Guest Editorial: What it means to live with grizzlies

(This guest editorial was submitted by Erin Edge, a Rockies and Plains Representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula. She manages the DOW’s grizzly bear compensation and coexistence programs as well as bear outreach campaigns.)

Over a century ago, you would have had a hard time finding grizzly bears in much of Montana. They were driven to near extinction in the state by the late 1800s, at one point reduced to living in less than 1 percent of their range in the lower-48 states. But, thanks in large part to their listing under the Endangered Species Act, they are making a comeback. Today, approximately 1,800 grizzly bears are living in the wild in the lower-48 states. Most of those bears are found in the Northern Continental Divide (including Glacier National Park) and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.  

Unfortunately, two persistent threats to the bear’s continued recovery are conflicts with people and loss of habitat. Today, grizzlies are returning to areas where they haven’t lived in decades, and in that time, Montana has changed significantly. Now, there might be a subdivision where there was once a forest, or cattle and sheep where wild bison once roamed. Grizzly bears need large swaths of secure and connected habitat to maintain genetic diversity, boost population numbers and restore their important role in the environment. Clearly, there will be challenges coexisting with grizzlies in today’s rapidly urbanizing landscape, but armed with the right knowledge and tools, conflict is preventable.

Encounters with people can be especially high in the late summer and early fall months when grizzly bears have yet to enter their dens. This year, the news has been full of stories about black and grizzly bears wandering into residential neighborhoods. Bears have an incredible sense of smell and are often lured into developed areas because they sniff out human-generated food sources, such as bee yards, apple orchards, lambing pastures, chicken coops and garbage. If these items are not contained in a bear-resistant container, they become attractants to hungry bears.  Once a bear learns these items are food, it is likely the bear will come back again and again and bring its young. A single homeowner with an overflowing garbage can or an unsecured chicken coop can unintentionally train multiple bears to venture into neighborhoods for easy access to food. Due to human safety concerns, management agencies often relocate or lethally remove bears that are “food conditioned” to frequent areas near people. Sadly, each year, numerous bears are killed in Montana for this reason. 

Working with individuals, landowners, non-profit organizations, small businesses and government agencies, Defenders of Wildlife helps landowners in grizzly-bear country secure these items with electric fencing and other tools to keep bears, people and property safe. Since 2010, we have helped residents complete more than 195 projects ranging from small chicken coop fences to large-scale residential and livestock fences. And while it is clear that there is a direct reduction in human-bear conflicts at these sites, what’s equally clear is that when people have the ability to successfully minimize conflicts on their property, social tolerance for living alongside the great bruins goes up.  It’s a win–win solution for bears and people.

We have come a long way in our efforts to restore grizzlies to the landscape, but we have much more work to do. Stopping conflict between bears and humans is certainly takes effort, but the bottom line is many are preventable. The challenge lies with us to make changes that will ensure generations to come still have the opportunity to see grizzly bears roaming the Wild West.