the Absaroka Front and Teton County where the grizzly bear population has been expanding.

Conflict mitigation is another priority for the organization, and it has helped put up fencing to block black and grizzly bears from harming cattle, supported bear spray giveaways, installed bear boxes, and provided information on how to reduce human-bear conflicts. The group’s first project was to provide labor for the installation of electric fencing at the Clark Landfill.

They also provide public service announcements educating the public on how to travel in bear country.

“That’s not only (to) hunters,” Kondelis said. “It’s people that travel into this area and the Jackson area in the summertime and have no idea what they’re doing and really don’t have knowledge on how to recreate in bear country safely.”

Mistakenly harvesting a grizzly bear is a crime that comes with a hefty fine and suspension of hunting privileges. Kondelis said his organization puts out PSA messaging to help explain the physical differences between black and grizzly bears to help prevent these incidents from happening.

WBF is a national organization and is also initiating a number of projects in the Eastern U.S., Kondelis reported to the G&F commission.

At the March 18 meeting, Kondelis, who works with state agencies throughout the country, complimented the efforts taken by G&F to manage large carnivores in Wyoming.

“Without a doubt, this is the best department I’ve got to deal with,” he said. “They’re doing more for large carnivores in this state than most states wish they could do.”

For more information on the Western Bear Foundation visit westernbearfoundation.org/.