The Rocky Mountain Front is a truly magnificent place where more than a million acres of wilderness meet hundreds of thousands of acres of cattle and sheep country. Wet, lush and berry laden corridors lead from the mountains into ranch lands where sheep and cattle graze serenely. These riparian corridors are supreme habitat for bears and other wildlife, but having a “grizzly highway” running through grazing pastures can be a recipe for disaster.
Despite Defenders’ efforts to minimize conflicts, 2012 is shaping up to be one of the busiest conflict years the bear managers have seen on the Rocky Mountain Front, and September is typically the month with the highest conflicts! Three adult male grizzlies were euthanized after depredating on cattle or sheep, and 13 grizzly bears were relocated. Three of these relocations were adult females and 2 were cubs of the year. Grizzly bears reproduce slowly, making female grizzlies especially important to recovery. While these particular Mama grizzlies were given another chance, they have a strike against them and the memory of receiving a “food reward” which could be detrimental if they get into trouble again.
Speculation abounds as to what causes a high conflict year. Drought and natural food failures are important contributing factors. But in the end bears are opportunistic. If they happen upon a smorgasbord of food rewards, whether it is a corn field, a chicken coop or a garbage can, they will take advantage of it. As the saying goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear,” and this has been a particularly bad year for bears.
Can grizzlies coexist in a landscape dotted with so many attractants? The short answer is yes. But it’s up to all of us who care about wildlife to develop the tools and techniques to keep attractants away from grizzlies.
In an effort to allow both grizzlies and ranching to coexist in this majestic landscape, miles of electric fencing has been installed and is being used successfully on the Rocky Mountain Front to deter bears from accessing bee yards, sheep, and calving grounds. Defenders has spent well over $50,000 on electric fencing projects on the Rocky Mountain Front since 1998, including a major expansion of our incentive program this year. But we didn’t do it alone. Multiple agencies, non-governmental organizations and land/livestock owners have come together to ensure the ranching lifestyle can coexist with a recovery grizzly bear population. Some other nonlethal methods that Defenders has assisted with to reduce livestock depredations are range riders, bear-resistant garbage containers, and livestock protection dogs.
Tolerance for grizzlies is critical to their continued recovery. In 1997, in an effort to boost tolerance for grizzly bears, Defenders established the Grizzly Compensation Trust. Through this program Defenders pays full market value for livestock verified killed by a grizzly bear and 50% value for livestock that was considered “probably” killed by a grizzly bear. In 2012 Defenders has paid over $60,000 in compensation to livestock owners–nearly all of them on the Rocky Mountain Front. Since the program’s inception in 1997 Defenders has paid over $350,000 in compensation payments.
As grizzlies reoccupy historic habitat miles out into the high plains, the message and tools of coexistence must follow to ensure the safety of this icon of the West. Escalating conflicts point to the need to expand the use of nonlethal deterrents that keep bears alive and people safe.